Mozilla Discusses Firefox 3 and Microsoft's Public Embrace of Open Standards

Mozilla invited a group of bloggers to its headquarters in Mountain View today for an open discussion centered around the upcoming release of Firefox 3 (currently in public beta).

CEO John Lilly started things off by pointing out that this coming Monday is the Mozilla Organization’s ten year anniversary. He described the organization as rather humble and discombobulated when it was spun off from AOL into an independent entity in 2003. As recently as 2005, when the Mozilla Corporation was created to lead development on Firefox and Thunderbird, the organization still struggled to keep its servers from crashing during “hours of terror” when browsers deployed across the world tried to update themselves at the same time (this problem has since been remedied).

These days about 150 international employees work for Mozilla, which has been divided into six organizations, including ones for Europe, Denmark, China, and Japan. The ratio between work performed by employees vs. the developer community at large stands at about 60/40. Mozilla’s fastest growing markets include China and Russia, with China seeing six-fold growth since a year ago. Mozilla has netted about 160M users globally.

Lilly and several other Mozilla employees including Mike Schroepfer, the VP of Engineering, spent a considerable amount of time discussing Firefox 3, which has been in development for three years. Firefox Beta 4 is the version currently made available to the public. Beta 5, which will be released next week, will be the last beta before a release candidate in late April or May. The final version of Firefox 3 has been slated for release in the first half of this year – in June or sooner.

Firefox 3 is meant to carry forward the motto of keeping the internet “open and participatory”. It will support 50 languages, unlike IE7, which was released with support for only one. About 50% of the extensions developed for Firefox currently work with FF3, with further compatibility expected to accelerate in May. There are about 20,000 community members testing the latest build of FF3 and submitting an average of 150 bug reports on a daily basis. Testers have been particularly vocal about moving the “home” button back to the main button area (and Mozilla has acquiesced).

The company stressed a few of FF3’s primary features. Native skinning has been implemented so that the browser looks at home in various operating systems (Mac, Windows, and Linux). The so-called “awesome bar”, an advanced version of the address bar, not only auto-completes but searches your browsing history for matches as well. Much of Firefox’s core has been rebuilt, including the way it handles history. Now more than 6 months can be searched instantaneously whereas before, the default was set at 2 weeks. And password management is more discreet; you won’t have to decide on saving a password until after you’ve signed into a site.

FF3 also includes extended security measures such as new anti-malware techniques that will prevent users from visiting sites that might infect their computers with malicious programs. The detection system relies on a blacklist of software that gets downloaded to the client periodically. There’s also more advanced SSL certificate handling and the ability to easily check whether you’re actually on a trusted site.

As far as performance goes, Mozilla is claiming that the FF3 outperforms competitors both in how quickly it processes JavaScript and how little memory it uses. The company has also been working on better caching methods that work particularly well with SSL-protected sites.

When asked about Microsoft’s recent public show of support for open standards and interoperability, Mozilla insisted that the Redmond behemoth still has a “mixed record” and that declaring support for CSS2.1 (a ten year old standard) is nothing to get excited about. The company points out that Microsoft has done nothing to support the next generation JavaScript spec and little to implement CSS3. The same goes for HTML5, the standard for offline functionality that has been embraced by Mozilla, Apple, and Opera.

Lastly, if you’re an iPhone owner who was hoping to run Firefox come summer, don’t hold your breath — the SDK license precludes apps like Firefox that interpret code. Mozilla does, however, still intend to ship a mobile version of Firefox. The platforms that will support it are yet to be seen.