HOUSTON -- Don't look now, but the third volley in the second browser war is about to be fired, and it's packing an impressive payload.
Mozilla, the folks developing the Firefox Web browser, has released a beta version of Firefox 3.0 that is solid enough to become your main browser right now, even before it is formally finished.
Not only does it seem to be very stable, but it fixes several problems that bothered Firefox 2.0 users.
For those unfamiliar with Firefox, it is an open-source project derived from the original Netscape browser. It has steadily gained in popularity since its initial release in late 2004, making inroads into the market share of Microsoft Corp.'s dominant Internet Explorer browser.
Mozilla released Firefox 2 in October 2006 and added a slew of new features, including spell checking, session restore after a crash, improved tabbed browsing and security enhancements. Although it got mostly rave reviews, users began to complain about its size and speed.
While the original Firefox was promoted as a lean alternative to IE, version 2.0 suffered from "feature creep." It also continued to have a problem that afflicted the browser from the beginning.
The longer you run Firefox during a computing session, the more memory it consumes. Its developers have said this is a feature that makes the browser faster when switching between tabs or paging back and forth. But over time, it bogs Firefox down, and it eventually becomes painfully slow. The only fix is to close the browser and restart it.
I don't know whether Firefox 3.0 has completely fixed this issue - its developers say more than 350 memory leaks have been plugged - but I do know that the new browser uses a lot less memory.
It also starts up and displays pages faster than version 2.0.
Users of the Windows and Linux versions of Firefox 3.0 will notice only a few changes to the way the browser looks.
There's a new back/forward button that looks like a sideways keyhole in the Windows version, the Home button has been moved to a row of shortcut buttons below the navigation toolbar, and the look of the icons has been tweaked a bit.
Anyone moving to this version from earlier Firefox releases won't be thrown for as much of a loop as were Internet Explorer users when IE7 got a major face-lift compared with IE6.
Users of the Mac OS X version will see a completely different look. It is packaged with a new theme, called Proto, which gives it the smooth, gray look common to the Mac OS X Leopard's native applications. In fact, Proto makes Firefox look a lot like Safari, the browser that comes bundled with the Mac.
One of the most intriguing new features is Places, aka the Library, which is a combined bookmarks and history manager.
It makes it easy to search bookmarks and history quickly, and from a single search field.
This is great for users who forget to bookmark sites regularly, making it easier to rely on history as a kind of auto-bookmarker.
While I think Firefox 3 is enough of an improvement that most users can use it now, there are a few caveats.
As is always the case with new versions of Firefox, any extensions, themes and add-ons you have in version 2.0 likely won't work in 3.0.
Add-on developers are quick to bring their wares up to speed once the final version is out, but be prepared to do without them for a while if you download this.
Also, while it is possible for Firefox 2.0 and 3.0 to coexist on the same computer, you'll want to make sure you install the beta into a separate folder (or, in the case of the Mac, rename the program to something else).
Mozilla plans to release one more beta, then will begin issuing release candidates of Firefox 3, with a final release coming this spring.
You can download them at www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox /all-beta.