Mozilla has set loose Firefox 10, the latest version of its open-source Web browser for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. New features in the release are largely limited to technologies aimed at Web developers, but there’s one important new feature that ought to appeal to anyone who has augmented their browser’s functionality: by default, most add-ons will be compatible with new versions of Firefox by default, and users will have an easier time managing and (if necessary) updating their add-ons to new versions of the browser.
In previous versions of Firefox, Mozilla assumed add-ons weren’t compatible with new versions of the browser unless they had specifically been re-released for a new browser version; the result was that many users put off upgrades until new versions of their add-ons were available. However, Mozilla realized roughly three-quarters of all Firefox add-ons generally don’t have any compatibility issues with new releases—the biggest exceptions are binary add-ons that contain their own compiled code. So, beginning with Firefox 10, Mozilla assumes that extensions are compatible with new versions of Firefox so long as they don’t contain compiled code and were compatible with Firefox 4, the last time a major shift in architecture required add-on changes. Firefox 10 also polls for new versions of add-ons once a day, and installs them if an update is found.
Most of the other new features in Firefox 10 are under-the-hood changes and features only Web developers can love. Notable for Web authors, Firefox 10 includes a Page Inspector that enables Web authors to peer into the structure of a Web page, and there’s also a style sheet inspector to look at how styling information is handled: Web developers have previously used tools like the much-loved Firebug for similar tasks, but it’s nice to see the support included. The browser also includes a ScratchPad based on the Eclipse Orion code editor, and adds a new full-screen mode site creators can use for immersive apps like games. (Game developers will also appreciate new 3D graphics capabilities and antialiasing for WebGL content.)
Firefox 10 is the latest version in Firefox’s rapid-release program that’s intended to bring new features to the browser (and its users) more quickly, rather than waiting many months (or over a year) to bring out monolithic new versions. The goal of the rapid release program is to get new technologies out into the real Web more quickly; however, it has also drawn ire from both individual users and organizations. Some end users are frustrated by constant updates that don’t seem to bring much in the way of new features (for most users, Firefox 10 is almost indistinguishable from Firefox 4), while organizational users find Firefox too much of a moving target: they can’t certify a new version get it out to their user base before another one comes along and the process starts all over again.
The new technology for handling add-ons should make the process of upgrading to new versions smoother for end-users, and to satisfy organizations, Firefox 10 is the first Extended Support Release (ESR) of the browser: instead of fading away after a few weeks, Mozilla will maintain Firefox 10 with security updates for a full year, even as they move on to Firefox 11, 12, 13, and more. Making Firefox 10 an ESR release means the browser is a stable target for companies and organizations.