The official release of Mozilla Firefox 3.5 is due this week. It's a significant milestone in the open-source browser's history. Putting pure features aside, let's take a look at some of the big design changes Mozilla has made over the years, beginning with version 0.8 when Mozilla renamed it from Firebird to Firefox.
For the sake of simplicity we're keeping it limited to just the Windows and Mac versions. And for certain features where there is little, if any, difference between the platforms--we're sticking to the Windows version.
The four things we're comparing are navigation, tabs, bookmarks, and the settings menu:
Navigation has experienced subtle changes over the years, with the exception of version 3. This brought the increased size of the back button, and noticeable shrinking of the rest of the controls. Mozilla also made it easier to bookmark pages, by adding a star button right into the address bar, which users can click, avoiding having to use keyboard shortcuts or on-screen menus to save a page.
Note: To see the full-size versions of these images just click on them.
Tabs are a very important part of Firefox. Version 3.5 adds a new plus button that users can click on to create a new tab. Previously this required a keyboard shortcut or selecting the option from a menu.
Version 3.5 is also getting "tab tearing," which lets users pull away tabs from one window to add to another, or break off into an entirely new window. Early versions of the browser wouldn't even let you re-order them without a third-party extension, and up until Firefox 2, the controls to close individual tabs were kept on the far right side. Version 2 also introduced a new way to view a list of all your tabs by clicking the arrow on the right side of the browser. This let you pick any one of your tabs without having to hunt for ones that could be off the screen.
Bookmark management saw its biggest change in Firefox 3. This version had a completely overhauled tool, which included things like tags and navigation controls that let you surf around your bookmarks as if you were visiting Web pages.
Firefox 3 also did a better job of letting users import and export their bookmarks right from the manager. It included simple controls for reverting back to previous versions of bookmark history, and merging multiple libraries of bookmarks into one master file.
The options menu is the least sexy thing on this list, but one that most easily shows the changes in the way people are using Web browsers. Besides a total reduction in size, logo changes, and a swap in navigation from the side to the top, later versions simply moved things around. They also gave users more control over what the browser displayed when it started up, and where downloads went when finished.
The next Firefox
Visual alterations are easy to track, but some of the biggest changes to Firefox have been under the hood. As browsers begin to borrow features from one another, the underlying differentiation becomes what they're built on. Rendering engines and resource management are becoming big selling points as users begin to care less about what their browser looks like (see Google Chrome's and Apple Safari 4's understated looks), and more about how fast pages load and recover from crashes.
So what will the next version of Firefox bring? We're still a long way off from version 4.0, but Mozilla has been quite open about where the browser is going. The company has already published its road map of intended features for version 3.6, which is due sometime next year.
One of the most exciting features that's planned for 3.6 is what Mozilla is calling "task bar navigation." It's described as a way for a user to "organize tabs, history, downloaded files, and other resources according to the task they were attempting to accomplish," which means you're going to spend less time tracking around menus or third-party sites, and more time simply typing a few letters into Firefox's address bar to do tasks. Other features include a way to search through open tabs, and more easily open up sets of tabs you had open in an earlier session.
Until then, the easiest way to stay on the cutting edge of Firefox (and other browsers) is to use the beta versions, which are released to brave users weeks and sometimes months before the general public. These may come with a few bugs, but the risk is often outweighed by the reward.