Mozilla ships Metro Firefox beta for Windows 8

On track to deliver final of 'Firefox for Windows 8 Touch' two years after development started

Mozilla yesterday launched a beta version of its touch-enabled Firefox browser for Windows 8 and 8.1, fulfilling a promise to put the application on the road to a final release next month.

Saddled with the name "Firefox for Windows 8 Touch," the browser shipped late Thursday as part of Firefox 28 Beta, one of the three build channels Mozilla maintains. The others, Aurora and Release, are rougher pre-beta and more polished final versions, respectively.

According to Mozilla's six-week schedule, Firefox 28 will ship in Release form on March 18. There's no guarantee that the new touch-enabled browser will be part of that promotion, however.

Earlier this year, Mozilla announced that it had again delayed Firefox for Windows 8 and 8.1's "Metro" user interface (UI). That UI, one of two in Microsoft's latest OS, relies on colorful tiles, mobile-style apps and touch as the preferred input method. The other UI in Windows 8's two-headed beast is the traditional desktop, where keyboard and mouse are required.

Mozilla started work on a Metro edition of Firefox in March 2012. It shipped a preview in October 2012, several weeks before Microsoft launched Windows 8. At that time, Mozilla's schedule said the Firefox app might appear as early as January 2013. That ambitious timetable was revised several times; last September, Mozilla added the Metro-UI browser to Firefox's Aurora channel, pegging the release to late January 2014, which too was shelved.

If Mozilla makes the March 18 release, it will have spent two years crafting the browser, which will have shipped 17 months after the retail debut of Windows 8 and 5 months after the appearance of Windows 8.1.

Although Mozilla considered naming the Metro browser as "Firefox Touch," that was discarded, perhaps because some developers thought it would confuse users of the Android edition, which also relies on touch and gestures.

Because of a dispensation from Microsoft, browser makers like Mozilla can craft a Metro-ized browser and package it with their traditional desktop application; there's no need for Mozilla, Google and others to distribute their Metro browsers through the Windows Store, Microsoft's app store answer to Google Play and Apple's App Store.

That led to some corner cutting by Google, which first previewed Chrome for Metro in June 2012. The app, however, flouted Microsoft's Metro design guidelines. The most recent version of Metro Chrome, which shipped three weeks ago, went even further, turning the app into a pseudo-Chrome OS subversion of the entire Metro mode, with the ability to open multiple browser windows; run Chrome apps such as Any.DO and Pocket; and manage a taskbar that's automatically populated with icons for YouTube, Gmail and other Google services.

Because Mozilla followed Microsoft's rules, or tried to, its developers cast their Metro app as, if not better than Chrome on the UI, at least not competing head-to-head against Google's work.

"Essentially Chrome does not have a Metro-style browser, and are instead using the immersive environment for a completely different purpose," said Matt Brubeck, the lead engineer on the Firefox Metro front-end team, in a January message on a Mozilla discussion thread. "They are not even using the Metro edge gestures or charms for any useful purpose. This is interesting to us because Chrome is now clearly not a direct competitor to Firefox for Metro -- they don't offer what we offer, nor vice-versa."

Ironically, just about the time Mozilla ships Firefox for Windows 8 Touch, Microsoft will be well on its way to releasing a second round of changes to the OS that deemphasizes the touch UI and reinstates several more features that it yanked from the desktop mode.

Microsoft is expected to deliver Windows 8.1 Update 1, a set of tweaks for the refresh of Windows 8, on April 8.

Mozilla called out some of the features in Firefox for Windows 8 Touch in a blog post yesterday.

Also this week, Mozilla shipped the Release version of Firefox 27 for the desktop, patching 15 security vulnerabilities, a third of them rated "critical," the company's most serious threat ranking.

Firefox 27 added integration support for another pair of services -- Delicious and Saavin, the latter a popular music streaming service in India -- as it continues a push to separate it from rivals like Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE), Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari. The browser also switched on default support for TLS 1.1 and TLS 1.2 (Transport Layer Security), the successors to the SSL (Secure Socket Layer) encryption protocol, and added support for the latest edition of SPDY (pronounced speedy), the Google-designed latency-reducing standard that all major browsers except Safari now incorporate.

Windows, Mac and Linux editions of Firefox 27 can be downloaded from Mozilla's site; already installed copies will upgrade automatically. Users of Firefox for Android can retrieve the update from the Google Play store. The latter sports support for several additional languages, including Lithuanian, Slovenian and Thai; enables TLS 1.1 and 1.2 by default; and boasts navigation and user experience (UX) improvements.

Firefox 28 Beta, which on Windows 8 and 8.1 includes Firefox for Windows 8 Touch, can also be downloaded from Mozilla's website.

The next version of Firefox is scheduled to ship March. 18. The version after that -- Firefox 29 is slated to show up April 29 -- may debut the new Australis UI that Mozilla has been working on since May 2012.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com..

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