Chrome hasn’t been out for even a month and already features are starting to creep into the road maps of other browsers.

I have to admit I installed Chrome (in order to create some Techrepublic content for it) and kicked the tires. And even more so I have to admit I was impressed with the beta offering from Google. It had a lot of issues (primarily that of CPU/Memory consumption), but it also had a lot of really great features. One feature, Incognito, really piqued my interest. This browsing mode basically didn’t leave a trace of your browsing. Naturally the computing world latched onto this, and now Firefox is planning on adding a Privacy Mode to the 3.1 release.

What really surprised me about this was when I discovered that Firefox is the last of all the major browsers to have a privacy mode. This took me off guard because, well, this is a feature that speaks to geeks in their native tongue…privacy. So why did it take so long? For a browser that claims to lead the pack on features, how could they overlook something like this? It turns out the privacy mode was supposed to be included in version 3.0 but it just didn’t make the final cut when all was said and done. Safari has enjoyed a privacy mode since as early as June 2007. Chrome followed suit on its beta release in September 2008. Internet explorer will release IE8 beta 2 with a privacy mode. And then along comes Firefox.

I’ve always bragged about how Firefox is always ahead of the curve when it comes to features. But this time it’s behind. Of course that doesn’t mean that the Firefox privacy mode won’t win a game of “anything you can do, I can do better” with the other browsers. In fact, look at the proposed privacy mode features:

  • Discard all cookies acquired during the private session.
  • Not record sites visited to the browser’s history.
  • Not auto-fill passwords, and not prompt the user to save passwords.
  • Remove all downloads done during the session from the browser’s download manager.

That list pretty much follows in the tracks of the others. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing that says, “Firefox one-upped the competition yet again.”

But I guess we can’t always expect Firefox to stay ahead of the curve. There are going to be moments when our favorite open source browser gets caught with its proverbial pants down. And I supposed we should just be happy that this feature is finally going to arrive. Now Firefox users won’t have to worry so much when browsing on a public machine…so long as those administering the public browsers allow privacy mode to be active.

Ultimately though I am wondering why Firefox was caught lagging behind with this particular feature. As I said, the dev team wanted this feature in 3.0 but during a meeting on January 23, 2008, they realized there were too many major bugs that had to be dealt with before adding a new feature. This was probably smart. Instead of taking the Microsoft route of tossing in new features before the old features were solid, Firefox opted for the high road.

Of course, in the true open source fashion, there are ways. Take for instance the Stealther extension for Firefox. This extension adds some of the privacy features that the privacy mode will add. And this extension came to life September 29th, 2005. So maybe Firefox wasn’t as far behind as I initially thought. Maybe, just maybe, the whole privacy mode browsing was born (from the other browsers) from this one extension that has been bringing a modicum of privacy to Firefox for nearly three years.

It seems there are a lot of features (in various guises) that can be traced back to earlier open source inspirations. But open source really falls short with PR. The open source community develops something great and either Microsoft or Apple (and now Google) steals it and spins it with their great PR and marketing so it seems as if the open source community is playing catch-up once again.

It is my opinion that the open source community needs a much louder voice. And with this louder voice it needs to do a much better job of patting itself on the back so features like stealth browsing can be credited to the right group or person (in this case, Filip Bozic).

So, is Firefox really playing catch up? Or is this yet another shining example of bigger companies playing “stealth mode” with the truth? Will we ever know?

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