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Sep 28 2017

Mozilla Releases Firefox Quantum, Beta Version

Quite a while has passed since IT mags found anything positive to write about the world's oldest open-source browser. The arrival of Firefox 57.0beta (aka Firefox Quantum) could put an end to this season of lukewarm-at-best coverage.

The fresh release is the result of a 12-month developer effort to bring the ancient web viewer up to par with modern software from Google, Microsoft and Opera. Dubbed Project Quantum and launched in October last year, it aimed to close the speed and stability gaps that existed in comparison to other browsers and had caused a steep decline in its user base – according to the statisticians at Net Applications, the Firefox market share dropped from a solid 20.3% in 2012 to somewhere between 10.5 and 12.5% over the course of 2017. In other words, the Mozilla browser had to cede its position as the 'undisputed No. 1 IE challenger' and now comes in a very distant third among desktop contenders while it's practically non-existent on smartphones and tablets.

Last fall, Mozilla Fellow and then-Head of Platform Engineering David Bryant gave an outline of what was going on in his piece "A Quantum Leap for the Web" that was first published on the Mozilla Tech blog and has since gained prominence among Firefox developers everywhere. Bryant concluded that the browser's many flaws and shortcomings effectively required what could be called a cold reboot, that is, rewriting essential components such as its browser and rendering engines and thereby redefining how it handled CSS styles or DOM operations. This, he hoped, would help Firefox to stay relevant for a new generation of users and regain some of its innovative clout. The newly minted Firefox Quantum (aka Firefox 57), whose beta version was launched on Tuesday this week, looks set to deliver on all of these counts, boasting to be twice as fast as the year-old Firefox 49 while using 30% less memory than Google's Chrome. More specifically, the main improvements are as follows:

  • Unlike previous editions, Firefox Quantum no longer runs on just one CPU core, but takes advantage of modern processors' multi-core designs based on input from the Mozilla-sponsored Servo project. As a result, the browser can/will now carry out certain tasks in parallel that used to be executed sequentially.
  • Thanks to this fresh approach, the developers were able to create a new, "super fast" CSS engine known as Quantum CSS or Stylo. Stylo combines Servo's parallelization achievements with Firefox's own rule tree and the style sharing cache known from Chrome and Safari to deliver faster and more accurate results. The basic idea here is to split up the various steps in rendering a web page between multiple cores in such a way that they may 'help' each other once their specific job is done.
  • Another key improvement in Quantum is that the new browser uses a so-called multi-process architecture that enables it to display web page content in one tab/window while sending/receiving web-based emails in another, without both jobs interfering with each other. This was one of the key innovations in Chrome and helped to propel Google's browser to its current market leader position. However, Chrome often tends to switch into some kind of overkill mode, as it basically creates a new process for each new web page opened in a new tab and thus eats up big chunks of a PC's main memory. By contrast, Firefox Quantum limits the number of processes used to render websites to four, thus cutting RAM usage by up to 30% compared with Chrome and avoiding the dreaded memory drain.
  • The changes on the interior are accompanied by a major "visual redesign" on the outside. Here, Mozilla's designers have built on the principles introduced with the Australis UI in FF 29 as well as the soon-to-decease Beyond Australis add-on to create a sleek, responsive and intuitive default interface. Called Photon, the refresh has consequences for both users and developers: The former will find it comfortable and easy to use, since a lot of clutter has been removed, which in turn adds to the sense of acceleration that derives from parallelization and improved rendering speed. The latter may not be quite as enthusiastic, as it means they have to adhere to new design guidelines and use predefined UI components and templates. Also, add-on developers will have to switch from the traditional XUL platform to the new WebExtensions API. Moreover, this has consequences for the regular user, as many 'classic' add-ons – such as NoScript, AdBlock Plus or Fasterfox Lite – are no longer supported in the new beta release and should either be disabled or replaced with functionally equivalent new tools. Thankfully, a lot of these are already available from the Firefox add-on repository.

Firefox Quantum/57 is scheduled for release on November 14, 2017. Localized beta versions in 90+ languages can be downloaded here.


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