Updated: October 16, 2017
In just a few weeks, the Fist of Odin and Thor's Hammer will fall down on Firefox users. The browser switches from the old extensions model to the brave new world of WebExtensions, and everything breaks. Or does it?
I've already mentioned the upcoming Armageddon in my review of Firefox 54, and what it offered given the drastic, radical changes gripping the Mozilla world. Now, as the official release of Firefox 57 nears, it's time for another look. Join me, please.
Look and feel
I actually tested several editions of Firefox 57, just to be sure. I tried the Nightly Build, then the recent Beta Build, and also the so-called Blue Dev Edition, all of which have their little quirks and features, but essentially, they all revolve around the same basic core. The idea behind Firefox 57 is better security through sandboxing and process isolation, better privacy with refined tab control, better performance with new multi-processing thingie and rendering engines, and finally, new looks. The last piece belongs here.
Firefox 57 comes with a square-tab appearance, a nod to the pre-Australis builds. Indeed, it also features separate back and forward buttons, a reload button, and the home button on the left side. Then, you have all the other bells and whistles on the right.
You can also change the size and spacing of the elements - to accommodate for different form factors and usage models, and then also apply different themes and personas. Not bad. But then, remember Australis. That pointless thing is now officially dead with this new old styling. However, remember kids, there are no mistakes in the corporate world! Problems do not exist, only challenges. And if you make a bad move, you just release a new version and quietly let the failure slide away. In 2025, we will also get back sane tab hierarchy, and the moronity called tabs-on-top will be removed from humanity. I do like this new look, though. Simple, elegant, much better than before.
This is another important thing. Firefox has lagged behind Chrome for a while now, mostly in the visual perception of how quickly things are shown on the screen and rendered, and the browser startup times. The actual page loading was more or less the same, but no one really cares or notices that except super nerds.
Firefox 57 is sprightlier than earlier version, although the difference among the 55-57 family members isn't that big. The gap with Chrome has also narrowed down, and the startup times are only about 10% apart - although this begs further and more detailed testing. But still, Google's browser offers a slightly more responsive interface under low usage loads. Tough life. My test system for this experiment is a Kubuntu 17.04 instance.
Now, this is the MOST important piece. After all, the one and only real advantage that Firefox has over other browsers is its extensible nature, and this is what made is so great before the bullshit Web 2.0 revolution. The new WebExtensions framework is going to kill about 80-90% of all extensions, minimizing the significant strategic advantage that Firefox used to have over its rivals.
I decided to test a bunch of extensions, to see what gives. The procedure to get them running isn't trivial. First, you may need to toggle the legacy.enabled switch thingie through the config page. Then, you may also need dev versions for some of the extensions. Lastly, Noscript also mandates a dev version of the browser.
In the end, I had Adblock Plus (Beta) and Noscript (dev) running successfully. I also wanted to try another arguably important extension - Video Downloadhelper. This one is not there yet, and might never be. There's another add-on with a similar name, bearing the word Professional as its suffix, but it does not work as well as the original. Now, the sad thing is that VDH in its "old" form is available for Chrome! And it works all right, if not quite as the original for pre-FF57 but better than the new WB VDH for FF57. So in fact, so far, if anything, WebExtensions not only do not level the differences that Firefox used to have pre-57, they actually lend an advantage to Chrome.
Furthermore, we still don't have session management and tab management extensions that can compare to TMP or SM, and there are many other extensions, it's almost a personal thing, that will not have a future in about five weeks from now. This does not bode well for Firefox, because it is reducing its margins further, and despite nice looks and some decent performance gains, it loses its most precious capabilities. The tradeoff is not in its favor.
There are a few new extra, mostly gimmicks, to be frank. Like the ability to take screenshots, library and whatnot. Feels like trying to make bookmarks and history feel more than what they are. On the plus side, you have containers, a-la more refined incognito mode, so you can separate your sessions. Not bad. Mozilla folks are trying. Unfortunately, the damage and the pain are quite severe.
The best way to describe Firefox 57 is too little, too late, but better later than never. In a way, it's a pointless release, because it brings us back roughly where Firefox was and should have been years ago. Only all this time in between was wasted losing user base.
WebExtensions will be the thing that makes or breaks the browser, and with insufficient quality in the available replacements for those that don't make the culling list, there will be no real incentive for people to stay around. Firefox 57 is better than earlier versions in terms of looks and performance, but that's like saying you get 50% discount on a price that is twice what it should be. Ultimately unnecessary, just like graduating from university by the age of 68. There aren't any major advantages over Chrome. This is essentially a Firefox that sucks less.
So yes, on the positive side, if you do want to continue using Firefox, version 57 makes much more sense than the previous 53 releases. It has an almost normal look, some of the sorely needed security & privacy addons are available, and it offers a passable user experience in terms of speed and responsiveness. Bottom line, I will stick with Firefox for now. As long as my extensions keep working. Take care.