What's in the latest Firefox update? Mozilla gives the gas, lays on new privacy options


Mozilla this week shipped Firefox 67 for Windows, macOS and Linux with performance improvements that – when added to improvements that over the past year – make the browser 80% faster, according to the company.

Other changes to Firefox that surfaced in version 66 ranged from customized private browsing sessions – such as letting a user enable add-ons while in so-called “porn mode” – to running multiple builds at the same time, a Firefox first.

Security engineers also patched 21 vulnerabilities, two of them labeled “Critical,” Mozilla’s most serious threat rating. “We presume that with enough effort that some of these could be exploited to run arbitrary code,” Mozilla reported. More than half the bugs – 11 all told – were ranked as “High,” one step below Critical.

Firefox 67, which can be downloaded from Mozilla’s site, updates in the background, so most users need only relaunch the browser to get the latest version. To manually update, pull up the menu under the three horizontal bars at the upper right, then click the help icon (the question mark within a circle). Choose “About Firefox.” The resulting page shows that the browser is either up to date or explains the refresh process.

Mozilla updates Firefox every six to eight weeks; the last time it upgraded the browser, to version 66, was March 19.

Faster, says Mozilla

Doubling down, really for the first time, on performance since the November 2017 launch of a revamped Firefox – one slapped with the nameplate “Quantum,” which never caught on – Mozilla touted new in-code prioritizations for the faster painting of pages.

“Firefox is better at performing tasks at the optimal time,” Marissa Wood, the recently appointed vice president of product, wrote in a post to a company blog, referring to the post-change version 67.

Wood cited several modifications that spurred Firefox’s speed, notably pushing the least-used features down the list so that they would be available only after a page has been drawn. “This includes prioritiz[ing] scripts for things you need first while delaying others to help make the main scripts for Instagram, Amazon and Google searches execute 40-80% faster,” Wood said. Elsewhere in the browser, idle tabs will now be suspended when available memory falls under 400MB; the contents of those tabs are reloaded if or when a user clicks back in.

Browser makers have long competed on speed. For a long while, however, incremental improvements have been hard to demonstrate, especially to desktop users typically riding a high-bandwidth wave, where vagaries in the connection may be more damaging to speed than any coding decision.

More recently, some browser developers have struck out all online ads – as does Brave, for instance – then trumpeted the obvious page-painting speed increases. Naturally, a page will display faster when less content is drawn; the same result could be achieved by barring all non-ad content.

It’s unclear whether Mozilla’s speed pitch will make a difference in its usage but there was little reason not to try; only last month did Firefox climb back to double digits in user share after lingering at 9% for nearly a year.

Also, more privacy

The other angle Wood touted on Firefox 67 is one of Mozilla’s cornerstones. “Privacy has always been core to Mozilla’s mission,” she acknowledged. After ticking off several past accomplishments in the arena, Wood highlighted additions that include options for blocking “digital fingerprinting” – an umbrella term for a slew of more-than-cookies tracking techniques to follow users as they browse – and unauthorized crypto-mining. 
 The new settings will add to those already in place since the enhanced anti-tracking initiative kicked off last fall with Firefox 62. They’re tucked under the “Custom” portion of “Content Blocking” within the “Privacy & Security” pane of Preferences (macOS) or Options (Windows).

Mozilla

New options to block unauthorized crypto-currency mining and sneaky fingerprinting for following you around the Web, have been added to Firefox 67.

(Note: Not everyone will see the “Cryptominers” and “Fingerprinters” options immediately; Mozilla typically rolls out such improvements in stages to reduce problems if bugs surface. Computerworld found that only half its copies of Firefox offered the new options.)

Also under the Privacy label, Firefox 67 gives more control to users operating in Private Browsing, the mode that doesn’t record sites visited or save cookies for easier return visits. “Based on user feedback, we’re giving more controls for you to get the most out of [your] Private Browsing experience,” Wood said.

That amounted to options for enabling add-ons while using the mode and saving passwords while in Private Browsing. Traditionally, extensions have been barred as possible data leakers – not just in Firefox but in rivals’ own privacy modes – and as for passwords, well, saving those used in the mode makes as little sense as saving sites seen.

Those changes seem contrary to the concept of a privacy mode, but as they’re opt-in, they can be disregarded if desired. Mozilla justified their appearance with the line, “To bust a myth, private browsing doesn’t make you completely invisible on the internet.”

Elsewhere in Firefox 67, the version is the first to allow side-by-side installs of the browser. Playing to the pre-release crowd – those who would want to run, for instance, both Developer Edition and Beta for site testing purposes, or the stable release along with Beta to see what’s coming – the enhancement was broached back in January and promised for this edition.

The next version of the browser, Firefox 68, should release July 9.

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Firefox 66

Mozilla this week released Firefox 66, which by default now blocks all audio and video auto-play.

Other additions and enhancements to Firefox 66 included promised smoother scrolling, search within multiple tabs and clearer warnings of possible security problems on a website about to be rendered on the screen.

Engineers also patched 21 vulnerabilities, five of them labeled “Critical,” Mozilla’s highest threat ranking. “Some of these bugs showed evidence of memory corruption and we presume that with enough effort that some of these could be exploited to run arbitrary code,” Mozilla reported.

Off with auto-play

The change to switch auto-play off by default was expected: More than a month ago, Mozilla announced that “with the release of Firefox 66 for desktop and Firefox for Android, Firefox will block audible audio and video by default.”

To view video and listen to audio, users can click on the displayed play button, Mozilla said. They can also pull up site-specific controls which will allow some destinations to begin playing as soon as the browser pulls up a page. Muted auto-play video will also continue to be allowed; sound-free video is currently supported by all the major browsers that block auto-play media.

Firefox 66 audio auto-play preferences Mozilla

Firefox 66 users can set audio auto-play preferences on a per-site basis by clicking on the encircled “i” in the address bar.

Mozilla has been playing catch-up here to the likes of Google, which led in stymying audio auto-play. As long ago as 2013, Chrome blocked audio that blasted from opened tabs. Last year, it added stricter controls over auto-play, though it declined to block every site’s audio.

Firefox 66 does much the same. “Subsequent videos will play automatically, just as the site intended … ((on)) all streaming sites including Netflix, Hulu and YouTube,” Nick Nguyen, Mozilla’s vice president of product strategy, wrote in a March 19 post to a company blog.

Like many Firefox features, the auto-play blocking will be rolled out in stages, Mozilla said. Its plan: Offer it to 50% of users by March 21, all by March 26.

Unblocked for now: auto-play JavaScript Web Audio content, which is typically relegated to older web apps and online games. In early February, Mozilla said it was “working on blocking auto-play for Web Audio content” and was hoping to add blocking for that this year. Google added automatic blocking of auto-play Web Audio content in Chrome 66, but almost immediately backed off after users and developers complained that the change broke too many games and apps. Google restored the auto-play blockade with Chrome 71, which shipped in December 2018.

The staged roll-out was designed so that if Firefox 66 runs into the same kind of headwinds, Mozilla can quickly call a stop.

Streamline searches and security alerts

Firefox 66 added a search function to the tab overflow menu – that’s under the downward-facing arrow at the far right when there are numerous open tabs – that automatically inserts a percentage sign (%) in the address/search bar. Any searches then show pertinent open tabs in the drop-down list.

Improvements were also made to the baked-in warnings that appear when the browser believes there’s a problem with the site-to-be-seen’s digital certificate. Legitimate certificates prove the site is what it claims it is. “If something isn’t right, you’ll get a security warning,” Nguyen said. “We’ve updated these warnings to be simple and straightforward safe.” Last week, Mozilla posted “Before” and “After” examples here.

The next upgrade, Firefox 67, should reach users on May 14, according to the browser’s current release calendar.

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Firefox 65

Mozilla today released Firefox 65 for Windows, macOS and Linux and called out new user controls for setting the desired level of anti-ad tracking by the browser.

Developers also patched seven vulnerabilities, three tagged as “Critical,” Mozilla’s highest threat ranking. “This results in the stream parser object being freed while still in use, leading to a potentially exploitable crash,” Mozilla said, referring to a “use-after-free” bug in the browser.

Firefox 65, which can be downloaded from Mozilla’s site, updates in the background, so most users need only relaunch the browser to get the latest version. To manually update, pull up the menu under the three horizontal bars at the upper right, then click the help icon (the question mark within a circle). Choose “About Firefox.” The resulting page shows that the browser is either up to date or explains the refresh process.

Mozilla updates Firefox every six to eight weeks; the last time it upgraded the browser, to version 64, was Dec. 11.

Anti-ad tracking stays off by default

Mozilla’s most ambitious initiative for Firefox last year was the introduction of “Enhanced Tracking Protection,” its name for blocking cross-site tracking, the page-embedded trackers that sites or ad networks use to follow users around the web. The October debut of the feature was touted by Mozilla as a more surgical version of the broader content blocking that had broken some websites and caused confusion.

Enhanced Tracking Protection was off by default in Firefox 63, but Mozilla said that it would be switched on as of early 2019, implying that meant with Firefox 65.

Nope.

“Before we roll this feature out by default, we plan to run a few more experiments and users can expect to hear more from us about it,” Nick Nguyen, Mozilla’s vice president of product strategy, wrote in a Jan. 29 post to a company blog.

Instead, Firefox 65 sports a revamped settings section dubbed “Content Blocking.” Nguyen said the redesigned settings were prompted by additional testing.

Firefox content blocking Firefox

Mozilla recast the Enhanced Tracking Protection settings in Firefox 64 as “Content Blocking” and gave users more information about what was what. The anti-ad tracking has yet to be turned on by default, though.

The section is more visible and included more information about the impact of switching tracking protection on. To do that, users have to select Options (Windows) or Preferences (macOS) from the menu under the three horizontal bars at the upper right, click “Privacy & Security” in the sidebar at the left, and then under the section labeled “Content Blocking,” select the radio button marked “Strict.”

A “Custom” radio button is also available for users who want to, say, block ad trackers but not cookies, or vice versa.

More information about Content Blocking can be found on the support website dedicated to Firefox.

Redesigned Task Manager

Firefox 65’s other prominent addition is to the Task Manager page, displayed after entering about:performance in the address bar. The manager reports on memory and energy (read, battery) usage for each tab and add-on, then offers a quick way for users to close a gluttonous tab or disable a misbehaving extension.

The Windows version of Firefox 64 also now supports AV1 video compression, a royalty-free standard backed by a group – Alliance for Open Media (AOMedia) – whose members include Mozilla, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Netflix and others. David Bryant, a Mozilla Fellow who leads the organization’s Emerging Technologies team, spelled out AC1 and Firefox’s support in a separate post on Medium.com.

“We think someone’s ability to participate in online video shouldn’t be dependent on the size of their checkbook,” Bryant said.

The next upgrade, Firefox 66, should reach users on March 19, according to the browser’s release calendar.

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Firefox 64

Mozilla released Firefox 64 for Windows, macOS and Linux with an embedded recommendation system that spotlights features and suggests specific add-ons based on how users work the browser and where they steer it on the web.

Engineers also patched 11 vulnerabilities in Firefox. Two were marked “Critical,” Mozilla’s highest threat ranking. “Some of these bugs showed evidence of memory corruption and we presume that with enough effort that some of these could be exploited to run arbitrary code,” Mozilla said in the advisory posted to the web.

Firefox 64, which can be downloaded here, updates in the background, so most users need only relaunch the browser to get the latest version. To manually update, pull up the menu under the three horizontal bars at the upper right, then click the help icon (the question mark within a circle). Choose “About Firefox.” The resulting page shows that the browser is either up to date or explains the refresh process.

Mozilla updates Firefox every six to eight weeks; the last time it upgraded the browser, to version 63, was Oct. 23, or seven weeks ago.

It’s CFR, not CPR

Firefox 64 introduces what Mozilla calls “Contextual Feature Recommender,” aka CFR, a feature currently available only to U.S. users running the browser in standard mode (not in Private Browsing mode). “CFR is a system that proactively recommends Firefox features and add-ons based on how you use the web,” said Nick Nguyen, Mozilla’s vice president of product strategy, in a Dec. 11 post to a company blog.

Essentially, CFR points out potentially-useful features and add-ons to Firefox users. At root, it’s a way for Mozilla to make the case that its browser is more personalized and more productive than rivals such as Google’s Chrome, which sports a market share seven times Firefox’s and offers significantly more add-ons.

Nguyen cited examples such as tab pinning – a feature that permanently places some sites’ tabs on the tab bar – that Mozilla might recommend a user. He also named three add-ons CFR could prescribe for those who spent substantial time on Facebook and YouTube, or who frequently called on Google Translate to interpret foreign-language websites.

Nguyen also swore that CFR sends no data to Mozilla, an important note in light of the organization’s stance on user privacy. “The entire process happens locally in your copy of Firefox,” Nguyen said.

All about tabs in the end

Firefox 64 also added some twists to tab management that let users grab, then perform an action on multiple tabs simultaneously. Users can now, for instance, select a stretch of tabs by pressing Shift as they click on the first and last tabs in the span.

A more flexible maneuver is available, too: Pressing Ctrl (Windows) or Command (macOS) while clicking allows users to select non-contiguous tabs. Once selected, the several tabs can be moved, bookmarked, pinned or deleted as a block.

Chrome already has this tab-handling capability, but others, including Apple’s Safari and Microsoft’s Edge, do not.

Firefox 64 now shows how much “energy impact” each tab represents when the user types about:performance in the address bar to bring up the browser’s task manager. The page is in the midst of a revamp, and Mozilla engineers have said that memory consumption – another important metric for browsers – will be added in the next iteration.

Elsewhere in the browser, Firefox 64 dropped support for all Symantec-issued SSL (Secure Socket Layer) certificates. The move, which was triggered by a consensus among browser makers that Symantec and its partners had improperly issued certificates, violating the rule set by the CA/Browser Forum, a standards groups whose members include browser developers and certificate authorities.

Firefox’s final step in its “distrust” process was originally supposed to take effect with version 63. But Mozilla delayed the ban, saying in October that too many sites had not switched to a different certificate supplier at the time. Instead, Mozilla gave Firefox 64 the honors.

The next upgrade, Firefox 65, should reach users on Jan. 29 according to the browser’s release calendar.

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Firefox 63

Mozilla released Firefox 63 for Windows, macOS and Linux, boosting its anti-ad tracking defense by offering an option that blocks cookies from third-party trackers.

Engineers also patched 14 vulnerabilities in Firefox. Just two of them were marked “Critical,” Mozilla’s highest threat ranking; three others were tagged “High,” the next rank down.

Firefox 63, which can be downloaded here, updates in the background, so most users need only relaunch the browser to get the latest version. To manually update, pull up the menu under the three horizontal bars at the upper right, then click the help icon (the question mark within a circle). Choose “About Firefox.” The resulting page shows that the browser is either up to date or details the updating process.

Mozilla updates Firefox every six to eight weeks; the last time it upgraded the browser, to version 62, was Sept. 5, or just shy of seven weeks ago.

Enhanced Tracking Protection

Firefox 63 upped anti-tracking, dubbing the improved defense a component of “Enhanced Tracking Protection,” a new name for a Mozilla effort pursued over several iterations of the browser.

An older label – “Tracking Protection” – was given to the feature in Firefox 57, last year’s huge overhaul named “Quantum,” which let users block tracking cookies in all sessions, not just the private browsing mode in which Tracking Protection debuted in 2015.

Firefox Enhanced Tracking Protection Mozilla

Firefox 63’s Enhanced Tracking Protection lets users turn off blocking on a site-by-site basis by clicking on the new shield icon in the address bar.

Tracking Protection did what its title implied: It blocked a range of content, not just advertisements but also in-page trackers that sites or ad networks implant to follow users around the Web. The problem, though, is that when Tracking Protection was switched on, it broke things. “The reality is that Firefox’s original Tracking Protection functionality can cause websites to break, which confuses users,” said Peter Dolanjski, project lead for Firefox, in an Oct. 23 post.

Enhanced Tracking Protection is much the same: It blocks tracking cookies and the access to in-browser those cookies need to operate, blocking most common cross-site tracking. But it does so in less draconian fashion. “The feature more surgically targets the problem of cross-site tracking without the breakage and wide-scale ad blocking which occurred with our initial Tracking Protection implementation,” contended Dolanjski.

According to Mozilla, the Enhanced feature should break or disrupt fewer sites. And for those it does, there’s a way for the user to back away from the blocking. “You might see some odd behavior on websites, so if something doesn’t look or work right, you can always disable the protection on a per-site basis by clicking on the Shield icon in the address bar, and then clicking ‘Disable Blocking For This Site,'” wrote Nick Nguyen, the firm’s vice president of product strategy, in a post to a company blog.

Enhanced Tracking Protection is off by default in Firefox 63. To switch it on, users must select Options (Windows) or Preferences (macOS) from the menu under the three horizontal bars at the upper right. Click “Privacy & Security” in the sidebar at the left, then check the box marked “Third-Party Cookies” under the phrase “Choose what to block.” The radio button marked “Trackers (recommended) should be pre-selected. If not, select it.

Previously, Mozilla had said that anti-tracking would be in place and on for everyone by Firefox 65, currently scheduled to ship Jan. 29, 2019. That still seems to be the plan. “We’ll continue to test this feature and hope to release it by default early 2019,” said Nguyen.

Streamlined search

Firefox 63’s other prominent addition is to search with something Mozilla named “Search shortcuts,” which appear on the browser’s new tab page.

A pair of icons, one marked “Google” the other “Amazon,” shift the cursor to Firefox’s address bar (Mozilla refers to that as the “Awesome bar” at times) with the long-available @google or @amazon search keyword already in place. Anything typed in the address bar after the keyword then becomes the search string on the designated site.

The advantage? The user need not wait for the google.com or amazon.com page to load before searching.

Not everyone with Firefox 63 will see the shortcuts immediately. (Computerworld staffers using Firefox, for example, were sans the search icons in their browsers’ new tab pages.) As it often does, Mozilla is enabling the feature in stages.

The Amazon shortcut is also a money maker for Mozilla, as purchases made by users via such searches will generate revenue to the developer through the e-seller’s affiliate program. “In the spirit of full transparency … we anticipate that some of these search queries may fall under the agreements with Google and Amazon, and bring business value to the company,” said Maria Popova, senior product manager for Firefox, in an Oct. 17 post. “Not only are users benefiting from a new utility, they are also helping Mozilla’s financial sustainability.”

The next edition, Firefox 64, should reach users Dec. 11, according to the browser’s release calendar.

Firefox 62

Last month’s upgrade to Firefox – Mozilla issued version 62 on Sept. 5 – featured relatively few changes or enhancements. Among the new: An expansion to four rows of sites available on the new tab page, and an automatic sandboxing of the AutoConfig file for enterprise use. (AutoConfig can be used by IT administrators to lock settings that cannot be accessed by group policies in Windows or the policies.json file in macOS and Linux.)

When Firefox 62 debuted, Mozilla reminded users that it intended to drop support for all Symantec-issued SSL (Secure Socket Layer) certificates with the next upgrade, this week’s Firefox 63. Instead, Mozilla balked at the move.

On Oct. 10, it declared it would delay the “distrust” of the certificates, citing a too-large number of websites that had yet to switch to different certificate supplier. “We believe that delaying the release of this change until later this year when more sites have replaced their Symantec TLS certificates is in the overall best interest of our users,” wrote Wayne Thayer, Mozilla’s Certificate Authority program manager, in a blog post.

The Symantec distrust will now take effect with Firefox 64 in December, Thayer added.

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Firefox 61

Mozilla on Tuesday delivered Firefox 61 for Windows, macOS and Linux, claiming that the browser’s page-painting speed has been improved and that switching tabs is faster than before.

The developer’s engineers also patched 18 vulnerabilities in Firefox, a third of them marked “Critical,” the highest threat ranking in a four-step system.

Firefox 61, which can be downloaded from here, updates in the background, so most users need only relaunch the browser to get the latest version. To manually update, pull up the menu under the three horizontal bars at the upper right, then click the help icon (the question mark within a circle). Choose “About Firefox.” The resulting page shows that the browser is either up to date or details the updating process.

Mozilla updates Firefox every six to eight weeks; the last time it upgraded the browser, to version 60, was May 9, or just shy of seven weeks ago.

Perform or else

With Firefox 61, Mozilla returned to trumpeting performance, one of the primary touts used when it rolled out the revamped – and newly named – Firefox Quantum in November.

At the top of the list were, well, lists: “Retained display lists.”

Those are actual lists the browser composes of the elements needed to display a page, then sorted in a back-to-front fashion for proper painting of each component. Before Firefox 61, the browser built a new display list from scratch each time a page required updating. “This is great for simplicity: we don’t have to worry about figuring out which bits changed or went away. Unfortunately, the process can take a really long time,” Matt Woodrow, a senior staff software engineer, said in a Monday post to a Mozilla blog.

The re-creation of display lists impacts page-painting performance, particularly with video, which is best viewed with updates 60 times per second. “This has always been a performance problem, but as websites have become more complex and more users have access to higher resolution monitors, the problem has been magnified,” Woodrow contended.

Instead, Firefox now retains the parts of the display list that haven’t changed from the just-prior compilation, building a new display list “only for the parts of the page that changed since we last painted and then merge the new list with the old,” according to Woodrow. The results: Page painting times fell by an average of 33% and there was an almost 40% decrease in dropped frames blamed on list making. Almost as important, freeing the browser from rebuilding the list means the application – and the horsepower behind it in the device’s silicon – can be applied to other tasks.

Warm up those tabs

In the Windows and Linux versions of Firefox 61, Mozilla debuted a feature it called “tab warming,” that promises faster tab-to-tab switching.

As a user slides the mouse pointer toward and over a tab, Firefox detects the movement. The browser then preemptively renders the layers for the tab’s (or tabs’) display(s) and uploads those layers to the page compositor, “when we’re pretty sure you’re likely to switch to that tab,” said Mike Conley, a Firefox developer, in a post to his personal blog.

Switching tabs using key combinations – on a Mac, it’s Control-Tab – will not receive the same preemptive loading.

Conley downplayed the feature. “For many cases, I don’t actually think tab warming will be very noticeable; in my experience, we’re able to render and upload the layers2 for most sites quickly enough for the difference to be negligible,” he wrote in that same post.

Don’t forget security

Mozilla fixed 18 different security flaws in the Firefox 61 update – patches are a part of almost every upgrade – six of which were tagged “Critical,” the company’s most-serious ranking.

Also on the security front, Firefox 61 set support for the latest draft of TLS 1.3 as on-by-default. TLS 1.3 is an Internet-standard cryptographic protocol for encrypting the traffic between browser and site server; it was officially approved earlier this year.

Browser support for TLS 1.3, at least in an on-by-default setting, has been shaky. Last year, Chrome turned it on, but later back off when site and service incompatibilities popped up. Google’s browser has yet to switch TLS 1.3 support on as the default.

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Firefox 60

Mozilla this week released Firefox 60 for Windows, macOS and Linux, enabling a previously-only-tested policy engine so IT admins can manage the browser within the enterprise.

Firefox, which can be downloaded from here, updates in the background, so most users need only relaunch the browser to get the latest version. To manually update, pull up the menu under the three horizontal bars at the upper right, then click the help icon (the question mark within a circle). Choose “About Firefox.” The resulting page shows that the browser is either up to date or details the updating process.

Mozilla usually updates Firefox every six to eight weeks; the last time it upgraded the browser, to version 59, was March 13, or eight weeks ago.

Quantum Enterprise goes live

In March, Mozilla asked for corporate volunteers to help it test a new policy engine that it would add to Firefox Quantum – the secondary name the developer slapped on its browser in late 2017 after a major redesign and recoding – so IT could administer the application through Group Policy on Windows.

As planned, Mozilla enabled the policy engine in Firefox 60, making it possible for the first time to manage the browser. “Firefox now supports a long-requested feature  – the ability for IT professionals to easily configure the browser using Windows Group Policy or a cross-platform JSON file,” crowed Ryan Pollock, who leads Firefox product marketing, in a post to a company blog Wednesday.

Windows Group Policy is the de facto standard for software administration in the enterprise and is well-known to IT. Shops also running macOS or Linux – or those few that rely only on those operating systems – can instead add a .json (JavaScript Object Notation) file to Firefox’s installation folder/directory. Mozilla has provided Group Policy templates and documented the construction of .json files on GitHub or its own support site. A listing of all the policies currently supported are also posted on GitHub.

Organizations can deploy either the standard Firefox, which Pollack referred to as “Rapid Release” in a nod to its every-six-week update cadence, or the long-available Extended Support Release (ESR). The latter remains feature-stable for about a year, receiving only security fixes during that time. At the end of a year, a new ESR build is produced from the then-latest Firefox.

Pollack touted Firefox’s speed, something Mozilla has hung much of its Quantum marketing around, the Mozilla Foundation’s emphasis on user privacy, and, of course, the new management skills in his pitch to corporations. Left unsaid was Mozilla’s historical neglect of the enterprise: It kicked off ESR in 2012, but then took six years to add basic management through Group Policy.

The move also signals that Mozilla is actively after customers anywhere it can find them. Although Quantum collected praise from many reviewers when it launched last year, the overhaul has not returned the browser to growth, as tracked by independent metrics companies. U.S.-based vendor Net Applications, for example, has recorded an 11% decrease in Firefox’s user share since Quantum’s November debut.

Tokens replace passwords

Firefox 60 also added support for the WebAuthn API (application programming interface), which is enabled by default.

A W3 (World Wide Web Consortium) standard – albeit not finalized – WebAuthentication (truncated to WebAuthn) provides two-factor authentication for website log-ins using hardware keys that generate FIDO U2F tokens. Those keys, typically USB devices, are sold under names such as U2F Zero, ePass and Yubikey at prices ranging from $9 to $50.

Although Firefox 60 is the first browser to support WebAuthn, Google was a major driver of FIDO U2F; its Chrome has supported the keys since version 38 in 2014.

“WebAuthn is a set of anti-phishing rules that uses a sophisticated level of authenticators and cryptography to protect user accounts,” Nick Nguyen, Mozilla’s vice president of product strategy, wrote in a company blog post Wednesday. “It supports various authenticators, such as physical security keys today, and in the future mobile phones, or biometric mechanisms such as face recognition or fingerprints.”

So, while Firefox 60 does not do away with log-on passwords, by supporting WebAuthn – and assuming site developers adopt the standard – Firefox in the future may do so with next-generation hardware keys.

Mozilla also patched 26 security vulnerabilities in Firefox 60, two of which were marked “Critical,” the company’s most serious threat ranking.

The next edition, Firefox 61, should reach users June 26, according to the browser’s release calendar.

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Firefox 59

Mozilla on Tuesday released Firefox 59 for Windows, macOS and Linux, continuing the trend of pushing performance improvements begun late last year.

Firefox, which can be downloaded from here, updates in the background, so most users need only relaunch the browser to get the latest version. To manually update, pull up the menu under the three horizontal bars at the upper right, then click the help icon (the question mark within a circle). Choose “About Firefox.” The resulting page shows that the browser is either up to date or details the updating process.

Mozilla usually updates Firefox every six to eight weeks; the last time it upgraded the browser, to version 58, was Jan. 23, or seven weeks ago.

Pages load faster after cache changes

Firefox 59 stayed on Mozilla’s 2017 theme train – more speed – that debuted with November’s launch of the first named edition, tagged as “Quantum,” with claims of faster load times for the content on the browser’s Home page. That content ranges from a series of frequently-visited websites and recommendations from the user-driven Pocket URL saver to examples of pages the user recently bookmarked.

Mozilla also switched on something called “Race Cache with Network” (RCWN), technology that alters the standard method of caching pages to memory that have been rendered previously. Caching, one of the most basic techniques to speed up the display of web pages in a browser, normally saves those pages to computer memory or the local disk drive.

RCWN, however, adds a network cache – in other words, off-site storage of the page – to the mix, then pits that against a local cache in a race to see which source delivers first. (Many ISPs, or Internet service providers, cache the most popular websites on multiple servers, placed throughout its area of service, to reduce the time it takes for customers to grab content.)

“When we detect that disk I/O may be slow, we send a network request in parallel, and we use the first response that comes back,” wrote Valentin Gosu, a Mozilla engineer, in a 2017 post to a developers’ discussion thread. “For users with slow-spinning disks and a low-latency network, the result would be faster [page] loads.”

Finally, the “Off-Main-Thread painting” that Mozilla added to Firefox 58 for Windows in January has made it to macOS this iteration. Off-Main-Thread shifts some of the page rendering work – executing the graphics draw commands and thus generating the pixels to be put on the display – to a processor thread all its own. By reducing the main thread’s workload, it’s more likely that Firefox will be able to compose pages in time to keep high frame rate jobs from skipping frames.

More new tab page customization options

Firefox 59 also introduced additional customization choices for the Home page, which doubles as the new tab page (what appears when creating a new tab through, say, pressing Ctrl-T in Windows or Command-T in macOS). The “Top Sites” thumbnails of the most-frequently visited URLs can now be dragged and dropped to rearrange the small images.

Firefox 59 Mozilla

Firefox 59, which began reaching users March 13, includes new settings to customize the Home page, which also acts as the new tab page for the browser. Users can strike the Pocket recommendations, for example, and double the number of site favorites which display as thumbnails.

Other elements in the new tab page may also be personalized to show more than a single line of top sites, or to eliminate, for example, the Pocket or Highlight sections entirely.

Elsewhere, Firefox’s preferences now include opt-in settings that will block all future requests to turn on in-browser notifications, switch on the device’s camera or microphone, or enable location detection. While all of those features have been, and are, used in reasonable fashion by legitimate websites, less courteous – or simply scammy – URLs have poisoned the well by demanding those permissions without good reason.

Trusted sites can be allowed access or individual websites blocked through a combination blacklist/whitelist.

Testing starts for Quantum Enterprise

As Mozilla delivered Firefox 59, it also began taking requests from company IT administrators to participate in an invitation-only beta of Firefox Quantum for Enterprise.

While the enterprise browser will be identical to that issued to everyone else, Mozilla intends to provide a policy engine, one compatible with Windows Group Policy – the de facto standard for software administration – with the browser. That will be a first for the open-source developer.

“Firefox 60 will include a policy engine that increases customization possibilities and integration into existing management systems,” Mozilla said in January when it announced the plan.

Although the initial release will support a “limited number” of policies, Mozilla said it would expand that list based on enterprise user feedback. That feedback is what the company is after now, in fact: The beta is intended to gather impressions and make changes before May, when Firefox 60 and the policy engine, are slated to ship.

Administrators can sign up for the beta here.

For more information on the policy engine, admins should steer for the introductory instructions on this page.

Mozilla also patched 18 security vulnerabilities in the just-released version, two of which were marked “Critical,” the company’s most serious threat ranking.

The next edition, Firefox 60, should reach users May 9, according to the browser’s release calendar.

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Firefox 58

Mozilla last week released Firefox 58 for Windows, macOS and Linux, building on the break-from-the-past Quantum edition of November by boosting page load speeds with changes to how the browser handles JavaScript.

Firefox, which can be downloaded from here, updates in the background, so most users need only relaunch the browser to get the latest version. To manually update, click the help icon – the question mark within a circle — after pulling up the menu under the three horizontal bars at the upper right. Choose “About Firefox.” The ensuing page shows that the browser is either up to date or details the updating process.

Mozilla usually updates Firefox every six to eight weeks, although the interval tends to lengthen around the end of each year; the last time it upgraded the browser, to version 57, aka “Quantum,” was Nov. 14, or 10 weeks ago.

New JavaScript cache

Firefox 58 continued Quantum’s theme of 2017 – a need for speed – with changes to the browser’s storage and retrieval of JavaScript code. Dubbed “JavaScript Startup Bytecode Cache” (JSBC), the enhancements trade memory for faster page load times.

“The JSBC aims at improving the startup of web pages by saving the bytecode of used [JavaScript] functions in the network cache,” Nicolas Pierron, a compiler engineer at Mozilla, wrote in a December post to a company blog. To reach a reasonable balance – one that increases speed with the best return from the additional memory used by the cache – JSBC only kicks into gear at the fourth visit to a website. On sites that frequently load JavaScript, JSBC cut load times by as much as 12% (on Facebook), although most test results, said Pierron, were in single digits (Amazon: 5%; Wikipedia: (8%).

The downside: More memory is consumed by dedicating it to storing the JavaScript. Pierron did not spell out the memory cost of implementing JSBC, however.

More multi-threading

Firefox 58 also introduced another speed-centric change, this one consistent with Mozilla’s work to separate into different CPU processes the steps used to compose a web page. Characterizing the change as one that “more efficiently paints your screen, using a dedicated CPU thread,” particularly to improve JavaScript frame rate, Mozilla labeled it as “Off-Main-Thread painting.” The effort is for Windows only, Mozilla noted.

Previously, the bulk of the page composition was done on a single processor thread, but Off-Main-Thread shifts some of the work – executing the graphics draw commands and thus generating the pixels to be put on the display – to a thread all its own. By reducing the main thread’s workload, it’s more likely that Firefox will be able to compose pages in time to keep high frame rate chores from skipping frames.

Like JSBC, Off-Main-Thread takes aim at JavaScript, because it’s often JavaScript code that is producing the content with high frame rates. On Windows, Mozilla claimed a 30% boost to frame rate on a benchmark that stressed the processor with JavaScript.

Better Tracking Protection

Mozilla also spent time in its standard on-release blog post to hype an older feature, Tracking Protection. With Firefox 57 (Quantum), Mozilla opened the opt-in to all sessions, not just the private browsing mode in which Tracking Protection debuted two years ago.

Tracking Protection does just what the label implies: When enabled, it blocks a wide range of content, not just advertisements but also in-page trackers that sites or ad networks implant to follow users from one site to another.

Historically, Mozilla has touted Tracking Protection as a win for individuals’ online privacy, a message in line with the company’s broader theme that its products, Firefox in particular, are designed as privacy-first. Now, however, Mozilla has bent that pitch to align with its overall need-for-speed mantra.

“In addition to protecting their privacy, users actually have a better, faster experience with the web when pages load without trackers,” argued Nick Nguyen, Mozilla’s top Firefox executive, in a post to a company blog last week. On average, page load times were cut in half compared to Firefox with Tracking Protection disabled, Nguyen said.

Many content blockers – ranging from those that specialize in stymying ads to those that remove everything but a page’s text – make the same claim, of course. By stripping a page of some of its content, it will load faster.

Mozilla patched 32 security vulnerabilities in the just-released version, only one of them marked “Critical,” the firm’s highest ranking.

The next edition, Firefox 59, should reach users March 12, according to the browser’s release calendar.

This story, “What’s in the latest Firefox update? Mozilla gives the gas, lays on new privacy options” was originally published by

Computerworld.

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