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Software & Web Development

Firefox Test Pilot lets you try cutting-edge features without breaking your browser

Firefox users no longer need to an unstable version of the web browser to test the latest experimental features.

With a new add-on called Test Pilot, users can choose from a few unpolished features to try, regardless of whether they’re using the stable, beta, or developer version of Firefox. Mozilla is promoting these features on the Firefox start page in the stable release of Firefox 46.

For now, Mozilla is testing three experimental features. Tab Center puts tabs on the side of the screen instead of the top, Universal Search recommends sites as you type in the address bar, and Activity Stream combines recent history and bookmarks with imagery from highlighted webpages.

A tab sidebar is one of Firefox’s latest experimental features.

As VentureBeat points out, Firefox users already had some ability to turn on experimental features through the about:config menu, but Test Pilot aims to be more user-friendly. Through the start page, Mozilla is putting test features in front of users instead of hiding them away, while explaining precisely how those features work. Mozilla will also collect usage data so it can decide whether to change, implement, or kill each experiment. (An earlier version of Test Pilot, from way back in 2009, was solely focused on data collection.)

Mozilla told VentureBeat that it doesn’t expect to run more than six experiments at a time, and that some future experiments may be relegated to non-stable versions of Firefox. As for what’s next in Test Pilot, the company mentioned a screenshot tool and a tie-in to Archive.org that helps with 404 errors.

Why this matters: Developing major new features can be a challenge for major web browsers, because it’s hard to know how ordinary users would respond to big changes and new approaches. That may explain why some of the most interesting work is happening in new browsers, such as Vivaldi, Alloy, and Microsoft Edge. Test Pilot is an interesting way to get fresh ideas in front of more users, without making them commit to beta or developer versions of Firefox that are buggier as a whole.

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