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Mozilla spills plan for, yes, Firefox 4

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Mozilla has confirmed that the next major upgrade to its open source browser will be known as Firefox 4.0.

The organization's current roadmap has version 4.0 arriving in November 2010, with the first beta hitting in June.

Previously, developers had planned to follow Firefox 3.6, the last major release, with Firefox 3.7 around the middle of the year. But the vagaries of Mozilla versioning have changed. The former Firefox 3.7 will be released as Firefox 3.6.4.

Speaking via Air Mozilla this afternoon, lead Firefox developer Mike Beltzner said that the primary aim of Firefox 3.7 was to cut down on crashes caused by plug-ins. Mozilla has managed to do so with a beta known as "Lorentz," which offers so-called "out of process plug-ins," or OOPP, that operate independently of the browser proper, and this will arrive with version 3.6.4, currently in beta.

The Firefox trunk is still numbered 3.7, but this will soon change, as Mozilla works to deliver Firefox 4.0 by the end of the year.

In an effort to improve the real-world performance of the browser, Beltzner and crew will offer a new interface with version 4.0. "Something UI designers have known for a long time is that the simpler an interface looks, the faster it will seem," Beltzner said. "The less the user has to take in with their eye, the quicker they can process it and the quicker the entire application will seem. So we're actually looking at making our interface faster by changing the way it looks."

The open sourcers will remove various user controls to put fewer pixels between the user and the browser, and they intend to kill modal dialogues and reduce interruptions at startup. Existing dialogues will be replaced by message bubbles specific to individual tabs, so you can still navigate to other parts of the browser when they pop up. And if possible, Beltzner said, the browser will get to the point where updates are applied in the background. "This is one of the most frequent cases where startup is slow to the user."

To improve navigation, 4.0 will add a "switch to tab" tool for reducing the number of tabs and facilitating jumps between them, and a dedicated application tab that lets you return to frequently used services. This will replace the existing "home" button. "Always locked to the left of your tab strip, this will provide the same interaction that your home button does, but it will be much more useful, always easy to reach."

Mozilla is also planning a central permissions manager for controlling what sites get access to what data, a new add-on manager that lets you install extensions without a restart, and tools for backing up and sharing data. Backup and sharing will involve integrating the browser with Mozilla's existing Weave service.

Yes, the new browser will benefit from Jetpack, the new add-on development platform designed to ease the creation of add-ons and improve compatibility with the browser. Beltzner also said that Mozilla is looking into new ways of alerting users to third-party cookies.

For web developers, the open sourcers are planning bidirectionally connected apps through the WebSockets specification, better "AJAX-y" interactions with PushState, easier layout and styling with CSS3, an HTML5 parser, and multi-touch support. They're also looking at new dev tools, including a "developer console" for easily examining the workings of Javascript applications and a "web inspector" that lets you quickly peak at a website's underlying code and make changes. Beltzner compares the console to the drop-down development console tucked into Quake back in the day. "We were inspired by video games of our youth," he said.

Under the covers, Firefox 4.0 will include JaegerMonkey, the new extension to Mozilla's Javascript engine that operates alongside TraceMonkey, working to speed the interpretation of code that's unsuited to "tracing." Mozilla has said it's already providing a 30 per cent over its old interpreter on x86 machines.

The open sourcers are also planning 64-bit versions of Firefox 4.0 for Windows and Mac OS X. ®

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