Mozilla released Firefox 4: 1M downloads in 3 hours

Firefox 4 got off to a strong start today, with 1 million copies of the new browser downloaded in the first three hours.

If it keeps up the early pace, Firefox 4 will easily beat Microsoft’s claim that users downloaded 2.4 million copies of its Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) in the first 24 hours of availability last week.

Although Firefox 4′s out-of-the-gate download tally was impressive, Mozilla executive Mike Beltzner said that it was behind the launch numbers of Firefox 3.6, which shipped in January 2010. During the first three hours, downloads averaged between 5,000 and 6,000 copies per minute, less than half the 12,000-per-minute pace of the previous version.

With this release, the open-source browser achieves all essential features common with the latest generation of web-browsers that include Google Chrome 10+ and Microsoft Internet Explorer 9, which are: HTML5 support, and GPU-accelerated webpage drawing. Apart from being a lot faster than Firefox 3.6, the new browser sports a completely new user interface that shifts tabs to the titlebar, shifts menus to a “Firefox” button, and consolidates the address bar, search bar, and navigation buttons into a single line, which it refers to as the “Awesome Bar”. Apart from a new bookmark manager, Firefox lets you group tabs to streamline multitasking on the browser.

At around 9 a.m. PT Beltzner noted that it was just the start of the day on the west coast of the U.S., and noon on the east. He encouraged users to hit Mozilla’s download servers.

“What better way to spend your break than by downloading Firefox 4,” said Beltzner during a live Webcast hosted by Mozilla.

Mozilla has posted a real-time download calculatoron its site.

Firefox 4 is based on the Gecko 2.0 Web platform. This release features JavaScript execution speeds up to six times faster than the previous version, new capabilities for Web Developers and Add-on Developers such as hardware accelerated graphics and HTML5 technologies, and a completely revised user interface.

When the new browser reached one million downloads, Mozilla developers and employees rang cowbells, cheered, and watched as someone dressed in a Firefox mascot costume danced around the room.

Tuesday’s release marked the end of more than a year of development by Mozilla, which issued the first “alpha” edition of the browser in February 2010. Firefox 4 was originally scheduled to ship last November, but bugs and other delays forced it to announce in October that it would instead wrap up development early this year.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HNDA7uufgY

Johnathan Nightingale, director of Firefox development at Mozilla, explained during a conversation last week at CNET’s San Francisco office that Mozilla is more concerned with the larger problem of why ads were targeted in the first place.

“Beyond blocking the ad loads, which you can do with add-ons, this is a business-social trust situation between sites and users. We need people to vote with their feet, or at least want to have that conversation. We’ve spoken to a lot of advertisers. And by and large, they want to be good citizens here,” Nightingale said. As a current solution, though, that makes users entirely dependent on advertiser behavior, which is likely to fall short of what people want.

The code designated as final today was identical to Firefox 4 Release Candidate 2 (RC2), a last-minute update that Mozilla issued last Friday.

Another security repair in Firefox 4 fixes a hole that affected all browsers until last summer–a vulnerability so old that it was mentioned in the documentation for CSS2 a decade ago. The exploit is a CSS sniffing history attack, in which malicious code can gain access to your browser history by manipulating link appearance and style. What made the bug so difficult to repair is that the simplest solution–to prevent all link style manipulation–would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, Nightingale had said in an interview at Black Hat 2010.

Mozilla’s Firefox 4 was the second major upgrade shipped by browser makers in just over a week. On March 14, Microsoft launched the final version of Internet Explorer 9 (IE9).

Firefox 4 features a new tab manager, dubbed “Panorama,” boasts an overhauled interface that resembles Chrome’s minimalist design, and supports GPU acceleration to boost page composition speeds.

Hardware acceleration has become a point of contention between Mozilla and Microsoft. The latter has touted IE9 as the only browser to “fully hardware accelerate the entire Web platform,” while Mozilla has criticized its rival for abandoning Windows XP users. IE9 runs only on Windows Vista and Windows 7.

Microsoft today again defended that decision.

“The developer community has been vocal that they want to push the Web forward,” a Microsoft spokesman said in an e-mail. “The browser is only as good as the operating system it runs on and a browser running on a ten-year-old operating system tethers the Web to the past. The time has come to stop focusing on lowest common denominator, and to really push what’s possible with innovations like full hardware acceleration.”

Some Mozilla developers have used stronger words to describe Microsoft’s argument that IE9 is the best browser on Windows.

“Microsoft’s message that IE9 is the apex of what a browser can do with the GPU is nonsense,” said Robert O’Callahan, a New Zealand employee of Novell who works full time on Mozilla’s graphics infrastructure. In a post to hispersonal blog, O’Callahan said, “Microsoft’s PR about ‘full hardware acceleration’ is a myth.”

Mozilla technology evangelist Asa Dotzler was even more blunt. “Microsoft, stop making bull**** claims about hardware acceleration,” Dotzler titled a post to his personal blog two weeks ago.

Users can download Firefox 4 for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux from Mozilla’s site.