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What's in the latest Firefox update? Firefox 71 plays picture-in-picture catch-up

Mozilla this week released Firefox 71, touting a picture-in-picture video mode and new ways to preview a VPN (virtual private networking) service that will be offered to customers next year.

Security engineers included patches for 11 vulnerabilities, six marked "High," the second-most-serious threat rating. None were tagged "Critical." Some of these flaws might be exploitable by cyber criminals, Mozilla said. "This could have caused heap corruption and a potentially exploitable crash," the firm noted of one vulnerability, labeled CVE-2019-11745.

Firefox 71 can be downloaded for Windows, macOS and Linux from Mozilla's site. Because Firefox updates in the background, most users need only relaunch the browser to get the latest version. To manually update, pull up the menu under the three horizontal bars at the upper right, then click the help icon (the question mark within a circle). Choose "About Firefox." The resulting page shows that the browser is either up to date or describes the refresh process.

Mozilla refreshes Firefox every six to eight weeks; it last upgraded the browser Oct. 22.

PiP PiP, and all that

Mozilla trumpeted a new Picture-in-Picture (PiP) mode within Firefox 71. "Picture-in-Picture allows a video to be contained in a separate and small window, and still be viewable whether you switch from tab-to-tab or outside the Firefox browser," wrote Marissa Wood, vice president of product, in a Dec. 3 post to a company blog._

Although PiP was available only in Windows' version of Firefox 71, the feature will be baked into the next upgrades for macOS and Linux, Mozilla said. Currently, Firefox 72 has been pegged with a Jan. 7 release date.

(If that January ship date for Firefox 72 seems earlier than it should, it is. In September 2019, Mozilla announced it would speed up Firefox releases by reducing the interval between upgrades. Starting with Firefox 74, set to debut March 10, the interval will drop to just four weeks. Mozilla will shorten the interval in steps; the six-week stretch between Firefox 70 and 71 will be reduced to five weeks between 71 and 72, and between 72 and 73.)

Not every video will play in PiP; those that do will display a small blue-backed "Picture-in-Picture" when the mouse cursor is hovered over the image. Clicking on that message deposits a frame on the desktop, video inside. The frame can be moved and resized at will.

And as Wood mentioned, the video is independent of the tab from which it spawned; that tab does not need to remain active and, in fact, the user can step outside the browser to another application's window and the video will continue.

Firefox is somewhat late to the PiP party. Apple's Safari now has PiP - as of the October upgrade, macOS Catalina - and Google's browser has had it since Chrome 70 (an October 2018 upgrade). But Firefox's implementation is significantly easier to use than Chrome's, which required two right-clicks to initiate in Windows (and Computerworld was never able to successful call up PiP in Chrome on macOS).

Testing, testing of services

Other than PiP, Mozilla's other Firefox 71 area of attention is further testing of its "Firefox Private Network" (FPN), the browser extension the company released in September. FPN accesses a VPN-like service that encrypts browser-to-site-and-back traffic and was free to Firefox Account holders in the test phase that kicked off then. Website security vendor Cloudflare provided the proxy server for FPV.

That September offer, however, has been shuttered.

Instead, a second testing phase launched alongside the debut of Firefox 71. Like the first, this "limited-time free service" relies on the FPN add-on to encrypt to-and-from-browser transmissions but comes with a major restriction: Usage tops out at 12 hours each month.

After signing up for the free deal, users are given a dozen passes, each good for an hour of encrypted traffic. "To claim a pass, simply turn Private Network on," the beta's explanatory page stated. "Use Firefox as usual, and your browsing will be encrypted and sent through a proxy service provided by our trusted partner Cloudflare. Passes expire after one hour, even if you turn Private Network off. You'll receive 12 new passes at the beginning of each month."

Mozilla suggested that users switch on FPV (and so use one of the month's 12 passes) when relying on a public network, such as at a coffee shop or an airport.

As an alternative, Firefox users can request an invitation to a full VPN service, which for $4.99 month encrypts traffic to and from up to five devices. Mozilla called this a "paid beta." The VPN service uses servers around the globe controlled by Mullvad, a Swedish VPN that sells its services for €5 per month. Initially, the Firefox offer only applies to users running Windows 10, although Mozilla said, "other platforms coming soon."

Mozilla has struggled to create non-search related revenue streams - in 2018, the vast bulk of its income came from deals that put various search engines as the Firefox default - and this effort is the second time the organization has tapped a paid VPN as one solution.

Elsewhere in Firefox 71, Mozilla added a "kiosk" mode for businesses and the browser now notifies users when Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP) blocks cryptominers.