File Under: Browsers, Software

Firefox Without Add-ons? Say it Ain’t So

If you want to know what a chorus of angry Firefox users sounds like, just make them think you’re taking away their browser add-ons.

A blog post from Mozilla’s Mike Connor, one of the company’s key browser developers, made waves Saturday and Sunday in the Firefox world for suggesting that scenario. While Connor didn’t explicitly say it would happen, his words led many readers to assume the company was considering abandoning the current Firefox add-on ecosystem in favor of JetPack-based add-ons

We asked Mozilla about this possibility and the representative we spoke to insists it’s certainly not the case. Connor’s post has been updated and much of the hubbub has settled down, but the post did spark an important discussion about browser add-ons and the relationships users have with them.

Connor’s post outlined a few lines of thought that have been going on behind the scenes among Firefox developers, as they have been strategizing about the browser’s future.

Exactly what Connor intended to say is still a little unclear. The initial post used phrases like “deprecating the old systems” and suggested that Mozilla would be “discriminating against the old systems” — that is, the current Firefox add-on ecosystem we all know and love — as it moves forward with its software releases.It certainly sounded like somebody at Mozilla was talking about killing off add-ons as we know them and replacing them with the still-beta JetPack add-on system and the Personas theming system. JetPack is Mozilla’s platform for creating simple add-ons that manipulate web page elements and UI elements within the browser’s skin, much like Greasemonkey scripts or the type of DOM-futzing that Chrome’s extension system allows. Personas, Mozilla’s theme manager, allows users to alter the look of the browser by installing a visual theme with one click.

Once a rather vocal community began reacting to the post (read the comments) Conner added an update that backpedaled a bit, but still concluded that, while the plan might be not be “set in stone,” Mozilla does intend to move in that direction. When he said that Mozilla was “discriminating against the old systems,” and added “I am personally at peace with that,” Conner was essentially throwing down the geek gauntlet, whether he meant to or not.

To understand why those statements caused an uproar, you must first understand that, as it stands, JetPack is full-fledged Firefox add-ons what Mini Me is to Dr. Evil — a cute but much less powerful sidekick.

JetPack makes it simple to build simple things, but in its current incarnation it could hardly produce a NoScript, an AdBlock Plus or any of the other popular, powerful Firefox extensions.

Presumably, long before Mozilla makes an attempt to officially migrate from the current system to the JetPack system, the company isn’t likely to turn its back on the over 5,000 add-ons currently shipping for Firefox.

But Conner’s post had an element of immediacy to it and that quickly brought out the die-hard Firefox add-on fans writing “over my dead body” and threatening to abandon Firefox in favor of Google Chrome (ironically, when we recently critiqued Chrome’s current add-on plan, we did so because it fails to offer developers exactly the tools that Conner is suggesting Mozilla might eventually take away).

Why would Mozilla want to limit developers? Well, the truth is that’s not at all what JetPack is aiming to do.

In fact, the JetPack program is an attempt to make developers’ lives easier. JetPack offers niceties like stable APIs (so new versions of Firefox won’t break all your add-ons), automatic updates, sandboxed add-ons for a more secure browser and process isolation so add-ons won’t crash Firefox.

But of course simplicity comes with a price, and this is where Conner runs afoul of the nerds.

To many, the power of Firefox is precisely in its infinite extensibility. Does infinite power bring infinite possibilities for problems? Yes, but the tradeoff is worth it, so say Firefox’s die-hard add-on users.

It’s precisely the fact that users can do whatever they want within the browser that has elevated Firefox to where it is today. Outside developers have been able to push the envelope the web browser’s capabilities, extending it to do things that even the founders of Mozilla would likely never have imagined.

The real issue might simply be whether or not Mozilla recognizes this. Writing about the reasons why Mozilla wants to eventually switch to JetPack-based add-ons Conner talks about updates and problems with add-ons. “We already know from our users,” he writes, “that incompatible add-ons are a significant factor in opting out of updates.”

The message here is not that the add-on system needs to be changed so that people will have a cleaner upgrade path for their browser, but that the browser is irrelevant and the add-ons are what matter.

Firefox, Chrome and Safari routinely swap the top spot in speed tests, and the browsers match each other pretty closely in feature breakdowns, including Firefox’s once-unique core strength — support for the latest web standards.

But there is one huge difference that sets Firefox apart — the ability to infinitely extend it through add-ons. Take away the full power of add-ons and Firefox is just another browser. It might be easier to keep up-to-date since you wouldn’t have to worry about compatibility, but there wouldn’t be anything too special about it, functionality wise.

However, despite some perhaps poor wording in Conner’s post, Mozilla is not about to abandon traditional add-ons. Will many developers chose to port their add-ons to the JetPack system? We hope so. It makes it much easier to develop and maintain simple add-ons. But for the more powerful add-ons, Mozilla will likely leave existing frameworks in place for some time.

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