Firefox WebExtensions - Two years later, functionality test

Updated: November 23, 2019

It's been roughly two years since Firefox 57 was introduced and the abrupt transition to WebExtensions happened. Overnight, a decade of work made by thousands of developers was made obsolete, turning existing extensions into a legacy heap of nostalgia and code, some of it darn good code. We were told that modern times require modern means AKA mobile nonsense, and this is the future.

Fast forward to NOW, and I'm not happy or optimistic. Firefox usage has declined further, just as I predicted, because the more Firefox became like Chrome the less incentive there was for its loyal users to recommend it to other people. Only recently, with the explosion of privacy nonsense do people realize how important it is to have a healthy underdog browser, and in this regard, Firefox is the last bastion, i.e. the least worst browser of the bunch, although they are all quite annoying. But. Maybe the future is rosy? So I decided to take stock of my current extensions, the new crop, evaluate what they do, and if indeed, we're in a better place than we were when XUL ruled supreme. After me.

The easy ones - Adblock Plus & Noscript

Well, I'm not going to spill my entire extensions history here, because that's not the point. But I will go through a list of some rather useful ones, which served me quite some in the past decade or so. First, Adblock Plus and Noscript were never really in danger of being deprecated come the WebExtensions era. They were so vastly popular that the transition kind of had to happen.

In particular, I'm super-happy that Noscript is around - it's the one extension that makes the modern Web worth using it. Without it, I'd have to be subject to the vast dross of Javascript-overloaded crap that exists for no good reason other than to waste electricity. And actually, to be fair, the existence of WebExtensions did allow Noscript to be ported to Chrome, too, so there has been something really awesome come out of this effort.

Video DownloadHelper

This used to be a hugely popular extension in the older days. The new version works well - but, you can't have it all with just one click. You need to manually install a companion app, which happens to be based on ffmpeg, and which does all the transcoding and whatnot in the back. In fact, this is the post-WebExtensions reality. Developers want to give their users the ability to do cool stuff, but since this is no longer possible, you now need to go about, and manually download things and put them here or there for the extension to use. How is this safer or smarter or better than before? I don't know.

Video DownloadHelper

Video DownloadHelper settings

All in all, you get the functionality you need, but then you also have to manually manage the companion app and periodically update it, and the whole thing is far less streamlined than it was before. As a user, you get what you need, but your workflow is less efficient than it was in the past.

WebScrapBook

I also loved ScrapBook - this was a really handy extension. You could specify the depth of links to follow, what types of objects you want to download (like only images or media clips or such), and it worked superbly. In the new era, I found half a dozen similar add-ons, and quite a few of them require a companion app, too. Not sure why. WebScrapBook does not, and it works as a single package. Pretty much behaves like the old extension. The really good thing is that you can also grab all the different tabs at the same time, and you have the granular control of which assets you want to keep, and whatnot.

WebScrapBook

WebScrapBook settings

Session Sync

For me, one of the biggest losses with the Quantum move was - no more session managers. I guess Mozilla wanted people to use their built-in thing. Yes, essentially, it's just a timestamped folder full of bookmarks, but then, not quite. The way it worked in the past was far more elegant and streamlined for the most part, and it took me a while to find a suitable replacement. But find it I did, and even wrote an article about Session Sync, which does gives you the pre-WebExtensions look and feel when it comes to managing your sessions.

Session Sync

Popup Blocker (Strict)

This is a handy one, too. While modern browsers pride themselves at giving users more privacy and such, they don't really change much in the larger scope of things. One of the things that browsers still don't handle that well are popups. Yes, these still happen. 2001 is calling, it wants its popups back. But no, it can't have it, because they are having fun in 2019. Well, Popup Blocker (strict) does the job. It will even curtail download prompts, if you like. Works quite all right, and almost catches everything.

Popup Blocker

Absolute Enable Right Click & Copy

It is our fundamental right to right-click. Or so we thought. But in the age of Javascript-laden websites, designed to keep you engrossed in their offering, the ability to do things like a simple right-click > Save As is not a given. Indeed, most social platforms use the right-click for their own menus, and usually, you will not have the option to save videos or images, because that would mean not having to come back again, and/or sign into the platform. Think of any social media, and this will be the case. But then, more and more websites are going this way, making interaction frustrating. At least right-click interaction, he he.

Absolute Enable Right Click & Copy is an extension that allows you to override site-specific commands, and use the generic right-click menu. You can either enable the copy functionality only - or the full override mode, which then disables whatever the website feels is best for you. Now, you can't just re-enable it back once you've taken control, you will need to reload the particular page. But this is something you may want to use now and then.

Absolute right click options

Absolute right click in action

User Agent Switcher & Manager

Sometimes, you may want your browser to identify itself as - something else. If you're a Web developer, for instance, you might want to mimic the behavior of different rendering engines, to see how your HTML/CSS rules behave. One option is to have three dozen platforms and browsers at your disposal. The cheaper alternative to try a user-agent switcher extension, which can help you with your testing. But hey, this ain't just for Web developers. Anyone can use it - and sometimes, this can help with the overall Internet noise. Switch from say Firefox/Windows to Obscure/BSD, and you will notice a completely different site behavior, and probably fewer annoyances. Tons of available options, and in this regard, the pre- and post-Quantum experience is unhampered.

User Agent Switcher

Multi-Account Containers

This is a good one, actually. It was meant to help people keep multiple pseudo-profiles of their browsing activity, separating work from home from leisure and such. Quite convenient. For instance, you could have several Gmail accounts open at the same time, each in their own container. With the Internet having become one giant pool of data harvesting, this functionality allows you to segregate your work and minimize data leaks through third-party cookies, pixels, trackers, and other bullshit. Firefox will even occasionally give you recommendations for some pre-made containers (for instance, Facebook).

Multi-account containers

What's missing?

Well, a lot really. Tab Mix Plus (TMP), with its built-in session manager, was one of the most practical and useful extensions ever made. I still have a ton of old sessions saved, waiting for when TMP is resurrected. The Classic Theme Restorer was another gem, proven doubly right by the aesthetic changes in Firefox Quantum, even though many awesome features are still missing. Like saving all your tabs as bookmarks with one simple click instead of the whole click-select exercise like you're working in a 1994 file explorer.

GlobalFindBar - so you can search across all tabs, with a persistent search popup. Status bar via Status-4-Evar, various video control add-ons, site identity buttons, and so forth. There's more, of course, and I know each and every veteran has their sad legacy story. And in the global scheme, these personal trifles look tiny, but they aggregate into a giant ball of disappointment. Given the fact Firefox hasn't really gained much share since, it turns this ball into justified pain.

Conclusion

From an energy perspective, Firefox 57 & WebExtensions is a futile exercise. Nothing was gained. No user share, no meaningful changes to the Web extensions, the amount of available add-ons hasn't drastically grown, they aren't improved in any way over the legacy stuff, quite the opposite, and all in all, apart from a lot of noise and activity, the last two years are pointless. Except the Internet is ever so smaller, sadder and less meaningful than in the past. From a platform of inspiration of freedom to gilded cages for swipey-sensitive morons.

And despite my bitterness, I still hope, despite logic that is, that somehow Firefox will remain around, and that some value can be found in the WebExtensions, because what awaits come the day Firefox is no more will make the days of Internet Explorer 6.0 and toolbars look like a kindergarten play. You may think I'm being a drama queen, but just wait. Anyway, what else is there to say? WebExtensions, too little, too late, plus a lot of estranged users. But ... despite all that, you SHOULD use Firefox. To be continued.

Cheers.

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