The Fantastic Firefox

Why Mozilla’s new browser augurs great things for the Web.

Lately I’ve been worried about Firefox. Ever since its debut in 2004, the open-source Web browser has won acclaim for its speed, stability, and customizability. It eventually captured nearly a quarter of the market, an astonishing achievement for a project run by a nonprofit foundation. But recently Firefox seemed to go soft. Even its fans complained that it had gotten slow, bloated, and was prone to crashing. Apple and Google, meanwhile, began to pour money into Web development, producing a pair of stable and lightning-fast programs, Safari and Chrome. The Norwegian software company Opera, which has always been on the forefront of browser innovation, has continued to improve its cult-hit product. And even Microsoft got its act together—Internet Explorer 8, which launched in March, is a pleasure to use. Hence my worry: Was Firefox withering under the competition?

Apparently not. This week, Mozilla will release Firefox 3.5, a long-awaited update that includes several fantastic new features, fixes a few niggling problems, and, best of all, adds a much-needed speed boost to a browser that has been looking a bit sluggish compared to its rivals. A few weeks ago, I began using pre-release versions of the new Firefox as my default on-ramp to the Web—and I’ve found it hard to beat. (You can download the latest pre-release versions here; the final version, which will likely hit the Web sometime on Tuesday, will be available here.)

Though I can’t call it the world’s fastest browser—Chrome and Safari are just as fast—the new Firefox is no longer a lumbering beast. It launches quickly, fires up complex sites like Gmail and Google Maps without any hiccups, and runs tons of open tabs without crashing (an ever-present possibility in earlier versions). For much of the last year, as Microsoft, Google, and Apple released great new browsers, I’d been sticking with Firefox mainly out of a misguided sense of loyalty to its progressive manifesto (and admittedly because I couldn’t do without its vast library of add-on programs). Not anymore: Firefox, finally, is back—and there are a lot better reasons than ideology to make it your default browser.

The best thing about the new Firefox is that it gives us a peek at the Internet of tomorrow. Since 2007, the World Wide Web Consortium, the international standards body that sets common technical definitions for the Web, has been working on HTML 5, an update to the coding language that defines every page you visit online. Although the consortium has yet to publish its final specifications for the new standard, many browser companies have been incorporating features of the language in their latest releases. Firefox 3.5 offers the best implementation of the standard—and because it’s the second-most-popular Web browser in the world, the new release is sure to prompt Web designers to create pages tailored to the Web’s new language. In other words, Firefox isn’t just an upgrade for your computer; it could well prompt a re-engineering of the Web itself.

The best way to appreciate what HTML 5 can do is to install the new Firefox and run the collection of demos put together by Paul Rouget, Mozilla’s European evangelist and a Web developer extraordinaire. Rouget’s pages show off one particular aspect of the new language—its facility with video, which has always been a second-class citizen on the Web. Today, most of the clips you encounter online require plug-ins that you have to install alongside your browser; when you go to YouTube, for instance, your browser calls on Adobe Flash, the platform that actually knows how to play the clip.

HTML 5 will alter this process. Firefox 3.5 allows designers to add videos that require no third-party plug-ins; the clips, which can be coded in the open-standard Ogg format, are processed by the browser itself. This allows videos to become just as interactive as every other part of a page: You can rotate a video while it’s playing, have a clip show up in a circular frame rather than a square one, or have a video respond to data pulled in from other parts of the Web.

In this demo, for instance, the Web page studies the people who are walking into the camera’s frame; when it spots someone it recognizes, it goes off to search for that person’s Twitter status, and then superimposes the text in a bubble in the video above the person’s head. Sure, that demo may not sound very useful—but it’s just the beginning. Web developers have a habit of integrating new capabilities in innovative ways, and over the next couple years, as more people migrate to next-generation browsers, you can expect many of your favorite pages to begin to take advantage of these technologies.

To be sure, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Opera have also been working to add different aspects of HTML 5 to their browsers, and Firefox’s lead isn’t going to last long. But that’s sort of the point. Among Mozilla’s main goals is to spur innovation online. Mike Beltzner, who heads the Firefox project, told me that he doesn’t really want to “win” the browser war—the point of developing a great browser is to improve the Web, and to do that, every browser maker has to keep improving its software. In other words, as long as the war goes on, we’re all winners.