Firefox directions

June 5th, 2015

Some time back, I started thinking about what Firefox could do for me and its other users. Here are my thoughts, unashamedly biased and uninformed. If you don’t think something here is an awful idea, either I’ve failed or you aren’t reading closely enough.

Mozilla-specific advantages

Mozilla provides Firefox with a unique situation. We are not directly compelled to monetize Firefox or any other product. We do not need to capture users or wall them in. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to make money or gain market share — eventually, we need both, or Mozilla’s influence on the Web dies — but we have a degree of freedom that no other big player possesses.

Privacy and User Sovereignty

We can afford to give our users as much privacy as they might want. If you ask the vast majority of users about this, I suspect they’ll think it sounds like a theoretically good thing, but they don’t know what it really means, they don’t know what Firefox can do for them that other browsers don’t, and they don’t have any strong reason to care. All three of those are true of me, too.

Let’s tell them. Make an about:privacy that shows a chart of privacy features and behaviors of Firefox, Mozilla and its servers, and our major competitors. Give specific, realistic examples of information that is transmitted, what it might be used for (both probable and far-fetched). Include examples from jealous boyfriends, cautious employers, and restrictive regimes. Expose our own limitations and dirty laundry: “if this server gets hacked or someone you don’t like has privileged access, they will see that you crash a lot on youporn.com“. It won’t all fit on a page, but hopefully some impactful higher-order bits can be presented immediately, with links to go deeper. Imagine a friendly journalist who wants to write an article claiming that Firefox is the clear choice for people who care about controlling their personal data and experiences on the web: our job is to provide all the ammunition they’d need to write a convincing and well-founded article. Don’t bias or sugarcoat it — using Firefox instead of Chrome is going to protect very little from identity theft, and Google has more resources dedicated to securing their servers than we do.

If possible, include the “why”. We won’t track this data because it isn’t useful to us and we err on the side of the user. Chrome will because it’s part of their business model. Mention the positive value of lock-in to a corporation, and point out just how many sources of information Google can tap.

Update: Wait! Hold on! As a commenter pointed out, that is the exact sort of bias I just said we shouldn’t use. Google does not use Chrome to gather data as I implied. I was wrong, and made assumptions based on uninformed opinions about the motivations involved and their ramifications. Google has an incentive to limit its data collection, since not doing so would anger their users. In the end, I still feel like Mozilla is more free to side with the user than Google is, and I have to believe that now or in the future there will be significant real differences in behavior as a result, but collecting the sort of data I was implying through the browser is not one of those differences.

Anyway, back to talking about how Firefox can highlight Mozilla’s privacy advantages:

Point to Lightbeam. Make cookies visible — have them appear temporarily as floating icons when they are sent, and show them in View Source. Notify the user when a password or credit card number is sent unencrypted. Allow the user to delete and modify cookies. Or save them to external files and load them back in. Under page info, enumerate as much identity information as we can (as in, show what the server can figure out, from cookies to OS to GL capabilities.)

Gaming

I don’t know if it’s just because nobody else needs to care yet, but it seems like we have a lead on gaming in the browser. It’s an area where players would be willing to switch browsers, even if only temporarily, to get a 10% higher frame rate. Until rich web gaming starts capturing a substantial number of user hours, it doesn’t seem like the other browser manufacturers have enough of a reason to care. But if we can pull people out of the extremely proprietary and walled-off systems that are currently used for gaming and get them onto the open web, then not only do we get a market share boost but we also expand the range of things that people commonly do on our open platform. It’ll encourage remixing and collaboration and pushing the envelope, counteracting humanity’s current dull descent into stupefied consumption. The human race will develop more interconnections, develop better ways of resolving problems, and gain a richer and stronger culture for the Borg to destroy when they finally find us.

Er, sorry. Got a little carried away there. Let me just say that gaming represents more than obsessive self-indulgence. It is a powerful tool for communication and education and culture development and improved government. You’ll never truly understand in your bones how the US won its war for independence until you’ve lived it — or at least, simulated it. (Hint: it’s not because our fighters had more hit points.)

Addons

Addons are a major differentiator for Firefox. And most of them suck. Even ignoring the obvious stuff (malware, adware, etc.), for which plans are in motion to combat them, it still seems like addons aren’t providing the value they could be. People have great ideas, but sadly Chrome seems to be the main beneficiary these days. Some of that is simply due to audience size, but I don’t think that’s all of it.

I know little about addons, but I have worked on a few. At least for what I was doing, they’re a pain to write. Perhaps I always just happen to end up wanting to work on the trickiest pieces to expose nicely, but my experience has not been pleasant. How do you make a simple change and try it out? Please don’t make me start up (or restart) the browser between every change. What’s the data model of tabs and windows and things? What’s the security model? I periodically try to work on a tab management extension, but everything I do ends up getting silently ignored, probably because it doesn’t have the right privileges. I asked lots of questions at the last Summit but the answers were complicated, and incomprehensible to someone like me who is unfamiliar with how the whole frontend is put together.

And why isn’t there straightforward code that I can read and adapt? It seems like the real code that drives the browser looks rather different from what I’d need for my own addon. Why didn’t it work to take an existing addon, unpack it, modify it, and try it out? Sure, I probably did something stupid and broke it, but the browser wasn’t very good at telling me what.

That’s for complicated addons. Something else I feel is missing is super lightweight addons. Maybe Greasemonkey gives you this; I’ve barely used it. But say I’m on a page, or better yet a one-page app. I want something a little different. Maybe I want to remove a useless sidebar, or add a button that autofills in some form fields, or prevent something from getting grayed out and disabled, or iterate through an external spreadsheet to automatically fill out a form and submit it, or autologin as a particular user, or maybe just highlight every instance of a certain word. And I want this to happen whenever I visit the page. Wouldn’t it be great if I could just right-click and get an “automatic page action” menu or something? Sure, I’d have to tell it how to recognize the page, and it might or might not require writing JavaScript to actually perform the action. But if the overhead of making a simple addon could be ridiculously low, and it gave me a way of packaging it up to share with other people (or other computers of mine), it could possibly make addons much more approachable and frequently used.

It would also be an absolute disaster, in that everyone and her dog would start writing tiny addons to do things that really shouldn’t be done with addons. But so be it. Think of something easy enough to be suggested in a support document as a workaround for some site functionality gap. Even better, I’d like the browser (or, more likely, an addon-generating addon) to automatically do version control (perhaps by auto-uploading to github or another repo?), and make it easy to write self-tests and checks for whether the required page and platform functionality are still present.

Addons also don’t feel that discoverable. I can search by name, but there’s still the matter of guessing how serious (stable, maintained, high quality) an addon is. It turns my stomach to say this, but I kind of want a more social way of browsing and maintaining lists of addons. “People who are mentally disturbed in ways similar to you have left these addons enabled for long periods of time without disabling them or removing them in a fit of anger: …” Yes, this would require a degree of opt-in tracking evil, but how else can I find my true brethren and avoid the polluted mindset of godless vi-using heathens?

Hey, remember when we pissed off our addon authors by publicly shaming them with performance measurements? Could we do something similar, but only expose the real dirt after you’ve installed the addon?

Which brings me to addon blaming. It’s very hard to correctly blame a misbehaving addon, which makes me too conservative about trying out addons. I would be more willing to experiment if I had a “Why Does My Firefox Suck Right Now?” button that popped up an info box saying “because addon DrawMustachesOnCatPictures is serializing all of your image loads”. Ok, that’s probably too hard — how about just “addon X is eating your CPU”?

Why Does My Firefox Suck Right Now?

On a related note, I think a big problem is that Firefox sometimes behaves very badly and the user doesn’t know why. We really need to get better at helping people help themselves in diagnosing these problems. It feels like a shame to me when somebody loves Firefox, but they start running into some misbehavior that they can’t figure out. If we’re really lucky, they’ll try the support forums. If that doesn’t work, or they couldn’t be bothered in the first place, they come to somebody knowledgeable and ask for help. The user is willing to try all kinds of things: install diagnostic tools, email around attachments of log files, or whatever — but as far as I can tell these things are rarely useful. And they should be. We’re not very good at gathering enough data to track the problem down. A few things serve as illustrative counterexamples: restarting in safe mode is enormously helpful, and about:memory is a great tool that can pinpoint problems. Theoretically, the profiler ought to be good for diagnosing slowdowns and hangs, but I haven’t gotten much out of it in practice. (Admittedly, my own machine is Linux, and the stackwalking has never worked well enough here. But it hasn’t been a silver bullet for my friends’ Windows machines either.)

These are the sorts of situations where we are at high risk of losing users. If a PC runs Sunspider 5% faster but opening a new tab mysteriously takes 5 seconds, somebody’s going to switch browsers. Making the good case better is far less impactful than eliminating major suckage. If somebody comes to us with a problem, we should have a very well-worked out path to narrow it down to an addon or tab or swapping or networking or virus scanning or holy mother of bagels, you have *how* many tabs open?! Especially if IE and Chrome do just fine on the same computer (empty profiles or not.)

Browsing the F*ing Web

That’s what Firefox is for, right? So I have some problems there too. What’s the deal with tabs? I like opening tabs. It means I want to look at something.

I’m not fond of closing tabs. I mean, it’s fine if I’m done with whatever I was looking at. But that’s only one tab, and it’s not enough to keep other tabs from accumulating. Closing any other tab means I have to stop what I’m doing to think about whether I still want/need the tab. It’s like picking up trash. I’m willing to accept the necessity in real life, but in a computer-controlled virtual space, do I really have to?

Sadly, that means a tab explosion. Firefox is good about allowing it to happen (as in, large numbers of tabs generally work surprisingly well), but pretty crappy at dealing with the inevitable results. I know lots of people have thought hard on how to improve things here, but none of the solutions I’ve seen proposed felt exactly right.

I don’t have a solution either, but I’ll propose random things anyway:

Tabs vs bookmarks vs history is artificial. They’re all stuff you wanted at some point, some of which you want now, and some of which you’ll want again in the future. I want perfection: I want to open tabs forever without ever needing to close any, but I want the interface to only display the tabs I’m interested in right now.

Bookmarks are just tabs that I claim I might want again in the future, but I don’t want to clutter up my tab bar with right now. History additionally has all the tabs that I claim I don’t need to see again, except maybe sometime when I remember that I’ve seen something before and need it again.

Yes, I am misusing “tabs” to mean “web pages”. Sue me.

So. Let me have active tabs, collected in some number of windows, preferably viewable on the left hand side in a hierarchical organization à la Tree Style Tabs. Give me buttons on the tabs to quickly say “I don’t care at all about this anymore”, “categorize for when I want to browse by topic and find it again”, “queue this up [perhaps in a named queue] for when I am avoiding work”, and “I only want this cluttering my screen as long as these other tabs are still visible”. (Those correspond to “close tab”, “bookmark tab”, “enqueue tab”, and “reparent tab”.) Allow me to find similar tabs and inform the browser about those, too. Right-clicking on a bugzilla tab ought to give me a way to find all bugzilla tabs and close them en masse, or reparent them into a separate group. Make it easy to scan through tab groups, enqueue some, and then close the rest. I should be able to sort all the tabs by the last time I looked at them, so I can kill off the ancient ones — without losing my original sort order.

Some context: I have a lot of tabs open. Many more than fit on one screen (even using Tree Style Tabs.) Cleaning them up is a pain because of the soggy middle: the ones early in the list are things that I’ve had around for a long time and resisted closing because they’re useful or I really really want to get around to reading them. The ones late in the list are recently open and likely to be current and relevant. The stuff in the middle is mostly crap, and I could probably close a hundred in a minute or two, except the tab list keeps jumping around and when I click in the middle I keep having to wait for the unloaded pages to load just so I can kill them.

I want to throw those ancient tabs in a “to read” queue. I want to find all of my pastebin tabs and kill them off, or maybe list them out in age order so I can just kill the oldest (probably expired anyway) ones. I don’t want the “to read” queue in my active tab list most of the time, but I want to move it in (drag & drop?) when I’m in the mood. I want to temporarily group my tabs by favicon and skim through them, deleting large swathes. I want to put the knot-tying tab and origami instruction tab into a separate “to play with” folder or queue. I want to collect my set of wikipedia pages for Jim Blandy’s anime recommendations into a group and move them to a bookmark bar, which I may want to either move or copy back to the active tab list when I’m ready to look at them again. I want to kill off all the bugzilla pages except the ones where I’ve entered something into a form field. I want to skim through my active tab list with j/k keys and set the action for each one, to be performed when I hit the key to commit to the actions. I want undo. I want one of those actions, a single keystroke, to set which window the tabs shows up in the active tabs list. I want to sort the tabs by memory usage or CPU time. I want to unload individual tabs until I select them again.

I want a lot of stuff, don’t I?

Here is the place I originally intended to start talking about loaded and unloaded tabs, the perils and advantages of auto-unloading, and all that, but:

This Post

I just checked the timestamp on this post. I wrote it on August 14, 2014, and have sat on it for nearly a year. It’s been waiting for the day that I’ll finally get around to finishing it up, perhaps splitting it into several blog posts, etc. Thanks to Yoric’s Firefox re-imaginings I came back to look, and realized that what’s going to happen is that this will get old and obsolete and just die. I’d be better off posting it, rough and incomplete as it is. (And I *still* haven’t watched those anime. Where has time gone?!)

Whoa. I just looked at the preview, and this post is *long*. Sorry about that. If I were a decent human being, I would have chopped it up into digestible pieces. I guess I just don’t like you that much.

3 Responses to “Firefox directions”

  1. alex_mayorga Says:

    Just commenting to let you know I did finish the wall of text, you do sound like a decent human being even if you don’t like me that much =P

    My wife is also a tab-aholic and the top crasher of (unknowingly) Beta on this household, I’m a Nightly tester myself and do not have a tab hoarding problem because I’ve learned to trust that the Awesome bar would get me what I need so I mostly have one window with a handful of App Tabs and perhaps a dozen of regular tabs. In any case I believe you’re into something, with the web becoming our real OS, much better window management capabilities are long overdue.

    On this very blog, there are huge wastelands of white to the left and right, why don’t use it somehow to accomodate tabs so they don’t look like “Shar…”|”Mozi…”|”Wiki…”|”YouP…” err, you get the idea.

    Anyhow my toddler is up from his nap so time to F11 that… Where’s “Netf…” again?

  2. Peter Kasting Says:

    As a Chrome developer, I object to part of your post:

    “We won’t track this data because it isn’t useful to us and we err on the side of the user. Chrome will because it’s part of their business model.”

    No, we won’t. We care about user privacy as much as Mozilla does, and we don’t build Chrome to make money off our users’ data. We have a very clear whitepaper ( https://www.google.com/chrome/browser/privacy/whitepaper.html ) about exactly what data goes where and why, and a clear dashboard ( https://myaccount.google.com/ ) showing all collected data and allowing it to be erased, etc.

    As an ex-Firefox developer, I care passionately about doing right by users and I stand with Mozilla in wanting to make the web better as my number one goal. But users aren’t well-served when Mozilla devs repeat falsehoods about ways in which Firefox is better than Chrome. There are plenty of good reasons to use Firefox; as you note, there’s no need to “bias or sugarcoat” the debate, as this claim absolutely does.

  3. J. Ryan Stinnett Says:

    Great post!

    “Ok, that’s probably too hard — how about just “addon X is eating your CPU”?”

    This part is already happening with the addon watcher work, which shows these kinds of messages, as well as the (UX work still needed) about:performance page.

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