Firefox 89 - Another redesign, another rollercoaster

Updated: June 11, 2021

Every few years, like a celebrity well past their prime, Firefox undergoes a facelift. Version 89 brings the latest round of visual changes to the table, bundled under the name of Proton. Well, we had Australis, then Quantum came along, side by side with the massive overhaul of the extensions framework. Now, it's time for another upheaval.

I did briefly look at the Proton preview functionality in the Nightly Build some time back. I wasn't impressed. But then, most if not all of visual changes that went into Firefox in the past six or seven years have been unnecessary. Australis came with silly-shaped tabs, like Chrome. Quantum finally undid this nonsense, and for a change, it brought back some visual clarity and consistency to Firefox's design, much like Firefox used to be before version 4.X and the whole rapid-release trainwreck. Let's see what Proton does.

Teaser

Before we move on, a little bit of history ...

For a brief, golden period, Firefox did marvelously. It grabbed a huge chunk of browser market share, for the simple reason it did things well: tons of add-ons, unparalleled in this space, decent looks, decent speed, and an air of freshness, innovation, and adherence to W3C standards. Everything was swell.

Then, Chrome came along, and it started growing rapidly. And this is where things went horribly wrong for Firefox. First, there was the copypasta period, with Firefox aping Chrome, and chipping away at its core group of users, you know, the people who used Firefox because it WASN'T other browsers. By making Firefox more like Chrome, Mozilla made it easier for people to actually switch to Chrome and never go back. Logic FTW.

Australis was a great example of failed design (the problems started way earlier) - the whole tab on top nonsense, reduced cross-tab search functionality, and all that. Techies flocked to Classic Theme Restorer, and in parallel, stopped advocating for Firefox, creating even less resistance for the clueless newb masses to migrate to Chrome. Then, throw smartphones into the equation, loaded and preloaded with Android and Chrome, and things got really bad.

If that wasn't enough, Mozilla decided to ax the old add-ons technology and move to WebExtensions. This creates further disruption, leading to tons of excellent browser add-ons dying, further diluting the proposition value of Firefox over its competition.

I looked at add-ons when Firefox 57 came out, then a couple of years later again. A circle of futility, yup. Even today, while there are many great extensions still available, the "modern" functionality is still behind the old, legacy XUL. One could say, security, but this is nonsense, because side by side with neutering extension capabilities, browser vendors are giving browsers more power, like raw device access.

All this said, Firefox should still be your no.1 browser

You may assume it's hate that drives my writing. Quite the opposite. First, read all of my past articles linked above, as a sort of mildly prophetic glimpse into the future. I warned what would happen, and it happened, because the remedies that Mozilla is using aren't fixing the problem. It's the wrong cure.

You don't compete with financial giants with money. You don't go into a war of attrition with companies with deeper pockets. You don't gain identity by assimilating with your rivals. You don't win users by killing off your loyal veterans. All of these only make you less and less relevant.

Mozilla should have done only one thing - stayed true to its core mission. Alas, too late for that now. At this point, the best it can do is maintain a modicum of vitality, and try to win back market share with its strong privacy message. And this is STILL where Firefox wins.

But then, occasionally, Firefox tries to undo all of this goodness - yet again - with another useless UI revamp.

Now, finally, Firefox 89 overview

So, I tried the new browser on four devices - Windows 10, Kubuntu 18.04 (Plasma), Ubuntu 20.04 (Gnome), and on the phone (Android). The last one is the least important, because you don't really see the tabs anyway. The only remark vis-a-vis mobile app, the home-pinned sites are now too big, you don't get two full rows like before anymore.

On the desktop, the results are less than promising. First, you get three distinct looks. Each of these combos looks different. Then, regardless of the choice, Firefox 89 Proton looks worse than the previous versions. It's the modern low-IQ flatness again, yup.

Here we go, Windows 10:

Proton off, Windows 10

Proton on, Windows 10

Less contrast everywhere, including the address bar. My Home button is gone, why. I put it there on purpose!

Here we go, Plasma (KDE):

Plasma, Proton off

Plasma, Proton on

Here we go, Gnome:

Gnome, Proton on

There are no borders to any of the background tabs. None. This makes "focus" harder because your brain needs to guess the borders rather than use existing demarcation. This would-be modern minimalism fad needs to be abolished, preferably by sending it to chillax in the Gulag somewhere.

The tabs are not really distinguishable from one another. The official reason is some marketing nonsense like tab focus and whatnot - look, if a person struggles to "focus" on their tabs, then the browser UI revamp is the least of their problems. In reality, you get a boring, flat design with low contrast. The background tabs all look the same. You don't get more focus, you get LESS focus! And if you need to activate a different tab, it's now harder to find it. Fail FTW.

Another issue - the menu redesign. Previously, you had nice separation of categories, some icons, and you could customize the interface easily. Now, no more icons, everything looks flat - and thus harder to find, and Customize is now one level deeper in the menus, which means more mouse clicks and waste. Hipsterology at work, all the way. To wit, Firefox 78 ESR and Firefox 88/89 (sans Proton), today:

Menus before, Windows 10

Menus before, Plasma

And then, the new style (left); for fun, compare with the old one, side by side:

Menus, Proton enabled Menus, Proton disabled

Even the menu expansion "arrow" looks nicer in the old design. Cleaner, brighter fonts, too.

Just look at some of the many wrong things in Proton:

This is me, an amateur, doing 5 minutes worth of visual checks and linting. I'm not saying the old menu was amazing - it also had weird options and problems - start with Hamburger menu for desktop, and the fact the standard menu (activated with Alt if hidden) gives you everything you need, without trying to condense all the options in a single pane. Could it be made better? Absolutely. Is the current Proton implementation the answer? Nope.

Anything good, you ask? Well, yes. Firefox 89 is quite a bit more responsive on the mobile than earlier versions. Faster. I like this, because I use Firefox as my primary browser both on the desktop and the smartphone. But the problem with this is, the vast majority of Firefox users are desktop people, and they got the short end of the stick here.

Luckily, you can disable Proton - hopefully, it will never become a mandatory UI - but even then, you can tweak things with manual CSS overrides - something that Firefox allows you to do. Another big advantage. Anyway, open about:config, type "proton" in the search box, and then, toggle the Proton-related options to the reverse value of their default.

Disable Proton

And you're back to normal. For how long? No one knows ...

Conclusion

Every company out there becomes a self-feeding organism at some point. This affects smaller companies with a single product even more acutely than the giants. While big organizations can sort of play the game of innovation music chairs while burning their reserves, the small ones don't have that luxury. Case in point, Mozilla. Say Firefox is a complete product. Oh, noes. What now? People go home?

Well, the answer is neverending development until the Universe explodes, the whole "agile" thing. Which is why browsers keep getting more and more useless features and constant visual tweaks, although they don't need them, because every browser has only one function, and that's to show some Web pages. That means most companies need far fewer developers than they have, and far more testing, maintaining, bug fixing. Y'know, the boring stuff. Surely not more development. But development is so hot right now. We're in 2021, but we're acting like it's 1999.

Actually no. Unlike 1999, there's another twist today. The modern software world has become a bureaucracy. And like any bureaucracy worldwide, bureaucracy's primary goal is to protect itself, and so it invents processes to make it exist, continue and thrive. This means, every software product must be evolved until it looks nothing like the original thing. Australis, Quantum, Proton. Whats the point? How do any of these make the browser better? How do these make a difference compared to what Firefox did in the 3.6 era?

Now, the bitter paradox. People who care about constant visual refreshes all the time - common users. But common users AREN'T the people who love and use Firefox! It's the nerds - the very people Mozilla pushed Chrome's way back in the day, and is now trying to win them back. That won't work. Techies don't care about bling, they care about functionality and efficiency. When you make their search box almost indistinguishable from the background, they care. When they need extra mouse clicks to find a desired option, they care. The average mouthbreather out there? They couldn't care less. Developing tools for idiots is wrong.

Proton has nothing magical or cool about it to sway the common users. It has nothing of essence to retain the veterans. It's unnecessary noise. Sad noise. I like the security and privacy improvements, I like the extra speed on the phone. But these could have been achieved without Proton - or at least without low-contrast Proton that we have today. I hope Mozilla will tweak the new UI in a meaningful way. Because this doesn't help its case. This makes me sad and worried. Even so, even with Proton, Firefox still remains my primary browser. Even with Proton, it's still better than the competition. I don't want to think about the awful future when we only have one browser engine. But it's the day I will laugh at all those nerds who abandoned Firefox. The end.

Cheers.

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