Chicago (IL) - Mozilla has just released the fourth beta version of its next-generation browser. You can’t help but comparing this new Firefox to Microsoft’s recently released beta version of Internet Explorer 8 and if you closely, the differences are dramatic from a user perspective. While security was the selling point in both Firefox 2 and Internet Explorer 7, added convenience and performance are clearly the headlines for these new browsers. And both browsers reveal a very different design philosophy and understanding what additional convenience features will be appreciated by users.
The fourth beta of Firefox 3 was released yesterday and, at least according to the developers, another round of massive changes has been applied. Firefox’s 3 new Gecko 1.9 engine is already claimed to include more than 12,000 changes over Gecko 1.8x, the engine used in the current stable Firefox 2. Beta 4 is said to integrate more than 900 improvements over Beta 3, which included 1300 changes over Beta 2. The beta process is running at full steam, with another beta version likely to become available later this month, as Mozilla has scheduled the Beta 5 code freeze for March 18.
If you remember the release of Firefox 2, almost the entire focus of the browser was on more security such as added phishing filters. This trend continues with Firefox 3, but it is much more subdued. Instead, Firefox 3 unveils an updated interface in what could be considered the most dramatic GUI change since the original release of Firefox. With the exception of a strange repositioning of the "home" button, most of these changees address added convenience for the user: Beta 4 introduces an enhanced location bar with auto complete feature, which prominently displays a drop-down list of recently visited pages - and instead of displaying the URL, Firefox highlights the title of the page and offers the address of the page in a smaller font.
Similarly, the download manager and its file history have been reworked: The list is more readable and enable users to identify the type of the downloaded file. There is also a search feature that provides a simple but very effective way to quickly locate files that have been downloaded in the past. Other GUI improvements include a full page zoom as well as a better integration with Vista, which - you guessed - brings a few new Vista-style icons. The same goes for MacOS and Linux.
In a nutshell, it appears that at least on the usability side the Mozilla team works with pretty much what it has and improves the foundation. Adding usability features that do not rely on changed webpage code have worked well for Firefox in the past and this Beta 4 certainly leaves the impression that this trend will not change. There user experience in Firefox 3 is a natural and solid evolution over Firefox 2.
Internet Explorer 8 takes a somewhat different approach. Granted the browser is very early in its beta process, the first ideas we have seen are not based on the browser itself, but rely on new features Microsoft hopes will be accepted by web developers. Features such as web slices and activities require web sites to integrate new code to enable IE8 to take advantage of them (see a detailed first review of IE8 beta here). This, of course, raises some thoughts about the compatibility with other web browsers out there and especially if we remember that Microsoft has pledged that IE will be fully compliant with CSS 2.1 and HTML 4.01 and will be taking steps towards HTML 5.
It will be interesting to see how web slices and activities will work out for Microsoft and if this new features will make their way into other browsers as well. On another note, it is worth mentioning that in contrast to Firefox 3 Beta 4, IE8 Beta 1 has virtually the same interface as IE7. But then, we are early in the beta process and more changes could be coming over the next few months.
We have no information when the final versions of the browsers will be released, with Mozilla’s roadmap still indicating an "early 2008 launch" for Firefox 3; Microsoft has not provided a guideline for the IE8 launch yet. But at least as of now, the browsers will deliver a very different user experience, one focusing on improvements of its existing feature set and one introducing completely new features users aren’t used to.