Firefox 48 beta brings 'largest change ever' thanks to 'Electrolysis'

Browser to split into a UI process and a content process, with secure sandboxes to come

Firefox 48 entered beta this week, complete with a feature called “Electrolysis” that Mozilla bills as “the largest change we’ve ever made to Firefox.”

Electrolysis will see Mozilla “split Firefox into a UI process and a content process.” Long-time Firefox developer Asa Dotzler explains that “Splitting UI from content means that when a web page is devouring your computer’s processor, your tabs and buttons and menus won’t lock up too.”

Which sounds handy for those who keep plenty of Tabs open, or who run chunky web apps in an active tab and want their browser to sing.

Electrolysis, aka “E10S”, has been beta-tested and passed all tests, but Firefox's developers nonetheless think the magnitude of the changes means a staged rollout is needed once Firefox 48 reaches its final version about six weeks from now.

First, about one per cent of Firefox 48 users will get Electrolysis. Dotzler says that will create a user population about the same size as Firefox's beta testers who already use E10S. With comparably-sized groups both running the code, Firefox folks can conduct useful comparisons between the two groups. If data derived from that experiment suggests its safe and sensible to allow more users to access E10S, Firefox folk will “turn the knobs so that the rest of the eligible Firefox users get updated to E10S over the following weeks.”

“If we run into issues, we can slow the roll-out, pause it, or even disable E10sS for those who got it. We have all the knobs,” Dotzler writes.

There's already a roadmap for E10S that will see Mozillans work on support for multiple content processes and then “sandboxing for security, and isolating extensions into their own processes.”

If nothing else, E10S shows there's still lots of useful tweaks to be made to web browsers, a field in which Microsoft's also made recent strides with its Edge offering.

If you can't wait six weeks for E10S and want new Firefox fun ASAP, version 47 landed today. The headline features are more support for HTML5 video. YouTube will now play in HTML5 if Flash is not present. Other video streaming services can now also play in HTML5.

You can also “View and search open tabs from your smartphone or another computer in a sidebar.”

An unlucky thirteen security fixes have been made, and the ability to whitelist plugins has been excised. ®

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