This post has been corrected from the original: Mozilla has no plan to ship Firefox 4 this year; references to that effect have been removed.
After the product road map roundtable I live-blogged Wednesday, I had a talk with Chris Beard, VP of Labs for Mozilla. Beard is working on the things you won't see in Firefox 3, but will, if he has his way, surface in Firefox 4.
Beard's philosophy is this: The browser needs to evolve. Beard believes the browser concept hasn't fundamentally changed in 10 years. It's still an isolated piece of software, he says. Mozilla Lab's push is to blur the edges of the browser, to make it both more tightly integrated with the computer it's running on, and also more hooked into Web services. So extended, the browser becomes an even more powerful and pervasive platform for all kinds of applications.
At the moment, these are two separate projects Mozilla is running to push out the edges of the browser: Prism and Weave.
Prism is Mozilla's shot at busting apps out of the browser. Part of the Prism project is making the browsing core available to apps developers so they can build products like Zimbra Desktop (review) that are essentially Web apps, but that don't look like it.
The dream is to be able to take any Web site or app and turn it into an app that can run directly from the desktop. A very big part of this initiative is to make sites/apps work when they are not connected to the Internet. HTML 5 (the next version of the basic standard for the encoding of Web sites) includes explicit support for local, offline resources.
HTML 5 and Prism will, Mozilla execs say, render Google Gears obsolete. Not to mention other important, and proprietary, Web app platforms that are already in production, like Adobe AIR and Microsoft Silverlight (What is Silverlight?).
Weave extends the browser in the other direction: Not toward the desktop, but instead into the Internet. Mozilla wants an individual's browsing experience to stay with them no matter what machine they are on. That means synchronizing bookmarks, home pages, favorites, and passwords to an online service that the user can attach to when he or she fires up the browser. As more people move between browsing machines (their laptop and their mobile phone, for example, or between different PCs), this will become more important.
Firefox 3 is laying the groundwork for this. It has a new transactional database that stores user preferences and favorites. However, it won't be used for cross-browser syncing in version3; Beard hopes this extension to the database is rolled out in Firefox 4.
Firefox 3 users will, though, experience some online services being fed into their browser. For example, Mozilla will update all running browsers every 30 minutes with malware signatures, to stave off drive-by downloads and phishing scams.
Beard wants the new online/offline, browser/service to be more intelligent on behalf of its users. Early examples of this intelligence include the "awesome bar," which is what Mozilla calls the new smart address bar in Firefox 3. It offers users smart URL suggestions as they type based on Web searches and their prior Web browsing history. He's looking to extend on this with a "linguistic user interface" that lets users type plain English commands into the browser bar. Beard pointed me towards Quicksilver and Enso as products he's cribbing from.
Beard said the Labs are playing with other "crazy ideas," but that Prism and Weave technologies are are being targeted at the next version of Firefox.
Further reading: See Labs.mozilla.com.