Biggest browser news of 2014

There were a number of interesting, incremental changes relative to all three of the major browsers – Firefox, Chrome and Internet Explorer.

010515 browsers primary

Browsers

There were no earthshaking browser announcements in 2014, suggesting that the world of web browsers has entered a state of relative maturity. But there were a number of interesting, incremental changes relative to all three of the major browsers – Firefox, Chrome and Internet Explorer.

ALSO See a full list of Network World's stories looking back at 2014

010515 browsers 1

Mozilla launches touch version of Firefox for Windows 8… then kills it.


Firefox for Windows 8 Touch Beta launched on Feb. 7, and featured a start screen of big tiles with one-tap access to bookmarks. It was designed to integrate with the Windows 8 Modern UI for tablets and notebooks with touchscreens, such as incorporating pinch-and-zoom.

 Alas, on March 14, Mozilla killed further development of this only major challenger to the touch version of Internet Explorer, due to lack of interest from the public. Astonishingly, according to Mozilla, less than 1,000 people were using it.



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Mozilla sells ad space on Firefox start screen.

On Feb. 11, it was announced that Mozilla planned to turn the start screen of their browser into a kind of billboard. When a user runs Firefox for the first time, tiles presented in a newly opened tab link to content pre-selected by Mozilla, and can include those from ad sponsors (paid-for tiles are labeled as such). This money-raising move by Mozilla raised speculation about the financial state of the non-profit organization.

010515 browsers 3

Mozilla (reluctantly) adds DRM to Firefox.

Mozilla explained on March 14 why it decided to allow a DRM technology into their browser, which had also been implemented into other major browsers. (So Firefox can be used to view protected media streams, such as from Netflix.) In a lengthy blog post, the organization tried to “reconcile” this move in relation to their mission for supporting free-and-open web technologies, but all the words came down to: If we don’t add this, then Firefox users will probably ditch us for another browser.


010515 browsers 4

Firefox apps can be installed onto Android devices.

With the release of Firefox 29 beta for Android on March 20, Android users were able to install apps from the Firefox Marketplace. Firefox apps are web apps that are compatible across different OSs. Firefox takes these web apps and packages them so that they function similarly to a native Android app, even setting an app icon on the Android OS home screen. This technology was previously released to convert Firefox apps to work on Linux, OS X or Windows as if they’re native programs on these platforms.

010515 browsers 5

“Ok Google” and Google Now Cards come to Chrome for desktop.


Google incorporated into Chrome for desktop the two components of their personal digital assistant technology that were first implemented into the Android platform. On March 24, users of the desktop versions of Chrome (OS X and Windows) started receiving Google Now Cards -- note cards that provide updated personalized information like news, traffic and weather. “Ok Google” came to Chrome for desktop on May 21, which allows users to speak words to be searched on Google, or ask the search engine a question, or issue it a command, which will be answered by a female voice.

010515 browsers 6

Microsoft launches Internet Explorer Developer Channel.



On June 16, Microsoft released a “Developer Channel” version of Internet Explorer for the public to preview upcoming features for the browser. Unlike betas, IE DC is continually updated with the latest features, fixes and optimizations. This new system suggests Microsoft could drop version numbering for IE, adopting the same approach by the developers of Chrome and Firefox, where the current releases are not prominently referred to by version number.

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Google releases 64-bit version of Chrome

With the exception of Microsoft, there’s been reluctance by the major browser makers to fully commit to developing versions of their browsers for 64-bit processors, due to concerns over maintaining compatibility with their 32-bit counterparts, lack of resources (manpower, money, time), and debate over whether optimizing for 64-bit brings enough performance gain. Google, though, finally issued a Chrome stable release for Windows 64-bit systems on Aug. 26, citing benefits in speed, stability and security.



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Android apps come to Chrome for desktop.

On Sept. 11, Google released a few Android apps that also work on Chrome OS. Hackers then figured out how to make other Android apps function on the Chrome desktop browser. The practical reasons for running an Android app on the Chrome platform (Chrome or Chrome OS) isn’t entirely clear, but this did open up the means for developers to create apps that can work on both Google OSs.

010515 browsers 9

Mozilla dumps Google search for Yahoo search.



Mozilla announced on Nov. 19 that the default search engine for Firefox would no longer be Google’s, (at least in the US) but Yahoo’s. This was surprising considering that Google has been the default for Firefox since 2004 -- the partnership helped to fund the Mozilla organization’s operations (and development of Firefox). The agreement with Yahoo began in December and will last for five years.



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Firefox will come to iOS.


Mozilla teased on Dec. 2 that it was starting work to bring Firefox to iOS. They offered no details, other than that they are experimenting “with a couple of different concepts.” This raised an interesting technical issue: This means that Mozilla is willing to create a version of their browser which runs on the WebKit browser engine (the same one used by Safari). Apple doesn’t permit web browsers for iOS which use another rendering engine, including the one used by all current versions of Firefox, Gecko.