Yesterday, the Mozilla Project folks began pushing Firefox 5 out as an automatic update to Firefox 4 users. The first thing that ran through my mind, and surely many others’ minds too, was “Huh? Why are they upgrading me to an entirely new release via their auto-updater?” Traditionally, if you ran Firefox, you would never be auto-upgraded to the next version – only to the security fixes and patches for the that series of the browser. Apparently, even the Internet Explorer development team at Microsoft was a little underwhelmed by this upgrade. They have a history of mailing a cake with a congratulatory note to the Mozilla folks whenever a major new release is finalized. This time? They mailed them a cupcake instead!
So what, exactly, do we get with version 5?
For starters, performance. According to benchmark tests run at Digitizor, Firefox 5 out-performs the Opera browser and Google Chrome, while managing to have a very small memory usage footprint even with as many as 25 web sites open simultaneously.
The browser also bundles some relatively big improvements specific to the Android version including IPv6 support and improved page-load speeds, especially with 3G networks.
The most obvious new feature a typical user might appreciate is probably app tabs. Any web page you’ve already got opened in a tab can be converted into an “app tab” which permanently stays open in the corner of the tab bar in a minimal state (only the favicon shows to indicate which web page or site it belongs to). Actually, some users are already complaining that these app tabs aren’t being remembered after they close and restart Firefox, but this has been tracked down as a problem that comes with having maximum privacy settings in place. This can be corrected by deselecting the privacy option to “Clear history when Firefox closes”. So far, I’ve made use of this feature to keep a tab pinned to the tab bar for my FreeNAS server’s web administration page.
Another new feature related to tabs is called Panorama. Essentially, this amounts to having the ability to group a number of open tabs together into a “tab group”. I can see where it might be handy when someone is doing a lot of online research and needs to keep many opened web pages organized in some fashion, while in the middle of the project.
I suspect the most important reason for the Firefox 5 upgrade, however, may be one of the less obvious ones: increased support for HTML 5 and other open web standards like MathML, canvas, and XHR. These amount to “under the hood” changes that help make it the browser of choice for people working with emerging web technologies and niche use-cases.
Beyond all of this, the developers claim it incorporates “over 1,000 bug fixes” – which is good to hear, but not generally something that justifies giving a product a whole new revision number.
Ultimately? I think this is a good, solid update, but the move to declare it version 5 instead of 4 amounts to playing a numbers game. When the competitors all have software out such as Internet Explorer, v9 and Opera, v11, it just doesn’t SOUND like Firefox is as current or good when it says it’s still on version 4. Apparently, we can expect to see this continue throughout 2011, as Firefox plays catch-up to reach a goal of being at version 7 by the end of the year.