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Lighting the Afterburner on Firefox

An interview with Mozilla's Johnathan Nightingale

Born in the earliest days of the Web, Firefox is the original open-source darling of the browser world. Currently in a solid number two position in the browser hierarchy, Firefox this spring debuted its much-anticipated version 4.0(as we are going to press, Firefox has released version 5.0, demonstrating the rapidly accelerating changes in the browser business). In addition to a number of under-the-hood speed improvements, Firefox 4 introduced some significant UX features, including app tabs and the Panorama tab management feature. Firefox also boasts the only browser icon to be spotted in space. 11 Benchmark caught up via email with Director of Firefox Engineering Johnathan Nightingale to talk about the latest developments and future plans for the “people’s browser.”

Benchmark: What are the most important features you’ve introduced in Firefox 4.0 from a UX perspective?

Johnathan Nightingale: The way that people use the Web is changing and Firefox is built with this in mind. Many of us are ’living’ in a set of Web applications, such as Web-based mail, music, social networking sites, etc. Firefox 4’s app tabs feature lets you pin sites that you visit regularly to the browser, they never get lost in your tab strip, they don’t get accidentally closed and they glow when there’s been activity since you last visited.

We also recognize that living more and more on the Web means that we are asking more from our browsers. Most people usually have more than one or two tabs open at once, and for heavy tab users – more than 6 – tab management can become a real challenge. In Firefox 4, we’ve incorporated a lot of improvements to tab management, from simple things like our ’switch to tab’ feature to let you quickly jump to an open tab by typing part of its name in the address bar, to major innovations like Panorama, which gives you a visual canvas for organizing dozens or even hundreds of tabs quickly and easily.

At its core, Firefox 4 is about making you faster. Not just through big under-the-hood performance improvements, but by also giving you the tools to simplify the management of your online life.

Benchmark: What changes have you made to improve performance? How does Firefox 4.0 performance compare to previous versions, and to current versions of IE and Chrome?

Johnathan Nightingale: Firefox 4 is screaming fast. On performance benchmarks, Firefox 4 is more than 6 times faster than previous versions of Firefox. Improvements to our JavaScript engine and the introduction of hardware graphics acceleration mean that websites are faster and interactions are smoother, and improvements to our startup time mean that the browser is always ready as soon as you need it.

Benchmark: Are there ways that you feel Firefox 4.0 has advanced the overall state of browsers? Where are you out in front?

Johnathan Nightingale: Mozilla has always been the leader when it comes to putting our users in control of their online experience. In Firefox 4, you can see this in our introduction of the ‘Do Not Track’ privacy feature. Every day users are seeing more information about them being tracked and shared online by behavioral advertising companies. The Do Not Track feature in Firefox tells websites that users would like to opt-out of tracking used for behavioral advertising. With the integration of the ‘Do Not Track’ option into Firefox 4, users can check a ‘Do Not Track’ box in the ‘Advanced’ screen of Firefox’s options. When this option is selected, a header will be sent signaling to websites that they wish to opt-out of online behavioral tracking.

That same dedication to user choice motivates the major improvements we’ve made to our customization support. Mozilla has fostered a massive customization community at https://addons.mozilla.org/, which offers Firefox users thousands of options to customize their browser. In Firefox 4, we’ve completely redesigned the Firefox Add-ons Manager to make it easier for people to manage their existing customizations and also to discover new ones.

Benchmark: What are the fundamental differences that make Firefox 4 a superior browser? What differentiates Firefox from the other browsers?

Johnathan Nightingale: Firefox answers to no one but you. Every feature is built to make our users happy, and to make the Web an amazing place to build new technology. We aren’t trying to lock you in to certain sites, or to harvest your information. It’s why we build features like Firefox Sync, which gives you the ability to synchronize all your browsing history, bookmarks, passwords and open tabs between computers and even to Android phones. This creates a seamless Web experience across devices, and we do it in a secure and privacy-sensitive way. Users come to Firefox from every part of the world and for a variety of reasons, but I think at their core, most of them stay with Firefox because they trust us to build a world-leading product, but also to do it for the right reasons.

Benchmark: Firefox 4 introduces app tabs, which are similar to IE9’s ‘pinned sites.’ Both reach the same end of creating an ‘app experience’ for users, with one-click access, and delivery and persistence that is more like an app and less like the browser. What user insights led you to create this functionality? Do you have any data on how widely it’s being adopted and used? Does this signal any trends in user-browser interaction?

Johnathan Nightingale: It signals a huge trend! The Web isn’t just static content any more, it has evolved and grown into a space where people are building rich and interactive and delightful experiences. App tabs are part of the corresponding evolution on the browser side, from a piece of software built to display documents into a platform to manage a host of rich applications and your relationships with them. The world has never seen a more vibrant place than the Web to build new technologies and reach a worldwide audience in seconds. We build Firefox to be your agent in that world – helping you corral and organize and mediate your interactions on the Web. And app tabs are just the beginning.

Benchmark: What features or functionality were being considered but didn’t make it into Firefox 4? What hints can you give for what we might see in Firefox 5?

Johnathan Nightingale: One of the great things about Firefox being developed in the open is that you don’t have to guess about what’s coming next. Anyone who wants a sneak preview of upcoming features in Firefox can get onto one of our preview channels. Firefox Beta showcases improvements and fixes that are almost ready for prime time and just need some final analysis and QA before we push them live. Firefox Aurora is the cutting edge channel where new features first appear for general consumption. Users on these channels are already seeing new standards support like CSS animations, as well as feature work like a revised theme and a new tool for managing site-specific permissions. You can get on to either of our channel releases by visiting http://firefox.com/channel

Benchmark: Today, developers have to make sure their sites work well in at least four major browsers. How does Firefox 4.0 make that process easier or harder?

Johnathan Nightingale: We push hard for standards. Our goal is for everything we implement to be part of a standard. So whenever we implement something in a vendor-specific way – like while the standard is being discussed – we drop it or migrate as soon as possible.

About Johnathan Nightingale

Johnathan Nightingale is Mozilla’s Director of Firefox Engineering. He often speaks on Web security and Firefox development and has a passion for the open Web. Educated in Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence, he began his career at IBM hacking on WebSphere and then moved into IBM’s user-centered design group before joining Mozilla in 2007 to make the Web a better, safer place. He lives just outside of Toronto, Canada.

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