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Mozilla's latest Firefox plans may not make developers and users happy

Mozilla's latest Firefox plans may not make developers and users happy

Major changes to Firefox add-ons to improve interoperability and security could backfire

I’ve been a happy user of Google’s Chrome browser pretty much since it was launched but not everyone would agree with my browser choice; there are many who prefer Firefox because it’s arguably more open for developers  and, many would contend, because of that, more flexible. So, with Mozilla having just announced a major set of changes to Firefox’s add-on architecture, it’s not surprising that users, and notably add-on developers, are not happy. Here’s a summary of what’s going to be different:

Today we are announcing some major upcoming changes to Firefox add-ons. Our add-on ecosystem has evolved through incremental, organic growth over the years, but there are some modernizations to Firefox that require some foundational changes to support:

  • Taking advantage of new technologies like Electrolysis and Servo
  • Protecting users from spyware and adware
  • Shortening the time it takes to review add-ons

To help the add-on development community understand how we will enable these improvements, we are making four related announcements today:

  • We are implementing a new extension API, called WebExtensions—largely compatible with the model used by Chrome and Opera—to make it easier to develop extensions across multiple browsers.
  • A safer, faster, multi-process version of Firefox is coming soon with Electrolysis; we need developers to ensure their Firefox add-ons will be compatible with it.
  • To ensure third-party extensions provide customization without sacrificing security, performance or exposing users to malware, we will require all extensions to be validated and signed by Mozilla starting in Firefox 41, which will be released on September 22nd 2015.
  • We have decided on an approximate timeline for the deprecation of XPCOM- and XUL-based add-ons.

Like Chrome, the new Firefox will use multiple processes to isolate misbehaving content (and, as with Chrome, it’s memory footprint will undoubtedly grow significantly) and it will gain a new API called WebExtensions which will allow “code written for Chrome, Opera, or, possibly in the future, Microsoft Edge [to] run in Firefox with few changes.” 

What seems to be really annoying developers is the implications of “signing”:

Starting in Firefox 42, add-on developers will be required to submit extensions for review and signing by Mozilla prior to deployment, and unsigned add-ons cannot be installed or used with Firefox.

Developers, commenting on Mozilla’s post, see two problems with signing. The first will be turnaround time which, if it’s too long, will make releasing and updating add-ons  more expensive, complex, and time consuming. That said, as potentially problematic as turnaround time might be, developers appear to be far more concerned with Mozilla’s approvals process. An anonymous comment on Mozilla’s blog post summed the problem up:

Permissive addons are what sets firefox apart. It allows creative use, even interfacing with native code in ways nobody predicted. / Addons that can only use “approved APIs” basically are chained to whatever [Mozilla] developers think might be useful. No outside-the-box thinking.

Another developer, TobiSGD,  wrote:

The main reason at this point for me to stick with Firefox is its great extensibility, which allows extensions like Pentadactyl or Vimperator to offer functionality that no other mainstream browser can deliver. If Mozilla gives this up for a dumbed down interface just to be Chrome compatible then this is the end of me using Firefox and I have to go for a niche browser like vimb or dwb instead.

Sad news, Mozilla, sad news.

The consequence of these changes are that existing add-ons will have to be re-engineered and some may not make it through the approvals process which will not please users who rely on rejected add-ons.

So, could these changes cause Firefox to fall from it’s current second-place market share of just under 22%? Would Chrome (at 63%) or Edge (not on the charts yet) gain from users defecting? Would the changes make you, should you be a Firefox devotee, opt for another browser and, if so, which one?

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