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The latest release of the open-source Firefox browser includes many features requested, and even designed, by users.

On November 29, a new version of the Firefox Web browser was released at www.mozilla.com. And within two days after Firefox 1.5 went live, more than two million people had downloaded it.

Although it’s only an incremental upgrade – Firefox 2.0 is expected in mid-2006 – the changes are obvious to anyone who has used the earlier version. (Its maker, the Mozilla Corporation, touts it as a faster, safer, smoother version of the program.) For instance, the new Firefox allows pages to load noticeably faster, thanks to a special cache that stores the most recently viewed pages – those accessed through the “forward” and “back” buttons. The browser’s viewing tabs, for accessing numerous pages in one window, can now be re-ordered in drag-and-drop fashion. And a “live bookmarks” feature is continually updated with the most recent headlines from news feeds around the Internet.

Just as important as these improvements in user-friendliness, however, are the new security features. Mozilla’s programmers have made it easier to remove sensitive information from the browser. By simply clicking on a button, all previously visited websites, as well as passwords and personal information one may have entered, can be erased.

While this can be done in other browsers, such as Internet Explorer, it takes some digging through the menus to find the command. The quick-clear function is especially attractive for anyone using a public computer. “It’s handy if you’re sharing a computer or if you’re at a Web café and you want to make sure your sensitive information is not visible,” says Mike Schroepfer, vice president of engineering at Mozilla.

The new Firefox also helps keep information secure by issuing alerts about new updates or patches. This way, the user doesn’t need to check constantly for the latest downloads. Additionally, Firefox 1.5 can block more types of pop-up ads, including those generated using the Flash multimedia format. “I think we’ve been really successful [at blocking pop-ups],” Schroepfer notes. “It’s us closing the lid on it.”

Most early reviews of Firefox 1.5 among Web users are positive. “Boy is it nice,” Web guru and novelist Cory Doctorow wrote at BoingBoing.net, which he co-edits. “If you’re still using Microsoft’s Explorer or Safari, now’s a great time to switch – better ad-blocking, better usability, better security, and better standards-compliance.”

The good reviews aren’t surprising, though, since the programmers at Mozilla built most of the new features in direct response to requests from Firefox users, according to Schroepfer. What’s more, the basic software that defines the browser is available for anyone to examine, which allows hundreds of thousands of Firefox users and fans across the world to play a role in modifying it, by sending in both bug reports and actual code.

In fact, this open-source spirit helped Mozilla hit its deadlines and release a safe product, says Schroepfer. In the months prior to the November 29 release, early versions of the upgrade were available for download, so people could test it out and report problems to Mozilla. As an incentive, Mozilla also sponsors a program, called Bug Bounty, that awards $500 to anyone who finds a severe security issue within the software.

But with so many contributors, is the latest Firefox bogged down with too many new features? “One thing that people love about Firefox is that it’s very slimmed down” compared to Internet Explorer, says Mozilla’s Schroepfer. It is a fundamental philosophy of the Mozilla project, according to Mozilla president Mitchell Baker, to provide software that’s still simple to use.

For those who want more functionality, however, there are more than 800 different downloadable add-ons, called “extensions,” that offer features like live weather forecasts, card games, and social bookmarking. Most of these extensions, which can be searched and downloaded free at Mozilla’s add-ons website, are designed by users of Firefox who want to customize their web browsing – and they’ve also proved crucial in the development of Firefox 1.5. Mozilla programmers have used extensions “as a mechanism to figure out” how to best upgrade the software, according to Schroepfer. And some user-generated extensions, such as the movable tabs function, have been incorporated directly into the 1.5 release.

While Firefox has caught the attention of millions of Web users just recently – grabbing about 10 percent of the browser market since it debuted in November 2004 – the program’s roots actually go back to 1998, when a small group of software engineers affiliated with Netscape began to create a web browser with source code that Netscape made public. In 2003, when Netscape was absorbed by America Online, AOL kept the open-source project alive by forming the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation. (The Mozilla Corporation, which develops and markets Firefox, is a for-profit entity that is wholly owned by the Mozilla Foundation and sustained by licensing fees from Web search companies whose services are offered via Firefox.)

Baker explains that although AOL contributed assets, it doesn’t govern any part of the foundation. “We selected board members from the open source community…to promote a healthy ecosystem of innovation on the web, and a whole range of things aimed at public benefit,” Baker says.

Judging from the number of downloads (roughly 100 million) and regular users (about 40 million) since it was released in 2004, Firefox 1.0 has been true to its mission. Even more impressively, the browser has been marketed almost entirely at the grassroots level. Spreadfirefox.com is the browser’s Internet advertising home. In the coming days, Mozilla plans to launch Firefox Flicks on the site, featuring 30-second video testimonials from users about how the browser has made the Internet a better place.

Marketing Firefox in this user-focused way has created a sense of community, not just for those who design add-ons or find glitches in the system, but also less technology-oriented Internet surfers. This wide community is also a crucial source of funding for the Mozilla Foundation, according to Baker. Many donors attach personal notes to their checks, she says. “They say things like ‘I was afraid of my computer. Life on the Internet was terrible. My friend insisted I install Firefox. Thank you. Here’s my $25, keep at it.’”

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