So having fought off death by IE7 â€“ for the time being at least â€“ where does Firefox go from here? The Mozilla Corporation has done a remarkable job of monetising the brand, using search engine deals and selling merchandise to help drive money into the project. But, money canâ€™t be made without a product and development on Firefox 3, which is due later this year, is well underway.
The most recent Alpha, codenamed â€˜Gran Paradisoâ€™, doesnâ€™t show many external changes with most coming at the coding level that the majority of users wonâ€™t appreciate. These are, however, important changes; with the switch to the Gecko 1.9 engine likely to bring further performance enhancements and better standards support in the future. It also means Firefox will no longer support Windows 95, 98, ME or OSX versions prior to 10.2.
Handily, and unlike Internet Explorer, the open-source nature of the Firefox project makes it easy to read about whatâ€™s being planned for the future, with the oft discussed memory issues high on the priority list.
Some describe Firefoxâ€™s problem as a memory leak, though this isnâ€™t always the case and many of the problems are caused by poorly programmed add-ons or the Back-Forward caching that helps improve browsing speed.
This Back-Forward caching, which retains copies of pages visited, results in less memory being returned when you close tabs â€“ thus causing the misconception that there is a memory leak.
Regardless of this misconception itâ€™s a fair to say that Firefox uses rather too much memory, and itâ€™s an issue that people have been wishing to be resolved for some time. Firefox was born in part because of the software bloat of the Mozilla suite, and avoiding a similar fate will be an important factor if Firefox is to beat off competition from the likes of Opera.
Other performance considerations are also high priorities, with start up time and stability â€“ especially in regard to add-ons â€“ already discussed. Preventing buggy add-ons from crashing the whole browser would go a long way to improving the Firefox experience, and would reduce the risk in trying out new and interesting additions to the browser.
Another of the high priority features for Firefox 3 is reorganising the bookmarks system with a â€˜Placesâ€™ system, which was meant to debut in FF2 but for whatever reason didnâ€™t make it. In a recent interview Blake Ross, founder and creator of Firefox, was keen to stress how this wasnâ€™t a new feature but a reorganising of a current one adding that it wouldnâ€™t add to bloat to the browser.
Indeed, the fear of bloat in Firefox is a common theme and has lead to suggestions that some features be optional at the point of installation. Whether this is really practical, especially for less experienced users who donâ€™t know what they need or want, is an entirely different question. Ultimately the aim ought to be to keep features to minimum and continue to allow third party add-ons to develop, and this seems to be the route developers are taking.
Similarly, the Download Manager, which has been due some kind of overhaul for a while, is another area to be improved in Firefox 3. Pausing downloads between sessions has long been a simple feature which Firefox has lacked, and it seems as though Firefox 3 will deliver this along further interface enhancements.
Whether Mozilla has any control over its own fate is a moot point, with many believing that the future of Firefox â€“ and other alternative browsers â€“ is entirely in the hands of Microsoft. That the likes of Firefox and Opera exist at all is entirely because Internet Explorer hasnâ€™t delivered a high quality experience; thus creating a market for alternatives.
Until we see how Internet Explorer on Vista works out itâ€™s difficult to know how this will pan out, though Firefox and others still hold the advantage of development times with the next landmark release of Internet Explorer not expected for another 18-24 months.
Moreover, whatever happens with Internet Explorer, Firefox can always count on its community and they aren't likely to abandon Firefox even if Microsoft get their act together.
Breaking the all important mainstream market remains at the centre of Mozillaâ€™s long term strategy, and having come this far it wonâ€™t be content if Firefox growth begins to stagnate. The possibility of branching out into new formats, such as mobile devices, would be further evidence of their ambition â€“ and no one should rule out this possibility.
Whatever happens, it looks as though Firefoxâ€™s fire wonâ€™t go out with a whimper and thereâ€™s plenty of untapped potential to discover. If youâ€™re not one of the 30 per cent of TR readers who use Firefox already, why not give it a try?