Thursday, December 17, 2009

Keeping up with the browsers: Firefox 3.6, Chrome 4, IE 9

Want something to play with over the holidays? If you are a web developer- and I know many of you reading Telerik Watch are- then there is a new wave of web browsers just waiting for you to kick the tires. In fact, the next wave of web browsers may be here faster than you think. Firefox's next major release, version 3.6 (codenamed Namoroka), is already in Beta 4 and it is scheduled to ship in "late 2009" (a schedule that, if it is to be met, means RTW is imminent). Google's rapidly evolving Chrome browser is currently available in its 4th major revision on Google's beta channel. And at PDC last month, we started to get some early details about Microsoft's IE 9. As a web developer, it's critical to stay at the bleeding-edge of browsers, not only to ensure your applications remain compatible, but also to start exploring the technologies of tomorrow that will enable you to do more than ever with standards-based sites. Remember, if you build a standards-based website, the browser is your application delivery platform. Changes to browsers have a BIG impact on your application. As your resident beta tester, I've been running all of the latest browser betas full-time. What follows are some early impressions and highlights so that you can confidently jump start your own exploration of the future of the web. Continue reading to learn more about the future of web browsers

Firefox 3.6 (currently Beta 4 Beta 5) Arriving roughly 6 months after FF 3.5, Firefox 3.6 is primarily aiming at continuing what its predecessor started. That means faster browser performance; increased support for HTML5 and CSS3; and more "chrome" features for users. Mozilla explicitly states that goals for FF 3.6 include improving browser start-up time and time to complete actions at significant enough level that users notice the improvement (by Mozilla standards, that means > 50ms improvement).

Firefox 3.6 is now in Beta 5 (as of today), and should be shipping RC then RTW very soon. I've been using FF 3.6 full-time since Beta 3 and I have no complaints. In general, the browser does feel a bit "snappier" and I have not had any issue with instability in the beta. And the one critical hurdle for any new version of Firefox? Does FireBug support it. Fortunately for FF 3.6, it does. Other plug-ins, like the Web Developer Toolbar and Window Resizer, do not (yet), but with Firebug, I'm okay. (On latest check, it seems even WDT is ready for 3.6, so it looks like most plug-ins are getting ready for the big release.) Verdict: FF 3.6 is a good step forward for a browser known to be slow and it further helps make HTML5 a viable standard for web development. No reason not to upgrade now. Chrome 4 (currently Beta) If it wasn't clear before, it should be clear now. Google is versioning Chrome at pace designed to mock Gmail's 5-year beta. The fourth version (!) of the just-turned one-year old browser is now available as beta, and the biggest news for this release is that the browser is now available on the Mac and Linux platforms. In addition to new platform support, Chrome 4 is adding the much needed extension support (sorry, no Firebug for Chrome yet...only Firebug lite), built-in bookmark syncing support, and improved support for CSS (proven by passing the Acid3 test). For developers, Chrome 4- like FF 3.6 and the already release Safari 4- is continuing to push support for CSS3 and HTML5. This aggressive adoption of the "next generation" standards web gives hope that 2022 will just be bad joke from the W3C. We may be able to be plugin-less RIAs after all! The extensions support is nice, too, since it opens the door to putting Chrome on par with FF for developer productivity. Verdict: Chrome 4 seems more stable than previous versions, as fast as ever, and is shaping-up to be a more "developer-friendly" browser. The OS X experience is on par with Windows, though as a OS X Safari user, Chrome seems less necessary due to Safari's already fast performance. IE 9 (currently unavailable) Ah, Internet Explorer. How I used to love thee. Really. I was a hold-out back when Firefox started sweeping the globe, insisting that tabs were for A.D.D. and that IE was all I needed for browsing the web. All it took was a few months of doing hardcore CSS development against IE6 and then viewing those results in other "standards-based" browsers for me to change my mind. IE has been playing catch-up with the other browsers for years now, trying to break from the past and better support standards rendering in a fast, secure browser. At PDC 2009, Microsoft revealed some limited details about their next attempt to catch-up. They openly acknowledged in side-by-side comparisons that IE has room for improvement next to its competitors, and they suggested that IE9 will finally put Microsoft on par for both performance and support for handling standards like CSS3. They were less clear about their plans for HTML5, but we can only assume they'll be following the lead of Firefox, Chrome, and Safari to provide as much support as possible. It's impossible to say much more about IE9 at this point since we only have a description of Microsoft's intent, but let's hope the bits rise to the challenge and do continue to right the wrongs of the past. I also hope Microsoft can find a way to develop versions of IE faster. Firefox and Chrome are showing how much faster we can adopt standards when we get used to auto-updating browsers every 6-months. If Microsoft could join that schedule, I think we'd see the evolution of web standards radically accelerate. Verdict: IE9 has a lot of promise, but so far that's all it's got. Wrap-up (There are other browsers...) On a parting note, I think it's worth at least mentioning the other two "major" browsers: Safari and Opera. Both of these browsers are a bit ahead of the curve at this point, with major releases already in production that support CSS3 and many HTML5 features. In fact, broadly speaking, WebKit (and thus Safari) is one of the leading engines for accurately processing these next-gen standards. Opera does have a Alpha preview of it's next major version (10.2), and as Opera tends to do, they are breaking new ground for a "browser." Instead of doing more refinement to their chrome (which arguably has been ahead of the game forever), they are now taking browser "applications" to the desktop with "Opera Widgets." It's cool, but it's Opera. History says- for whatever reason- that they just don't know how to find mass appeal on the desktop. Whichever browser you look at, the future is clearly headed in the same direction. All browsers are acknowledging the role they play in many daily computing activities and they are driving for maximum performance. All browsers are working hard to better support standards like CSS3 and HTML5. And all browsers are continuing to try to differentiate by building unique "chrome" features aimed at end users instead of trying to build proprietary rendering engines. The Browser War II is in full-swing. Isn't it fun?!


Wayne Brantley said...

I was an IE hold out also. All it takes is a month or so of using firebug and you will quickly realize the error of your ways.

I am thinking of doing a post on the developer version of chrome - it has firebug like features on steroids. Given that, I may find myself to be a chrome switch in the end. :-)

Browsersphere said...

Great article!

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