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Original author: 
Peter Bright

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In a bid to make JavaScript run ever faster, Mozilla has developed asm.js. It's a limited, stripped down subset of JavaScript that the company claims will offer performance that's within a factor of two of native—good enough to use the browser for almost any application. Can JavaScript really start to rival native code performance? We've been taking a closer look.

The quest for faster JavaScript

JavaScript performance became a big deal in 2008. Prior to this, the JavaScript engines found in common Web browsers tended to be pretty slow. These were good enough for the basic scripting that the Web used at the time, but it was largely inadequate for those wanting to use the Web as a rich application platform.

In 2008, however, Google released Chrome with its V8 JavaScript engine. Around the same time, Apple brought out Safari 4 with its Nitro (née Squirrelfish Extreme) engine. These engines brought something new to the world of JavaScript: high performance achieved through just-in-time (JIT) compilation. V8 and Nitro would convert JavaScript into pieces of executable code that the CPU could run directly, improving performance by a factor of three or more.

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Original author: 
Chris Welch

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In an effort to showcase the potential of browser-based gaming, Mozilla has teamed with Epic Games to bring the developer's Unreal Engine 3 to browsers — with no need for any plugins. To accomplish such a feat, Mozilla put together a "highly-optimized" version of JavaScript. Porting Epic's hugely popular engine to the browser took only four days, according to the below video. That doesn't make the result any less impressive, however: Unreal Engine 3 appears to run smoothly with nary a hiccup or stutter in sight. "With this port, developers will soon be able to explore limitless possibilities when it comes to porting their popular gaming titles to the web," reads a blog post at Mozilla. Both companies say performance resembles that of a...

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Conversat.io, simple video chat in your browser.
Image: Screenshot/Webmonkey.

WebRTC is changing the web, making possible things which just a few short months ago would have been not just impossible, but nearly unthinkable. Whether it’s a web-based video chat that requires nothing more than visiting a URL, or sharing files with your social networks, WebRTC is quickly expanding the horizons of what web apps can do.

WebRTC is a proposed standard — currently being refined by the W3C — with the goal of providing a web-based set of tools that any device can use to share audio, video and data in real time. It’s still in the early stages, but WebRTC has the potential to supplant Skype, Flash and many device-native apps with web-based alternatives that work on any device.

Cool as WebRTC is, it isn’t always the easiest to work with, which is why the Mozilla Hacks blog has partnered with developers at &yet to create conversat.io, a demo that shows off a number of tools designed to simplify working with WebRTC.

Conversat.io is a working group voice chat app. All you need to do is point your WebRTC-enabled browser to the site, give your chat room a name and you can video chat with up to 6 people — no logins, no joining a new service, just video chat in your browser.

Currently only two web browsers support the WebRTC components necessary to run conversat.io, Chrome and Firefox’s Nightly Channel (and you’ll need to head to about:config in Firefox to enable the media.peerconnection.enabled preference). As such, while conversat.io is a very cool demo, WebRTC is in its infancy and working with it is sometimes frustrating — that’s where the libraries behind the demo come in.

As &yet’s Henrik Joreteg writes on the Hacks blog, “the purpose of conversat.io is two fold. First, it’s a useful communication tool…. Second, it’s a demo of the SimpleWebRTC.js library and the little signaling server that runs it, signalmaster.”

Both tools, which act as wrappers for parts of WebRTC, are designed to simplify the process of writing WebRTC apps — think jQuery for WebRTC. Both libraries are open source (MIT license) and available on GitHub for tinkering and improving.

If you’d like to learn more about SimpleWebRTC and signalmaster and see some example code, head on over to the Mozilla Hacks blog for the full details.

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Collusion for Chrome

Disconnect, the team behind privacy extensions like Facebook, Twitter, and Google Disconnect, has traditionally focused on stopping sites from sending your data back to social networks and other collection entities. These sites, however, aren't the only ones getting information from your browsing, and a new Disconnect tool, "Collusion for Chrome," will chart a map of where exactly your clicks are going.

That name ought to sound familiar — it's the same as an experimental Firefox extension that Mozilla created several weeks ago. On Firefox, Collusion opens a new, almost blank tab. As you browse, the tab adds a circle for each site, then sniffs out where that data is going. Within a few clicks, you're likely to have a tangled web linked...

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Mozilla has teamed up with Web design studio Little Workshop to develop a Web-based multiplayer adventure game called BrowserQuest. The game is built with standards-based Web technologies and is designed to be played within a Web browser.

With the technical capabilities offered by the latest standards, Web developers no longer have to rely on plugins to create interactive multimedia experiences and application-like user interfaces. As we reported earlier this month, modern standards are making the Web an increasingly viable platform for game development.

BrowserQuest, which is built with JavaScript and HTML5, is a compelling demonstration of how existing standards can be used to create browser games. It uses the HTML5 Canvas element to render a tile-based 2D world, HTML5 audio APIs to support sound effects, WebSockets to facilitate communication with the backend server, and localStorage to save the player's progress.

The game's remote backend, which enables the real-time multiplayer gameplay, was coded in JavaScript and runs on top of Node.js. The load is balanced across multiple Node.js instances on three separate severs. At the time this story was written, the backend was successfully handling over 1,900 simultaneous players. The status of the BrowserQuest backend can be monitored through the game's real-time dashboard interface.

The developers focused on using widely-supported standards so that the game would work well across a wide range of desktop and mobile browsers. It works just as well on a tablet device, for example, as it does on a desktop computer.

The future looks even brighter, as there are a number of pending Web standards that will greatly enhance support for building games on the Web in the future. Features like 3D graphics and support for game controller peripherals, for example, could eventually take the browser beyond the realm of casual gaming. You can refer to Mozilla's wiki to see an overview of the work that the organization is doing to improve browser-based gaming. For more details about BrowserQuest, see the Mozilla Hacks blog or check out the backend server code on GitHub.

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The new 3-D Inspector: Your pages, in three dimensions.

Mozilla has released Firefox 11, adding some new developer tools, support for the SPDY protocol and the ability to sync your add-ons between computers.

This release is not recommended for drummers, but everyone else can grab Firefox 11 from the official Firefox download page, or you can just wait for the automated update system to work its magic.

The big news in this release is the new add-on syncing tool. Firefox Sync has long handled syncing bookmarks, preferences, passwords, history and open tabs across computers, but until now syncing add-ons was an entirely manual process. Add-on syncing has been a feature request for Firefox Sync pretty much since syncing was announced in 2010, but until to day it wasn’t available.

If you’d like to include add-ons in the list of items synced, just open up Firefox’s preference panel, head to the sync tab and check the new add-ons option.

Firefox 11 also has some new features for web developers, including the Tilt 3-D code inspector. Derived from the Tilt plug-in, the 3-D code inspector is a WebGL-based visualization of the page’s DOM and HTML structure. When you select “inspect element” Firefox will bring up a breadcrumb-style menu bar at the bottom of the page. In Firefox 11 you’ll find that a new button “3D” has joined the HTML and Style buttons in the page inspector menu bar.

This release adds a new Style Editor to Firefox’s developer toolkit. The Style Editor offers a two-pane view for browsing all of a webpage’s styles, both inline and external stylesheets. The right-hand pane displays the styles as plain text (with syntax highlighting), while the left pane shows the list of all your style sources. Make changes to the stylesheet and your changes are reflected on the webpage in real time. When you’ve got things looking the way you’d like you can then save the modified stylesheet.

If the new developer features convince you to switch back from Chrome, you’ll be glad to know that Firefox can now migrate your bookmarks, history, and cookies directly from Google Chrome.

Other new features in Firefox 11 include preliminary support for SPDY, Google’s alternative to the ubiquitous HTTP protocol. SPDY, pronounced “speedy,” isn’t quite ready for prime time yet in Firefox and is disabled by default. But if you’d like to test it out (Twitter is using SPDY where possible, as is Google) head to about:config and set network.http.spdy.enabled to true.

With Firefox 11 officially released, Firefox 12 moves to the beta channel and Firefox 13 to the Aurora channel. As of this writing, those channels don’t appear to have been updated just yet, but if you’re using either expect an update to arrive in the next day or two.

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Standards-based open Web technologies are increasingly capable of delivering interactive multimedia experiences; the kind that used to only be available through plugins or native applications. This trend is creating new opportunities for gaming on the Web.

New standards are making it possible for Web applications to implement 3D graphics, handle input from gamepad peripherals, capture and process audio and video in real-time, display graphical elements in a fullscreen window, and use threading for parallelization. Support for mobile gaming has also gotten a boost from features like device orientation APIs and improved support for handling touchscreen interaction.

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Photo: Vinoth Chandar/Flickr/CC

Ever wonder who’s tracking your online movements — watching the sites you visit, the links you click and the items you buy? Unless you’ve already taken active steps to stop the tracking, the answer is just about everyone.

Privacy advocates have been working to help raise awareness of the extent to which we are all tracked online. Browser makers like Mozilla have also been working to make consumers aware of what’s happening behind the scenes on the web. Mozilla created and popularized the Do Not Track header, which has now been adopted by all the major browsers. Firefox’s parent company also recently showed off its Collusion add-on as part of the TED 2012 conference.

Collusion is a Firefox add-on that helps you see exactly who is tracking your movements online. It doesn’t stop sites from tracking you, but after Collusion shows you what happens when you browse the web without any tracking protection, you’ll probably want to find something that can stop sites from tracking you.

Not all web tracking is bad. Some services rely on user data to function. For example, if you use Facebook and want to use the company’s ubiquitous Like buttons, Facebook needs to set cookies and keep track of who you are. The problem Mozilla wants to address with Collusion is the fact that most tracking happens without users’ knowledge or consent.

The screenshot below shows the number of websites Collusion found tracking me after I visited the top five most tracker-filled websites according to Privacy Score, namely The Drudge Report, El Paso Times, ReadWriteWeb, TwitPic and Merriam Webster. As a result of visiting just those five sites, according to Collusion, a total of 21 sites were made aware of my visit.

Collusion visualizes who's tracking your web browsing.

That sounds bad, and it is, but it may not even be the full picture. For comparison’s sake I loaded the same five sites and used the Do Not Track Plus add-on, which counted 47 sites with tracking bugs. Want another number? I repeated the test using the Ghostery add-on, which blocked 37 unique sites looking to track me. The variation in number of tracking elements detected is due to several factors, including what each system considers tracking. (Collusion for example, does not seem to count analytics or social buttons, while the others do.)

Even at the low end the numbers remain startling. Visiting five websites means somewhere between 21 and 47 other websites learn about your visit to those five.

If the extent of tracking bothers you there are some steps you can take to stop the tracking. The first would be to head to your browser preferences and turn off third-party cookies. Unfortunately, while that’s a step in the right direction (and you won’t lose any functionality the way you might with the rest of these solutions), some less scrupulous advertisers, including Google, have been caught circumventing this measure.

For a more complete solution you’ll need to use an add-on like Ghostery or Do Not Track Plus, both of which are available for most web browsers. The chief drawback to both of these solutions is that you may lose some functionality. To stick with the Facebook example used earlier, if Ghostery is blocking Facebook scripts then you won’t be able to use Like buttons. Fortunately both Ghostery and Do Not Track Plus allow you to customize which sites are blocked. I recommend blocking everything and then when you encounter something that isn’t working, click the Do Not Track Plus icon and edit the blocking options to allow, for example, Facebook so that Like buttons work (or Disqus so that comments work, etc.). That way you remain protected from the vast majority of invisible tracking, but can still enjoy the web services you choose to trust.

One final note about Webmonkey.com: There are 11 external scripts on this page. Four of them are for the social network buttons at the bottom of most posts. A fifth is for the Disqus comments system. There are also two analytics scripts, one from Google and one from Omniture. In addition to those seven functional scripts there are four ad network scripts from Brightcove, DoubleClick, Omniture and Lotame. (I can’t actually tell for sure what Lotame does, but it definitely collects data.) If you install the add-ons above Webmonkey will not be able to track you. If you don’t, it, like the rest of the web, will.

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