Re-dreaming Firefox (1): Firefox Agents
May 29, 2015 § 9 Comments
Gerv’s recent post on the Jeeves Test got me thinking of the Firefox of my dreams. So I decided to write down a few ideas on how I would like to experience the web. Today: Firefox Agents. Let me emphasise that the features described in this blog post do not exist.
Marcel uses Firefox every day, for quite a number of things.
- He uses Firefox for fun, for watching videos and playing online games. For this purpose, he has installed a few tools for finding and downloading videos. Also, one of his main search engines is YouTube. Suggested movies? Sure, as long as they are fun.
- He uses Firefox for social networks. He follows his friends, he searches on Facebook, or Twitter, or Google+. If anything looks fun, or useful, he’d like to be informed.
- He uses Firefox for managing his bank accounts, his taxes, his health insurance. For this purpose, he has paranoid security settings – to avoid phishing, he can only browse to a few whitelisted websites – and no add-ons. He may be interested in getting information from these few websites, and in security updates, but that’s about it. Also, since Firefox handles all his passwords, it must itself be protected by a password.
- He uses Firefox to read his Gmail account. And to read his other Gmail account. And he doesn’t want to leak privacy information by doing so on the same Firefox that he’s using for browsing.
- Oh, and he may also be using Firefox for browsing websites that are sensitive for any kind of reason, whether he’s hunting for gifts for his close family, dating online, chatting with hackers, discussing politics, helping NGOs in sensitive parts of the globe, visiting BitTorrent trackers, consulting a physician through some online service, or, well, anything else that requires privacy. He’d like to perform such browsing with additional anonymity guarantees. This also means locking Firefox with a password.
- Sometimes, his children or friends borrow his computer and use Firefox, too.
Of course, since Marcel brings his own device at (or from) work, that’s the same Firefox that he’s using for all of these tasks, and he’s probably even doing several of these tasks at the same time.
So, Marcel has a set of contradictory requirements, not to mention that each of his uses of Firefox needs to pass a distinct Jeeves Test. How do we keep him happy nevertheless?
Introducing Firefox Agents
In the rest of this post, I will be calling each of these uses of Firefox an Agent (if we ever implement this feature, it will, of course, be called Persona). Each Agent matches one way you use Firefox. While Firefox may be delivered with a predefined set of Agents, users can easily create new Agents. In the example, Marcel has his “Fun Agent”, his “Social Agent”, his “Work Agent”, etc.
Each Agent is unique and separate:
- Each Agent has its own icon on Marcel’s menu/desktop/tablet/phone and task list.
- Each Agent has its own visual identity, to make sure that work-related stuff doesn’t end up accidentally in the Fun Agent.
- Each Agent has its own set of preferences, bookmarks, remembered passwords, cookies, cache, and add-ons.
- Each website may be connected to a given Agent, so that links received through Gmail or through Thunderbird, for instance, automatically open with the right Agent.
As a consequence, any technology that can come bundled with Firefox to, for instance, provide search suggestions or any other kind of website suggestions is tied to an Agent. For instance, Marcel’s browsing a dating site, or shopping for shoes, or having religious activities will not be visible to any of his colleagues looking above his shoulder at his Work Agent, nor will it be tied to either of Marcel’s Gmail accounts. This greatly increases the chances of suggestion technologies passing the Jeeves Test.
Agents are also connected:
- A menu in each Agent, as well as a keyboard shortcut, lets users quickly open/switch to other Agents.
- When an Agent follows a link to a website that belongs to another Agent, the relevant Agent opens automatically.
- Bookmarks may be pushed, on demand, from one Agent to another one.
- Passwords may be pulled, on demand, from one Agent to another one.
How far are we from Agents?
Technologically speaking, Firefox Agents almost exist. Indeed, Firefox has supported Profiles forever, since way before Firefox 1.0. I generally have three instances of Firefox opened at the same time (four when I’m doing web development), and it works nicely.
With a few add-ons, you can get almost everything, although not entirely connected together:
- Profilist helps a lot with switching between profiles, and the dev version adds distinct icons;
- Firefox Themes implement distinct appearances;
- there are add-ons implementing whitelist browsing;
- there are add-ons implementing password-protected Firefox.
A few features are missing, but as you can see, the list is actually quite short:
- Pushing/pulling passwords and bookmarks between Agents (although that’s a subset of what Firefox Accounts can do).
- Attaching specific websites to specific Agents (although this doesn’t seem too difficult to implement).
- Connecting this all together.
I would like to browse with this Firefox. Would you?