Updated: February 22, 2021
Every few years, there's a new visual revamp in Firefox. First, we had the classic look, then Australis, then Quantum, which sort of gave us the old look but in a new guise, and now, Mozilla is aiming for yet another makeover called Proton. The UI refresh seems to be all the rage, except, I don't see why there's a need for one, but hey. Modern problems require modern solutions, or something.
I wanted to get an early glimpse of the change, mostly to see what I ought to expect. As you very well recall from me articles and rants, I found Australis abominable, Quantum okay, and now, I'm not sure why Firefox should be modified yet again. If by any measure we look at competition, say Chrome, what made it popular definitely isn't any series of UI changes, because largely, it hasn't changed much since inception. Not that Firefox should ape Chrome, far from it. But the sense of activity associated with visual polish doesn't necessarily translate into anything meaningful. Whether it does, well, we need to see. Early hands on, let's see.
Get your proton shake
Today, to run Firefox Proton, you need a handful of extra tweaks and changes. One, a Nightly build of the browser. Two, a whole handful of about:config changes that activate the different options available in Proton. Ghacks has already outlined these preferences, so there's no point for me rehashing it all in hope of an extra page view. I'm here to talk about the final product, per se. Once these tweaks are in place, start (or restart) your Nightly and begin to experiment.
Proton comes with two major changes - the new tab shape and size, and the redesign in menus, including the new tab page. Here, instead of checkboxes, you now have mobile-like toggles for the stuff like shortcuts, Pocket recommendations, snippets, and more. Meh. However, you can disable everything and have a simple clean tab without any nonsense.
The other big change - no more icons in the Hamburger menu. Meh. One, the extra indentation, which is visually jarring. Two, what's wrong with the icons? If the purpose is to create visual consistency with the rest of the menus, then okay. Otherwise, what's the point of this change, and what ergonomic quality does it bring? Or is this another Chrome-like copypasta - Chrome doesn't have icons, so Firefox shouldn't either? If anything, if that's the case, it should do the exact opposite! So far, two or three iterations of visual copypasta have done nothing to make Firefox stand out in the crowd. It goes back to me old adage: I don't want Firefox to look and behave like Chrome. If I wanted it that way, I'd use Chrome as my primary browser.
The great power of Firefox remains its flexibility. I tried to create a normal look for myself, and I was able to do that without any great difficulty. You can go by without having any stupid suggestions in the address bar, you can remove the unnecessary search engines, and with the same tweak I used in Firefox 75, you can get rid of the over-large zoom-in address bar feature.
At the end of the day, after some tweaking, Firefox Nightly - apart from the new tabs - looked just like before. The addons work, the browser does the job. I can't discern any other great changes or features. Of course, things will change, and it's still too early to focus on performance.
If you actually bothered reading up to this point, you may be tempted to think or say: Dedo, you don't understand, there's so much more that can be done to make the browser experience more XYZ. The thing is, the browser has one function - serving pages. The fact companies want to turn them into some sort of interactive shiny turd doesn't change the reality. I don't want an 6D immersive portal of color and ads and games. I want a simple tool that does a simple job.
I don't see any major value in this revamp. On its own, the name Proton, while full of punchy sounds, is also tricky. Because it's associated with tons of other products - including but not limited to mail service, car manufacturer, gaming engine, and so on. Then, the tab redesign and the icon stripping from menus don't add any great value. I really don't understand - for the time being, that is - how this is going to contribute in any great way to the success of Firefox.
'Tis a painful realization for me, because I want Firefox to remain around, alive and relevant and fun, because at the moment, it's the only thing that makes the Internet still usable, especially on the mobile. A last bastion of semi-sanity in the great ocean of idiocracy. But then, that does not mean I blindly embrace whatever Mozilla has in its repertoire of daily surprises.
Idiots don't care either way, and nerds deeply care about any change in their ecosystem. Revamping the UI is a lose-lose situation really, and a waste of resources. Privacy is going to be the next battlefield, and here Mozilla has a huge lead over its competitors. Hopefully, this is where the browser's future and focus will be. And trust me, you don't want to contemplate the Internet future without Firefox. Nerds, you've been warned.