Hands on: Firefox 11 improves syncing

The latest update to Mozilla's browser includes a few small useful tweaks, but no major changes.

Firefox 11 -- the latest version of Mozilla's popular browser, released on March 13 -- includes only modest improvements over Firefox 10.2, and is unlikely to motivate a large number of people to switch from competing browsers. The upgrade (which is available for several platforms, including Windows, Mac OS X, Linux and Android) now includes the ability to sync add-ons among multiple systems and to import bookmarks, history lists and other data from Chrome.

But these improvements, plus several lesser ones, will not likely stem the slow decline in Firefox use or the accompanying growth of Chrome.

Sync across devices

If there's one feature that might spur people to switch from a competing browser to Firefox, it's the new add-on sync feature. With it, you can sync your add-ons across multiple devices (including Android smartphones and tablets), regardless of which operating system they use, as long as they run Firefox. Firefox already included the ability to sync bookmarks and other data across versions; it's only the add-on sync that's new.

To sync your add-ons, you now can use the same tool that syncs bookmarks and other data. Once you're signed in to your Firefox account, you click the Firefox button at the upper left of the screen and select Sync Now on a Windows computer or choose Tools --> Sync Now on a Mac, and the browsers will sync your add-ons as well as bookmarks and other data. That means you will not only sync any data associated with the add-ons, but install the add-ons onto browsers that don't currently have them installed.

I found that the new tool generally worked as promised. When I began, I had Read It Later and Evernote add-ons installed on my Mac but not on my Windows PC; after syncing, they were automatically installed on my PC. Similarly, I had the Email This! add-on installed on my PC but not on my Mac, and after syncing, it was automatically installed on the Mac.

Not all of my add-ons synced between my Windows and Mac versions of Firefox, however. Interestingly enough, I couldn't sync several security add-ons. For example, the HTTPS Everywhere security add-on that I had on my PC was not installed to my Mac. I had similar problems with a couple of McAfee add-ons, including SiteAdviser and ScriptScan (which admittedly has had some issues recently).

Sync falls short in another way. There's no indication that the sync is occurring, so the only way to know that it worked is to check the browsers on your different computers and devices. Some indication that it is actively syncing, including progress, time to completion and the results, would be very useful.

You can customize what syncs on your browser via the Sync Options screen. You get to it on a Windows PC by clicking the Firefox button on the upper left and choosing Options --> Sync. On the Mac, you select Firefox --> Preferences --> Sync.

More improvements

There are a number of other improvements. For example, Firefox 11 lets you import settings, cookies, history and bookmarks from Chrome to Firefox. (Before this version of Firefox, you could import all that from Internet Explorer, Opera and Safari, but not Chrome.)

The Android version of Firefox 11 benefits from the same improvements as the desktop version -- including the ability to sync add-ons, so those who want to keep their traditional computers and their Android devices in sync will be pleased. In addition, the Android version gains Flash support, although only for devices that run Android version 2.3 or earlier. It's unclear when browsers running on Android 3.0 and later will receive Flash support.

Mozilla says that Firefox has been sped up with version 11 due to support for a protocol called SPDY, which allows for faster page loading. In addition, SPDY uses the SSL security protocol, which means, according to Mozilla, that browsing is more secure as well.

Developers will find a number of additions. The new CSS Style Editor makes it easier for developers and designers to interactively design Web pages. It lets you make changes to CSS code and immediately see the changes take effect. That makes it easier and faster for designers and developers to go through multiple iterations and designs.

There is also a new feature called Tilt that allows developers to use a 3D tool when inspecting page elements. Those with WebGL-capable systems can use Tilt to see a copy of a page rendered in three dimensions.

The bottom line

Firefox 11 is only a minor, incremental upgrade compared to version 10. Existing Firefox users will want to upgrade (in Windows, select About Firefox from the Help menu; on a Mac, select About Firefox from the Firefox menu), especially if they use Firefox on multiple devices and want to keep add-ons in sync among them.

But apart from the add-on sync, there's really nothing in this new version of Firefox to get anyone to switch from a competing browser. If Mozilla wants to combat its slowly shrinking market share, it's going to have to come up with something significantly better than Firefox 11.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

See more by Preston Gralla on Computerworld.com.

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