New Firefox brings browser comms

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New Firefox brings browser comms

Firefox 22 has arrived with WebRTC, a technology that integrates audio and video directly into the browser.

Web Real-Time Communications (WebRTC) allows developers to add video and voice calls and file-sharing to websites with a few lines of code, without the user installing any software or plugins. Mozilla first showed off the technology earlier this year, but it's now enabled by default in the browser.

"It’s basically audio, video and peer-to-peer data transfer over the web," Johnathan Nightingale, vice-president of Firefox engineering, told PC Pro.

For example, WebRTC would allow a website to snap a profile photo or use the computer's microphone - with permission from the user, because this is privacy-conscious Mozilla. "Your operating system can do that, but for websites that was hard to do," said Nightingale. "You could use a Flash plugin to do it, but that’s not going on work on mobile phones. All of this stuff was really hard to do – but now it’s really easy."

Of course, video calling is already available online. "Skype and Facetime are using the internet as their backbone, but they’re happening in these little boxes," he said.

"Skype is just Skype, Facetime is just for calling people on Facetime, and if you’ve got an Android device, you just don't get to play," he noted, adding that when Mozilla sees a popular technology being "controlled by a small number of implementations, that's when we tend to pounce" and develop a way for it to be available for everyone.

He noted that WebRTC goes much further than audio and video calling. "You could be having an IM conversation using any service, and say 'you know what, let’s just upgrade this to video', and click a button and add video to it," he said. "You could be in some web-based game and say 'hey maybe we should have a picture-in-picture chat box in the corner'."

"The versatility is not just that you can have Skype inside of a web page now, it’s that I can add audio and video and data transfer to any application that I’ve already got," he added. "We’re not sure all the places web developers will take this, but we know that every time we give developers a new tool, they amaze us with all the things they’re capable of doing with it."

Firefox 22 also includes new high-performance application tools, to support 3D games. The "asm.js" JavaScript subset helps Firefox offer 3D within a "striking distance of native" performance, he said.

Regular updates

Firefox switched to its six-weekly release cycle in 2011 with Firefox 5, and has already jumped to version 22.

Nightingale said the faster update cycle was "working really very well".

"We made that move after Firefox 4, and given the pace we had at the time, and how long it took us to get one of these gigantic releases out there, that if we hadn't made that change, we’d probably be at Firefox 5, maybe Firefox 6," he said. "And that’s brutally slow by today’s standards."

"The trade off is that every new release has incremental change," he said, but that does mean new features roll out more quickly. "The idea of sitting and waiting on those... that would be really tragic, as far as we’re concerned."

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