In recent weeks we’ve seen either major updates or new launches from a couple of significant sources of browser market share (namely Apple and Opera). Microsoft’s Internet Explorer is losing users at an accelerated pace. The market-leading browser’s share has dropped from around the 70% mark in 2008 to around 65% today. Most rivals are picking up a portion of what IE surrenders, with Firefox gaining at around 22%. Apple’s Safari approaches the next big hurdle with 7.93% and Chrome is sitting and watching at around 1.5%.

Opera remains stable at around 0.71%, but it is clear that the Norwegian browser cannot attract any users IE loses. Firefox’s continued success is likely encouraged by the perception of superior security and the availability of extensions and other user-driven enhancements. Firefox’s current market share growth rate is decent, but the release of Firefox 3.5 could potentially incite more significant market share increase this year.

Firefox 3.5 can be downloaded for free in Windows, Mac and Linux editions in 70 different languages from Mozilla’s site. Current users can update by choosing “Check for Updates” under the “Help” menu. The browser is based on Mozilla’s Gecko 1.9.1 rendering platform, which has been under development for the past year. At first glance the browser might not seem any different to the previous version, but it supports new Web technologies, and is even faster. Some might find it easier to use.

The biggest improvement is support for HTML 5’s video and audio elements, including native support for Ogg Theora encoded video and Vorbis encoded audio. Firefox now supports watching video and listening to music directly in a Web page – the page itself plays the video and includes AV controls. You can even download the video or audio by right-clicking and saving it. The caveat is that the elements have to be in the page itself, which means the developer has to code it that way. At the moment, there are very few pages that contain these kinds of video and audio elements.

The browser boasts improved tools for controlling your personal data and has better Web application performance using the new TraceMonkeyJavaScript engine. The ability to share your location with Web sites using Location Aware Browsing might appeal to some, but we’ll all dig support for downloadable fonts, CSS media queries, new transformations and properties, JavaScript query selectors, HTML 5 local storage and offline application storage, canvas text, ICC profiles, and SVG transforms.

Tab tearing is a neat new feature. Just like Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari, Firefox let you grab a tab and drag it out to create a new browser window. You can drag windows back into tabs again, and open any tab in a new window from the right-click menu, if clicking and dragging isn’t your style. If you accidentally close a tab you meant to keep open, Firefox can now bring it back – functionality that was previously available only through add-ons. Firefox 3.5 implements a restore feature for both tabs and windows from the History menu, and also restores any text you’ve typed into them. Firefox’s history browser offers a convenient ‘Forget this site’ option, erasing your browser’s memory of particular domains. It doesn’t cover subdomains and your network traffic and flash memory still hold some details, but it’s a handy tweak.

Mozilla has improved Firefox’s session restore feature into more of a crash recovery tool, allowing you to select which tabs should come back in the event of catastrophic failure. After all, what’s the point in bringing back all the tabs you just lost to a crash if the tab that brought everything down comes back too? Digital cameras, monitors, and capture devices display colours in different ways. On the Web, most colours look the same because they’re filtered and optimised for quick viewing in every browser. Firefox creates dynamic colour profiles for each picture, meaning that whatever the graphic designer or photographer saw when they published their work, you’ll see it on their Web pages.

Incognito surfers will appreciate private browsing mode. Colloquially referred to as ‘Porn Mode’ among tech journalists, private mode (Internet Explorer’s is called InPrivate Browsing) makes shopping online and checking e-mail a lot more secure. Basically, no history, no cookies, no temp files, no forms information, and no search information is stored. Nothing, in fact, that shows where you’ve browsed or what you’ve done. When Private Mode is activated, Firefox hides your existing tabs and launches a private browsing window. From here you browse the Web as normal.

Firefox 3.5 is a major improvement over Firefox 3, though casual users probably won’t notice any difference. For many people, the browser wars are all about one thing: speed. There’s no doubt that version 3.5 is faster than version 3, thanks to the new JavaScript engine, but it still frequently crashes – at least it does on my Vista machine running Flash-based sites. If you’re a Firefox user you should definitely upgrade. Personally, I prefer the simplicity and reliability of Google’s Chrome.

Considering Mozilla has been working on the browser for a year, it has already announced it will patch the 1-day-old Firefox 3.5 in the next few weeks to stamp out several bugs that went unfixed in the final version. This is typical of open-source software. Firefox 3.5.1, which Mozilla intends to deliver in mid-to-late July, will include fixes for at least three bugs and ‘topcrashes,’ the term the company uses to describe the frequently-reported crashes. Like many applications, Firefox asks users to report crashes by displaying a prompt after the browser goes down. One of the topcrashes scheduled for a fix involves TraceMonkey, the new, faster JavaScript engine. It never ends