Mozilla on Tuesday upgraded Firefox to version 89, debuting a new look that the company said is “designed to win you back” to the open-source browser.
The organization’s engineers also patched nine vulnerabilities, two of those labeled “High,” Firefox’s second-most-serious label. Three of the nine were found only in the Android edition of the browser, while another was only in the Windows edition’s code. None were marked “Critical,” the most dire flaw category.
Firefox 89 can be downloaded for Windows, macOS, and Linux from Mozilla’s site. Because Firefox updates in the background, most users can relaunch the browser to install the latest version. To manually update on Windows, 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.” (On macOS, “About Firefox” can be found under the “Firefox” menu.) The resulting page or pop-up shows that the browser is already up to date or displays the upgrade process.
(Note: Firefox’s new background update process, which Mozilla outlined in mid-April and was slated to appear in version 89, has not been enabled in the Stable build issued June 1. At this point, it looks like the change is now slated for Firefox 90.)
The big news of Firefox 89 is the new look, a seriously-tweaked user interface (UI) that had gone by the code name of “Proton.” Mozilla touted it as a significant overhaul of the browser’s “face” that users see when they fire up the application.
“We’ve redesigned and modernized the core experience to be cleaner, more inviting, and easier to use,” Mozilla said in 89’s release notes. In a much more detailed explainer on Proton’s changes, M.J. Kelly, a member of Mozilla’s marketing team, said that the refit is the result of studying “how people interact with the browser,” listening to feedback and collecting “ideas from regular people who just want to have an easier experience on the web.”
The most noticeable difference in the Proton UI is the tab bar, where open tabs are displayed. Mozilla went with a “floating” tab bar that is visually disconnected from the rendered page by virtue of two changes: First, the tab bar has moved to atop the browser frame so that the address bar intervenes, and second, there are no visual separators — say, a vertical line — to mark where one tab ends and another begins. Only when a tab is active — it’s been selected by the user — does it pop from the background of the tab bar. The result is a significant departure from traditional browser-tab UIs, such as seen in Google’s Chrome or even Apple’s Safari. (Only Microsoft’s Edge, which relies on a vertical display of tabs at the left side of the browser frame, is as much of a deviation from the usual.)
Some commentators have panned the new tab UI in Firefox; there’s no doubt it will jar many. But once accepted — and that may be instantaneous for some — it seems, “feels” if you wish, more streamlined, more up-to-date, more logical even.
Mozilla also toned down the address field-containing toolbar by getting rid of some of the accumulated-over-years clutter; rearranged and condensed some menus, including the three-horizontal-line main menu at the far right; and removed some notifications and reduced the on-screen size of others, this last in the hope of “less jarring interruptions.”
Private Browsing gets Total Cookie Protection
The other substantial change to Firefox 89 was more of setting a default than creating something from whole cloth. “The popular Total Cookie Protection moves from the optional strict setting to always-on in private browsing,” wrote Mozilla’s Kelly in her June 1 post.
Total Cookie Protection, which Mozilla rolled out in February as part of Firefox 86, confines cookies to the site where they were created, preventing tracking companies from using these cookies to follow a user’s browsing footprints from one site to another, then on to yet others. The anti-tracking technology was available from Firefox 86 on, but only when users set the browser’s Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP) to the “Strict” option. (ETP is the umbrella label for all of Firefox’s protections.)
With Firefox 89, Mozilla has extended Total Cookie Protection by default to all Private Browsing windows, the don’t-record-browsing-history mode manually-triggered from the main menu (select “New Private Window”).
Mozilla was proud, not necessarily of the one-off of adding Total Cookie Protection, but of all that its privacy mode nullified. “With the addition of Total Cookie Protection, Firefox’s Private Browsing windows have the most advanced privacy protections of any major browser’s private browsing mode,” Arthur Edelstein, senior product manager for Firefox privacy and security, said in a Tuesday post to Mozilla’s security blog.
Elsewhere in the browser, the “Take Screenshot” feature has been added to contextual menus — the ones that appear after right-clicking the mouse or touchpad — for easier access. Take Screenshot can also be added to the toolbar as an icon.
Shane, come back!
Mozilla couldn’t have put it plainer: Firefox 89 was redesigned in the hope of coaxing deserters to return to the browser.
“We’re always excited when a new Firefox launches, and when it comes to this major redesign, we’re even more stoked for you to experience it,” she wrote. “If you left Firefox behind at some point, this modern approach … is designed to win you back and make it your go-to browser.”
Firefox could use a boost.
The browser’s share of the overall market, as measured by U.S. analytics firm Net Applications, has continued to fall. (Although Net Applications announced last year that it was halting its measurements of browser and operating system activity, it has continued to publish data.) At the end of May, Firefox’s share was 6.3%, down a full percentage point from the same time the year before. If that trend continues, Firefox may slip into the 5% range as early as August.
Firefox’s decline in browser share has been Mozilla’s most troublesome problems for years now. Other attempts to reverse the trend, including the 2017 renovation issued as Firefox 57 and dubbed “Quantum,” have failed to arrest the slide in share. Mozilla had been bullish over Quantum — and its then-new Photon UI — as well, with one executive saying, “It’s by far the biggest update we’ve had since we launched Firefox 1.0 in 2004, it’s just flat out better in every way.”
At that point — November 2017 — Firefox’s usage share was 11.4%, only slightly less than twice what it was at the end of May 2021.
The next version of Mozilla’s browser, Firefox 90, will be released June 29.