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Firefox 3 Alpha 5 Hits the Streets

Mozilla today made an early testing release of its Firefox 3 browser available for download, and this alpha version (code-named Gran Paradiso) for the first time adds the anticipated Places feature for bookmarks.

According to Mike Connor, director of Firefox development at Mozilla, the Places feature in Firefox 3 Alpha 5 represents the biggest upcoming change for the new browser version. With Places, your bookmarks and browsing history are stored in a SQLite database, which allows for better performance, more stability, and other features. (The previous alpha release implemented Places for browsing history.)

Places won't look much different initially, and in my brief look at the Gran Paradiso alpha, the user-facing portion of Places didn't appear to function any differently at all. "People with very large history or bookmark files will notice a big difference [in performance]," says Mike Connor, director of Firefox development at Mozilla. The database can be queried as needed, he says, rather than having to keep the full history or list of bookmarks in memory.

Going Places

Places will also be less likely to lose data in the event of program or Windows crashes. In fact, according to Connor, "We haven't figured out how to make Places lose data." For backwards compatibility and manual backups, Firefox 3 will save bookmarks in the traditional bookmarks.htm file when it closes.

For other bookmark upgrades, Mozilla is planning to enable bookmark tagging, and is considering building its own synchronization client into the browser capable of backing up and sharing bookmarks. Today, extensions from Foxmarks and can sync bookmarks; Connor says Mozilla is in talks with both groups to ensure their services continue to work with Firefox 3.

If you're thinking about trying the alpha, keep in mind that it's early testing software and not meant for everyday browsing. At a minimum, be sure to back up your bookmarks before installing it. The download is available from Mozilla.

Other Firefox 3 updates will include improvements to password handling, so that users won't be prompted to save credentials until after a successful login, and better add-on management, according to Connor. One change I had personally been hoping for, moving the downloads manager from a separate (and annoying) window to something more like an All-in-one Sidebar pane, probably won't make it into Firefox 3, he says. For a list of all the planned upgrades, see the Firefox 3 product requirements document.

These changes will no doubt please Mozilla fans, but don't get your hopes up for a radical step forward with the new Firefox 3, like the change from IE 6 to IE 7. Aside from Places and some support for offline caching, Mozilla doesn't have a "big killer feature" planned for the next Firefox, Connor says.

Instead, he promises, "It will all feel like an organic growth."