Firefox 46.0 Released

April 26, 2016, saw the official release of Firefox 46.0, the latest stable release of the popular open-source browser. As firefox is a mainstay of many Linux desktop distros, plenty of users will be keen to see how these changes will impact their favorite browser.

As is often the case, a number of the updates apply fixes to edge cases and obscure bugs that most users won't notice. Nevertheless, these fixes are important. But 46.0 isn't just about obscure bugs nobody cares about, it also brings a number of security and UI improvements that will be welcome to many GNU/Linux users.

This version of Firefox brings GTK3 integration, which the Linux world has been awaiting for some time. GTK3 is the widget toolkit that powers several popular desktop environments, including GNOME, Cinnamon, LXDE and Mate. Incorporating the same toolkit into the browser means tighter integration and better support for customization.

The change is not just cosmetic either. Older machines sometimes struggle to run multiple UI libraries at the same time, and browsers already are notorious memory hogs. Upgrading to 46.0 could make your browsing experience smoother and faster.

Security is a vital issue and one that often clashes with feature-rich applications. This is definitely true when it comes to Web sites and Web applications. Modern sites tend to be very JavaScript heavy, with rich interfaces that offer native-like performance. Unfortunately, allowing JavaScript code to execute in the browser opens a number of security weaknesses that clever cyber-criminals can exploit. And, that's one reason why many security-conscious users choose to deactivate JavaScript.

Mozilla has taken a step toward making JavaScript a more secure platform with a significant change to the way memory is allocated by the SpiderMonkey JavaScript compiler. The inner details of memory management are an arcane subject, so I won't cover that here. Let's just say that the old way of doing things made it possible for attackers to alter the code stored in memory and then execute their altered code. This would allow them to access data that should remain secure. Today, that attack vector has been closed, thanks to the work of Mozilla developer Jandem.

Other improvements include a fix for screen readers, which are used by people who have problems reading the text on the screen. This includes partially sighted and blind users. Screen readers can have problems making sense of the text and images on the screen, especially when the underlying Document Object Model is complex. Web applications like Google Docs often have a surprisingly complex DOM structure for what appears to be a simple page of text. This has caused problems for screen readers in the past, which would be confused by blank sections. Mozilla has fixed this issue, which will make life easier for Firefox users with screen readers.

Another improvement concerns Web RTC (real-time communications), a Web interface for live communications between Web browsers. Web RTC is an essential component of Web applications that interact with the Webcam and microphone. This includes a number of VOIP and video communication apps. These will benefit from the efforts of Mozilla's developers, who have significantly improved the stability of Web RTC in Firefox.

Front-end Web developers will be pleased to know that Firefox 46.0 fixes a long-standing bug that caused rendering artifacts for scaled SVG images. This bug was particularly bad when the SVG included a mask. Now that the bug is fixed, Web designers and front-end devs will be able to use SVGs for more ambitious projects.

Finally, Mozilla also is releasing a beta version of Firefox 47, so we can get a glimpse of the future.

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