The future of Firefox Add-ons - Nope


Updated: August 28, 2015

Just a few days ago, I read a Mozilla blog entry on what the company has in store for its most popular and strategically important feature: the extensions. While the lingo was technical without the use of marketing slogans and the word exciting, it still paints a grim picture for Firefox users. Not because the change is bad. Because it is wrong.

Once in a while, I must give my sermons, to help you figure out how things work. Why this is not going to be good for us, the users, and why we must duly prepare, in advance. As it happens, Mozilla does not fully understand the market. It truly does not. When you make decisions based on incorrect data, you are bound to make a disastrous choice. Let's try to amend this, if possible.

Firefox teaser

Firefox market share

People often say, Firefox market share is declining. However, most people do not really know what this means. Which is why I must explain. Say you have 1,000 people in the world. At some point in time, 500 are using Internet Explorer, 250 are using Chrome and 250 are using Firefox. A year later, you have 1,400 people using computers, and the numbers are 500, 650, 250, respectively.

Did Firefox usage decline? No it did not. But PROPORTIONALLY, it is smaller than it used to be, because the market has grown. This is a vital difference to understand. When blogs report the share figures, since most of them have little to no knowledge of basic math, they automatically assume that shrinking percentages translate into shrinking user base. This is not correct. It might be, but it is not.

Much like money. A thousand dollars becomes worth less over time due to interest and other economic wossname, even though the lump sum remains the same. Therefore, the only way to really know if people are abandoning the product is to account for the overall growth of the Internet usage and then NORMALIZE the Firefox percentage based on that. This will tell if the browser usage is growing, steady or waning.

The Firefox perceived percentage decline started roughly at the beginning of 2011. Do you remember what else happened at the beginning of 2011? Firefox 4 got released. Much like my predictions about Windows 8, in fact ALL my predictions, as I'm a genius and always right, came to be, the same happened to Firefox. Did I warn about it? Yes I did. I even had two taming guides for how to make Firefox normal again, starting with removing the tabs on top crap. Yes, that's when Firefox started losing its share.

But why?

So let's elaborate on why fewer people are using Firefox. No, let me correct that statement. Why the Firefox user base has remained more or less the same, and far more people have adopted Chrome instead.

Reason 1: Mobile

What happened was Android exploded and became the prevalent mobile platform. Now, what's the default browser in Android? Chrome. Can you sync your extensions, bookmarks and other stuff between different devices using Chrome while you are signed in? Yes, you can. For most people, it became a simple matter of convenience to have the same browser available, so they can retain their user profile. Plus, there's the matter of awareness. You hear about Chrome all the time, but there's not been any Spread Firefox campaign in a long time.

Reason 2: Marketing

Going back to campaigns, word of mouth and just plain brute force advertising, say you're using Internet Explorer. As an average user, in fact, most of the planet, your search engine of choice will be Google. Open your browser, and what do you see? A small box that tells you to upgrade.

Chrome marketing

Now, that's an as ugly placed and coordinated box as I've ever seen, especially with that little x in the corner and the text that sort of overflows and annoys my OCD demons, but that's not relevant. People see Chrome, Chrome, Chrome. No Firefox. Ergo, clueless people will be more likely to try a new browser of one kind than another kind.

Reason 3: Speed

I should rather say perceived speed. But it definitely helps convince the common user Chrome is faster, snappier. It's all about threaded work, presenting the GUI elements as quickly as possible and then doing all the crunchy bits in the background. It has nothing to do with Javascript benchmarks, which only nerds care about it, it's the presentation layer. Firefox has not mastered this little piece yet.

Reason 4: Existing Firefox users

This is the big one. People using Firefox are using it because they want to use that particular browser. And with every little iteration, Mozilla is making Firefox more and more like Chrome, taking away the very reason for staying with Firefox. I must repeat this again, because it does not seem to resonate loud enough:

Morons, if I wanted to use Chrome, I would.

So, you have loyal veterans using Firefox. Word of mouth and all that. However, since version 4 more or less, all of these veterans, ALL of them, are hugely dissatisfied with where Firefox is going. More modern-age smartphone crap, more Chrome like wannabe would-be features, more politics, more ads, more nonsense.

So when you ask a Firefox user, what browser they recommend, what will they say?

If someone asked me four years ago, I'd have praised Firefox left and right, in and out. Today, when someone asks me, if and when that happens, I will give them a speech on how Mozilla sold out, how Firefox has become a sad Chrome copycat, and how essentially I do not give a shit anymore. That's not exactly the best way to promote a product, and for Mozilla to retain loyal users. Ergo, a flat user base. People with no choice but to use Firefox because it's not Chrome. Fully. Yet.

One reason to use Firefox after all

Extensions. This is still the one thing that Firefox does infinitely better than all its competitors combined. All these fine addons make Firefox actually usable. Take Firefox 29 and its failing Chrome-like Australis interface for instance. It's a colossal piece of shit. However, with the Classic Theme Restorer extension in place, you can get the old looks and continue using the browser. A genuine lifesaver.

Movable back button

Then, Noscript is another gem, which makes the Web sane and quiet. The list of essential extensions is long. Some of them allow better interaction with Youtube, others allow you to download videos from different websites, other yet allow you to catalogue and sort your bookmarks, documents, references, and more. Over the years, this ecosystems has grown into a powerhouse that still makes Firefox the least evil of browsers. The rest of its core functionality has long become Chrome, but extensions are still the thing that keeps Firefox users bitch and moan but ultimately continue using it.

Now, it's going away

Well, that's sensational, but not really. And then yes. The change, of course, comes for all the wrong reasons, because Mozilla does not understand the market, or it misinterprets all the numbers and trends. The technical justifications behind the change are: 1) to make development easier with a new language, API whatnot, boring 2) to make Firefox more secure supposedly 3) to make the extensions more compatible with other browsers.

The first reason is just typical Modern Web nonsense. Technologies come and go, programming languages are being invented, nothing too interesting. Just stuff to keep the computer science graduate busy and hyped. Progress and innovation are important and all that, but eventually, ten years from now, maybe one or two of the buzz words you hear today will remain, and the rest will have died their evolutionary death.

The second reason is dubious. Is security - caused by extensions - such a big problem? What's the percentage of bad extensions in the repo? 1%? Is there a real need to focus on this functionality rather than something else? After all, if someone wants to install something, let them install it. It's their problem.

The third reason is utter crap. Effectively, it means extensions will become more trivial and less capable, like they are in other browsers. They will have less privileges, and this is marketed under the dubious auspices of security, and genuine functionality will be culled as a result. In turn, this means the VERY REASON why Firefox extensions are such a good thing will be destroyed.

Once again, the sharp-eyed among us can see the influence of the mobile market on the desktop. Yes, it makes senses to limit applications on mobile phones. It does not make sense to limit desktop programs and their extensions. You can tighten the way the extensions get into the repo, reviewed, tested, and eventually installed. That's fine, so digital signatures and all that, good stuff, maybe. But once the extension is installed by user consent, they should be able to do anything and everything.

Portability? Who gives a shit. People will not be porting anything anywhere. They want a simple, fast solution to browse the Web. That's all. But then, Chrome did it, so Firefox must do now. And the vicious cycle of alienation and irrelevance continues.

Mozilla adds features that veterans do not need or hate.

Mozilla makes Firefox still more Chrome like.

End result, no reason to use Firefox, is there?

This is very simple to observe and analyze from an objective side. I can imagine the confusion inside Mozilla, compounded by all that Hippie 2.0 Political Correctness passive aggressive cubicle brain storming crap that goes on in virtually every company that tries to market itself as progressive and diverse and modern and whatnot. Things are much simpler than that.

Please don't kill yourself

What will happen in the next six months is chaos. The new language, SDK, API and such will make roughly 100% of all extensions incompatible. Only about 23% of developers will bother making necessary changes. Only about 15% of the surviving extensions will retain their full, existing capability, the rest will have been neutered or limited in what they can achieve.

The digital signing process will make things much slower. Many more extensions developers will simply give up. The actual security will not change much, because it's never been an issue. Malicious extensions are such a tiny proportion of the overall repo content that this is not something most people will ever know or see.

Overall, Firefox extensions will never be quite the same. With some luck, we will be able to retain the most popular ones and their functionality will not have changed. But that's wishful thinking, and the history has taught us, it will only get worse. Corporate greed has never lessened, and if you look at all other products across the entire IT market, the products we have might be cheaper and fancier, but their essential freedom has been tweaked to a minimum.

For instance, the original Windows XP did not have any activation. Now, you have activation, encrypted serial numbers inside BIOS/UEFI, Secure Mode, and subscription based services. How does this help people? They still need a keyboard to type, and most of them are just as happy and productive as they were 15 years ago, with the only difference being the actual scientific growth in raw processing capacity.

Going back to Firefox, in the coming 6-12 months, we will see a ton of disruptive changes, and for veterans, that will be a disaster. Their precious extensions, the one and only thing still keeping them around, sort of, will be utterly broken and reshaped, and no one quite knows what will emerge from the mess. The worst thing is, there's no alternative.

Can you imagine Firefox without Classic Theme Restorer? Or Noscript? Or maybe Tab Mix Plus? Or Video DownloadHelper? Pick any five top extensions you like. Go through the list of extensions you have installed to keep Firefox sane and working normally. Now, take that away.

Is there still any reason for you to use Firefox?

Conclusion

I cannot even begin to express my total and utter disdain for this collective happy-go-lucky new-age masturbation in the technology world to which Mozilla has so blithely subscribed, and I'm damn good with words. When you read this sentence, if you're thinking, people are resistant to change, please go jump on a Claymore. This has nothing to do with change. It's about stupidity.

Stupidity is a tricky one. If you are stupid, you can't really know you're stupid. Dunning-Kruger and that. And so, morons of the world cannot really comprehend why all these changes happening to Firefox are not a good thing. Once Firefox disappears, there will be nothing left to stop Google from doing whatever they want. That's three years down the road or so, but few people can even grasp tomorrow, let alone that far into the future.

Firefox needs to revitalize itself. I don't have all the YES answers, but I know all the NO answers. I know for certain that it will not succeed by monkeying Chrome. It will not succeed by changing itself into some bastard mutation that no one needs. It will not flourish by throwing away its loyal base of users. As far as extensions go, if anything, the extensions should become even MORE powerful. Yes, you can tighten the security if you want on the server side. You can also introduce new, more elegant programming languages, but do it in a non-disruptive way. NON-DISRUPTIVE. Think Linux. Which enterprise distros promise full ABI compatibility for 10 years? Red Hat and SUSE. What's their share? 75% and 25%, respectively. Which distro does not promise that? Debian. And what's its share in the enterprise market? 0%. Very simple.

Mozilla, if you want to innovate, the journey is going to be rough. But you should know at least one path you should not be taking. And that's the one you have been walking ever since introducing tabs on top in Firefox 4. That's the clue right there. Fare well, and may your future extensions actually work.

Cheers.

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