Firefox 1.5 beta released

The Mozilla Foundation Friday released a beta version of Firefox 1.5, the first major upgrade of its popular open-source Web browser since Version 1.0 was released last November.

Code-named Deer Park, Version 1.5 features automated patching and updates, which the foundation sees as a key security enhancement. With the existing browser, users must download and reinstall new, full versions of the application when a security change is made — something many end users don’t want to bother doing. Other commercial software companies, including Microsoft Corp., already offer similar patch-only updates for many of their products.

Deer Park will feature background downloads of any updates; users will be told when an update has been downloaded and asked whether to install it, said Chris Beard, a spokesman for the foundation. “Patches will go from megabytes to kilobytes [in size],” he said. Firefox 1.5 will check once per day for any updates.

The open-source group behind the browser doesn’t have infrastructure of its own to serve an estimated 40 million to 50 million regular Firefox users.

Instead, it has a global network of servers belonging to universities, businesses and other organizations that have donated space and bandwidth to handle the 9 million downloads per month of Firefox browsers. That same network will be used to handle automatic updates of Firefox 1.5. Load-balancing software called Bouncer, developed last November, detects where each user is coming from and directs them to the best available download site.

While the beta is aimed at developers of Web sites, Web applications and Firefox extensions, “anybody can take part,” said Beard, including “early adopters who want to go in and kick the tires.” Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 7 is also in beta, but only members of the Microsoft Developers Network can download the test version.

Mozilla’s Firefox 1.5 schedule calls for two betas — the second about a month from now, after feedback from this first round of testing — followed by an initial release candidate on Oct. 28. The final version is expected sometime in November or December.

The core Firefox 1.5 browser is still below 5MB in size, Beard noted, with numerous add-ons available to customize the browser and add capabilities. Internet Explorer 6 Service Pack 1, which includes the Outlook Express e-mail client, is between 11MB and 75MB, depending on what files are needed, according to Microsoft’s Web site.

There have been “refinements” to the browser’s look and feel, but no dramatic changes, Beard said. One added feature that users have asked for is “drag-and-drop tabs” that allow users who open multiple sites in Firefox tabs to reorder those tabs. There’s a revamped user preference section, new pop-up blocking capabilities and faster browsing performance due to “intelligent caching,” Beard said.

Mozilla has added, eBay and Creative Commons, a site that collects text, music and other works licensed under low-restriction licensing, to Firefox 1.5 default sites. It has also expanded the number of search engines users can add to their browser’s search box and highlighted some recommended extensions it supports, such as the Sage and Feedview RSS readers.

“IBM is working with us on accessibility,” Beard said. Firefox 1.5 is up for certification under Section 508, a federal law requiring the government to provide access to electronic information for the disabled.

Mozilla-compatible browsers have an 8.6 percent market share, according to August statistics collected from several thousand business Web sites by Omniture Inc. Internet Explorer holds a 77.7 percent share. A year ago, IE had a market share of 83.5 percent.

After the beta was released, security researcher Tom Ferris reported a buffer overflow vulnerability that could leave computers running Firefox open to remote attack. Vulnerable versions include all those up to Firefox 1.06 as well as the beta. Mozilla officials said Friday they are working on a fix for the problem, which they said they learned about on Tuesday.

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