Mozilla Corp.’s lead engineer isn’t worried about Microsoft’s upcoming Internet Explorer 7, but instead is focusing on getting the next version of Firefox out the door.
“IE 7 is a pretty good catch-up,” said Mike Schroepfer, Mozilla’s vice president of engineering. “But it does some funny things with tabs and the UI that I don’t understand why they did it.”
Mozilla, which plans to ship the next major update, Firefox 2.0, by early in the third quarter, is concentrating on adding features and improvements to make sure that its browser stays ahead of Microsoft. “Firefox 1.5 was focused on the platform, but 2.0 will be about the UI, a smaller set of platform things, and more features that the user will see,” Schroepfer said.
Development of Firefox 2.0 has been stalled as of late. “Open-source development leverages so many different people that it’s ultimately less predictable because of that, and because you’re dealing with volunteers,” admitted Schroepfer. “Essentially, we trade predictability for quality and the total amount of work we can do on a project,” he said, compared to commercial, proprietary development. The Firefox 2.0 first alpha was to release Feb. 10, but now, said Schroepfer, “is a couple of weeks out.”
Firefox 2.0’s development roadmap lists the main feature updates and additions, and their priorities. Among those at the top are redesigns of the browser’s bookmark and history system, security enhancements to extensions, the popular plug-ins, search engine improvements, and changes to the tab-based user interface.
“We’re still testing ‘Places,'” said Schroepfer, referring to the 2.0 feature that will combine bookmarks and browsing history. “You’ll be able to very quickly search through History and bookmarks, and we’re moving a bit more toward a tagging metaphor, where a bookmark can exist in multiple folders.”
Also in the works for 2.0 are changes to tabs, which is one of the most popular features in Firefox. Developers are sifting through a number of options to improve tab browsing, and the user interface in general, said Schroepfer. “We’ll probably end up with a lot of [new] small features,” he said. Among the changes under consideration are placing a close button on each tab, a close undo, and perhaps a session saver-style feature that would return the browser to pre-shut down or pre-cash status.
Many of these features are already available in multiple extensions to Firefox. “That’s one of the beauties of extensions,” said Schroepfer. “They’re like an advanced R&D lab, and an indication of what users may want in the browser.”
Mozilla regularly surveys all existing extensions to see what types of additions people have dreamed up, and monitors those with the most downloads. “We’d like to distill the extensions to those that attract the largest audience, the ones that 90 percent of the users use,” Schroepfer said, then consider them for roll-up into the browser itself.
Speaking of extensions, Firefox 2.0 will take a step toward extension security by adding a blacklist feature that will allow Mozilla to disable an extension in everyone’s copy of the browser.
“The idea would be to disable an extension, by us, from a central location so that we can immediately remedy a problem,” Schroepfer said. “We need an easy way to disable an extension [for everyone].”
Although Schroepfer thought that blacklisting is aimed at non-malicious extensions that cause browser instability accidentally, it’s also a partial answer to Firefox critics who have pointed to loose extension security. Unlike Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which blocks unsigned ActiveX controls, Firefox doesn’t require that extensions be digitally signed.
“All a signature would prove is that the person who wrote [an extension] is who they say they are,” downplayed Schroepfer. He went on to say that Mozilla has no plans to require extensions to be signed, and added that the current review process before plug-ins are posted to the Firefox Add-ons site are sufficient to protect users.
Firefox 2.0 will also add a search engine removal tool, said Schroepfer, to make it easier for users to dump unwanted engines from the Search Bar. (Currently, the only way to remove an engine is with extensions such as SeachPluginHacks.)