The Andrew Turnbull Mozilla Network

Bon Echo & Firefox 2:

Is it a step in the right direction?

[Mozilla Firefox 2.0 beta 1 screenshot]

The first preview of Mozilla Firefox 2 was released in March 2006, and followed by several more alphas, betas, and release candidates culminating in a final software release seven months later. As with Deer Park a year ago, the alpha releases carried a prominent codename ("Bon Echo") in lieu of "Firefox" branding.

Release Date
Bon Echo alpha 1 March 21, 2006
Bon Echo alpha 2 May 12, 2006
Bon Echo alpha 3 May 27, 2006
Mozilla Firefox 2.0 beta 1 July 12, 2006
Mozilla Firefox 2.0 beta 2 August 31, 2006
Mozilla Firefox 2.0 release candidate 1 September 26, 2006
Mozilla Firefox 2.0 release candidate 2 October 6, 2006
Mozilla Firefox 2.0 release candidate 3 October 17, 2006
Mozilla Firefox 2.0 October 24, 2006

This page details my notes and opinions on the new features and other developments of Mozilla Firefox 2 as they surfaced in these previews. Now that the software itself has been finally released, you're welcome to download it and judge the new changes for yourself.

I hate to be less than enthusiastic about a new Mozilla browser release, but I have decidedly mixed feelings with Bon Echo. Firefox may have reached the point where not all new developments come in the best interest of usability or practicality to the user. In my opinion, Netscape passed this point with Communicator 4.0, while Internet Explorer exceeded it from day one.

My initial skepticism over Bon Echo was primarily due to my experience with Alpha 1. In it, the "Places" feature (since removed) and the unimproved tab bar, both critiqued below, were the only overtly noticeable changes over Firefox 1.5, leading me to wonder if the development had gone off-track or if the version number deserved to be incremented. Fortunately, Alpha 2 introduced a number of other and more positively noteworthy features that helped for the time being to restore my confidence in the software. After all, Netscape Communicator 4.0 carried more than its share of technological innovations over Netscape 3.0 in spite of its interface and performance flaws, and a similar analogy may hold true for Firefox 2.

First, the bad...

A look at the user agent string reveals that Firefox 2 and the Bon Echo previews are built upon a core of Gecko 1.8.1, as opposed to 1.8.0 for Firefox 1.5. This would seem to imply that there have been relatively few changes in rendering capabilities (although there have been developments such as support for SVG text and JavaScript 1.7), and most of the changes in Firefox 2 instead relate to the user interface.

[Bon Echo Alpha 1 Places window]

One feature that was supposed to make it into Firefox 2 was a new "Places" tool. I rather liked the idea, mainly because it provided Mozilla Firefox users with a functional History window. Unfortunately, the original implementation in Bon Echo Alpha 1 was very buggy and the feature has subsequently been removed, although it will likely surface again in the future in time for Mozilla Firefox 3.0.

[Bon Echo Alpha 2 Tools menu]

Here is a screenshot of the "Tools" menu from Bon Echo Alpha 2. Notice anything missing? The "Read Mail" and "New Message" options in Firefox 1.x that tied into a compatible e-mail client have been removed with the explicit intention of reducing "menu clutter," emphasis mine. While a minor feature and not one whose absence is enough to make me miss it badly, this was a tool I found convenient, and the justification for removing it seems unusual given the presence of other feature changes that add nothing but clutter to the UI.

The tabbed browsing feature in Bon Echo has been extensively tweaked, and close buttons now appear on each individual tab rather than a single button located in a standard location at far right. I personally fail to see how anyone could perceive this usability-compromising development as an improvement. This already constitutes one of my least favorite "features" of Camino and Safari, and I'm hardly pleased to see it make its appearance in Firefox.

Disadvantages of the "new" tab bar:

[Bon Echo Alpha 2 tab bar]

Disadvantages of the "old" tab bar:

[Mozilla Firefox 1.5 tab bar]

Fortunately, in the Mozilla Firefox 2 betas it is possible to revert the tab bar back to the appearance and behavior of Firefox 1.5 and earlier versions, although it involves a little hacking. To do so, follow these steps:

Now, the good...

By default, links that are coded to open in new windows open in new tabs instead. This functionality was present in a rudimentary form before (often requiring a little bit of hacking to get right), but this is the first time this behavior was enabled by default.

[Mozilla Firefox 2 History menu]

Perhaps as a condolence of sorts for the omitted "Places" feature, the "Go" menu of earlier versions was beefed up and renamed "History" starting with Mozilla Firefox 2 beta 1. In addition to a concise list of session history, the menu now provides an option to reopen recently-closed tabs, helping somewhat to alleviate the likelihood of closing tabs by mistake with the new tab bar.

[Mozilla Firefox 2 search suggestions] [Mozilla Firefox 2 search droplist] [Manage Search Engine List dialog]

The search tool has seen a number of improvements: Users are now prompted with suggestions while filling the search bar in with terms, and a search engine manager window has been added, making it much easier to add and reorder search engines to or on the plugin list. The search engine droplist has been divorced from the search provider's icon and moved to the other end of the bar, forming a button of its own. This adds yet a few more pixels of clutter (casting doubt on the consistency of the developers' priorities), but I don't mind since it comes with a host of other improvements and the button itself forms a handy link to the respective search engine's website.

[Text box spell checking]

Another great new feature in Bon Echo is inline spell checking in text boxes. While filling in forms, misspelled words are automatically detected and underlined in red. Regardless of your spelling proficiency, this is quite convenient, and helps to reduce mistakes while entering information.

[Anti-phishing feature]

Bon Echo alpha 3 introduced a new anti-phishing feature, exemplified in the screenshot here. Firefox now checks sites against an automatically-generated list of known phishing sites, and presents a balloon dialog if an attack is detected. This feature may be enabled or disabled through the Advanced Options panel.

While less easy to depict in a screenshot, another new feature worthy of note is automatic browsing session restoration after a crash. While I fortunately find crashes in Mozilla Firefox to be infrequent (moreso in final releases than buggy alphas or betas like these), they do occur from time to time, and the ability for the software to restore the active windows and default to the same websites viewed previously upon opening Mozilla Firefox after a crash is convenient at the very least and could prove invaluable in some situations.

[Mozilla Firefox 2 Add-Ons dialog]

The "Themes" and "Extensions" windows have been combined into a single "Add-ons" dialog. The extension system itself has been updated to provide enhanced security and to allow for easier localization of extensions.

Finally, Bon Echo Alpha 2 introduces Microsummaries, a new bookmark feature that allow regularly updated bits of information in the form of a bookmark label. There is far more about Microsummaries than can fit in a concise explanation, but I recommend consulting the Firefox Microsummaries Walkthrough for more information.

OS Compatibility

The Bon Echo Alphas and Firefox 2 beta 1 both run on Windows 95 and NT 4.0, but Mozilla Firefox 2 may well prove to be the last version to do so, if at that. As of early 2006, the newest "trunk" nightly builds that will ultimately develop into Firefox 3.0 use MSVC80 DLLs that break compatibility, as well as a new rendering system that currently works only in Windows 2000 and XP. It remains to be seen if an additional compatibility layer will be added for Windows 9x and/or NT 4.0. More immediately, I have been unsuccessful in running Firefox 2 beta 2 and release candidate 1 on Windows 95 OSR2; the browser either immediately freezes or crashes with an invalid page fault in KERNEL32.DLL when I attempt to do so.

Further links of interest:
Mozilla Firefox download link archive (on this site)
Mozilla Firefox 2 Roadmap
Mozilla Firefox 2 Release Notes

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Last update October 24, 2006.