This blog has moved

September 19, 2016 § Leave a comment

You can find my new blog on github. Still rough around the edges, but I’m planning to improve this as I go.

The Gecko monoculture

March 7, 2016 § 8 Comments

I remember a time, not so very long ago, when Gecko powered 4 or 5 non-Mozilla browsers, some of them on exotic platforms, as well as GPS devices, wysiwyg editors, geographic platforms, email clients, image editors, eBook readers, documentation browsers, the UX of virus scanners, etc, as well as a host of innovative and exotic add-ons. In these days, Gecko was considered, among other things, one of the best cross-platform development toolkits available.

The year is now 2016 and, if you look around, you’ll be hard-pressed to find Gecko used outside of Firefoxen (alright, and Thunderbird and Bluegriffon). Did Google or Apple or Microsoft do that? Not at all. I don’t know how many in the Mozilla community remember this, but this was part of a Mozilla strategy. In this post, I’d like to discuss this strategy, its rationale, and the lessons that we may draw from it.

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Dreaming the Internet of Things

February 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

One of these days, using the Cloud of OpaqueCompany ™, I will be able to set the colour of my lightbulbs by talking to my TV. Somewhere along the way, my house will become a little bit more energy hungry and a little bit more dependent on the Cloud of OpaqueCompany(tm) . That’s the promise of the Internet of Things. Isn’t that neat? Isn’t that exciting?

Not really. At least, not for me. But, for some reason, whenever I read about that Internet of Things, it is about expensive gadgets that, to me, sounds like Christmas commercials:  marginally useful, designed by marketers for spoilt westerners to be consumed then forgotten before the next Christmas shopping spree.

But this doesn’t have to be.

I have spent a little time scratching the surface and trying to determine whether there was something more to this Internet of Things, beside the shopping list. I came back convinced that, once you forget the marketing, this Internet of Things can become a revolution as big as the Personal Computer or the World Wide Web – at least if we let it fall into the right hands.

Say you are the owner or manager of a small commerce, say a restaurant. Chances are that you need a burglar alarm, either because you fear that you are going to be burglarised, or because your insurance requires one. You have two solutions. Either you go to a store and buy some off-the-shelf product, or you contract a company, draw a list of requirements and pay for a custom setup. In either case, you are a consumer, and you are stuck with what you paid for. But needs change. Perhaps the insurance policies now requires you to have an alarm that can call the police automatically. Perhaps neighbours complained about the noise of the alarm and you need to turn it into a silent alarm that rings your cellphone. Perhaps the insurance has changed their policy and now requires you to take pictures of the burglary. Perhaps you have had work done and the small window in the bathroom is now large enough that it could be used to break in. Or water damage has destroyed one of your sensors and you need to replace it, but the model doesn’t exist anymore. Or you are tired of triggering the alarm when you take out the garbage and need to refine the policy. Of your product was linked to a subscription, to call the police on your behalf, but the provider has stopped this service. In any of these cases, you are probably stuck. Because your needs have made you a consumer and you are served only as long as there is a market for your specific need.

Now, consider an alternate universe, in which you just need to walk or drive to the nearest store, buy a few off-the-shelf motion detectors, for the price of a few dollars and simply attach them in your restaurant, where you see fit. They use open standards, so you can install an app to get them to work together, or even better, use your cellphone to script them visually into doing what you need. Do you need to add one or ten, or replace them with different models, or add door-lock sensors? It’s just as easy. Do you need to add a camera? Well, place it and use your cellphone to add that camera to your script. Use your cellphone again and customise the effect, to call the police, or ring your cellphone, or deactivate a single alarm between 11pm and 11.30pm, because that’s when you take out the trash. And if your product is linked to a subscription, because it uses open standards, you can switch provider as needed. In this universe, the Internet of Things has put you in control – not a Cloud, not a silo – and drastically cut your costs and your dependencies.

A few months ago, Mozilla has started pivoting from SmartPhones to the Web of Things – that’s the name we give to Internet of Things done right, with open standards, you in charge, rather than silos and Opaque Cloud ™. I can make no promise that we are going to succeed, but I believe in the huge potential of this Web of Things.

By the way, it doesn’t stop at restaurants. The exact same open standards can help you guard against fires in your house or humidity in your server room. Or crowdsourcing flood detection in cities exposed to flash floods or automating experiments in a physics lab. Or watching your heartbeat or listening to your snores. Or determining which part of the village farm needs to be irrigated in priority or which part of the sewers need most attention.

Some of these problems already have commercial solutions. But what about your next problem, the one that hasn’t attracted the attention of any company large enough to produce devices specifically for you?

Here is to the Web of Things. Let’s make sure that it falls into the right hands.

Designing the Firefox Performance Monitor (2): Monitoring Add-ons and Webpages

November 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

In part 1, we discussed the design of time measurement within the Firefox Performance Monitor. Despite the intuition, the Performance Monitor had neither the same set of objectives as the Gecko Profiler, nor the same set of constraints, and we ended up picking a design that was not a sampling profiler. In particular, instead of capturing performance data on stacks, the Monitor captures performance data on Groups, a notion that we have not discussed yet. In this part, we will focus on bridging the gap between our low-level instrumentation and actual add-ons and webpages, as may be seen by the user.

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What have I done since last July?

July 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

School year 2014-2015 is ending. It’s time for a brief report.

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Living in a Go Faster, post-XUL world

July 13, 2015 § 31 Comments

A long time ago, XUL was an extraordinary component of Firefox. It meant that front-end and add-on developers could deliver user interfaces in a single, mostly-declarative, language, and see them adapt automatically to the look and feel of each OS. Ten years later, XUL has become a burden: most of its features have been ported to HTML5, often with slightly different semantics – which makes Gecko needlessly complex – and nobody understands XUL – which makes contributions harder than they should be. So, we have reached a stage at which we basically agree that, in a not-too-distant future, Firefox should not rely upon XUL anymore.

But wait, it’s not the only thing that needs to change. We also want to support piecewise updates for Firefox. We want Firefox to start fast. We want the UI to remain responsive. We want to keep supporting add-ons. Oh, and we want contributors, too. And we don’t want to lose internationalization.

Mmmh… and perhaps we don’t want to restart Firefox from bare Gecko.

All of the above are worthy objectives, but getting them all will require some careful thought.

So I’d like to put together a list of all our requirements, against which we could evaluate potential solutions, re-architectures, etc. for the front-end:


  • Get rid of the deprecated (XUL) bits of Gecko in a finite time.
  • Don’t break Firefox [1].

User-oriented goals

  • Firefox should start fast.
  • The UI should not suffer from jank.
  • The UI should not cause jank.
  • Look and feel like a native app, even with add-ons.
  • Keep supporting internationalization.
  • Keep supporting lightweight themes.
  • Keep supporting acccessibility.

Contributor/dev-oriented goals

  • Use technologies that the world understands.
  • Use technologies that are useful to add-on authors.
  • Support piece-wise, restart-less front-end updates.
  • Provide an add-ons API that won’t break.
  • Code most of the front-end with the add-ons API.

[1] I have heard this claim contested. Some apparently suggest that we should actually break Firefox and base all our XUL-less, Go Faster initiatives on a clean slate from e.g. Browser.html or Servo. If you wish to defend this, please step forward🙂

Does this sound like a correct list for all of you?

Re-dreaming Firefox (3): Identities

June 5, 2015 § 8 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: Identities. Let me emphasise that the features described in this blog post do not exist.

Sacha has a Facebook account, plus two Gmail accounts and one Microsoft Live identity. Sacha is also present on Twitter, both with a personal account, and as the current owner of his company’s account. Sacha also has an account on his bank, another one on Paypal, and one on Amazon. With any browser other than Firefox, Sacha’s online life would be a bit complicated.

For one thing, Sacha is logged to several of these accounts most of the time. Sacha has been told that this makes him easy to track, not just when he’s on Facebook, but also when he visits blogs, or news sites, or even shopping sites, but really, who has time to log off from any account? With any other browser, or with an older version of Firefox, Sacha would have no online privacy. Fortunately, Sacha is using Firefox, which has grown pretty good at handling identities.

Indeed, Firefox knows the difference between Facebook’s (and Google’s, etc.) main sites, for which Sacha may need to be logged, and the tracking devices installed on other sites through ads, or through the Like button (and Google +1, etc.), which are pure nuisances. So, even when Sacha is logged on Facebook, his identity remains hidden from the tracking devices. To put it differently, Sacha is logged to Facebook only on Facebook tabs, and only while he’s using Facebook in these tabs. And since Sacha has two GMail accounts, his logging on each account doesn’t interact with the other account. This feature is good not only for privacy, but also for security, as it considerably mitigates the danger of Cross-Site Scripting attacks. Conversely, if a third-party website uses Facebook as an identity provider, Firefox can detect this automatically, and handle the log-in.

Privacy doesn’t stop there. Firefox has a database of Terms of Service for most websites. Whenever Firefox detects that Sacha is entering his e-mail address, or his phone number, or his physical address, Firefox can tell Sacha if he’s signing up for spam or telemarketing – and take measures to avoid it. If Sacha is signing up for spam, Firefox can automatically create an e-mail alias specific to this website, valid either for a few days, or forever. If Sacha has a provider of phone aliases, Firefox can similarly create a phone alias specific to the website, valid either for a few days, or forever. Similarly, if Sacha’s bank offers temporary credit card numbers, Firefox can automatically create a single-transaction credit card number.

Firefox offers an Identity Panel (if we release this feature, it will, of course, be called Persona) that lets Sacha find out exactly which site is linked to which identity, and grant or revoke authorizations to log-in automatically when visiting such sites, as well as log in or out from a single place. In effect, this behaves as a Internet-wide Single Sign On across identities. With a little help, Firefox can even be taught about lesser known identity providers, such as Sacha’s company’s Single Sign On, and handle them from the same panel. That Identity Panel also keeps track of e-mail aliases, and can be used to revoke spam- and telemarketing-inducing aliases in just two clicks.

Also, security has improved a lot. Firefox can automatically generate strong passwords – it even has a database of sites which accept accept passphrases, or are restricted to 8 characters, etc. Firefox can also detect when Sacha uses the same password on two unrelated sites, and explain him why this is a bad idea. Since Firefox can safely and securely share passwords with other devices and back them up into the cloud, or to encrypted QR Codes that Sacha can safely keep in his wallet, Sacha doesn’t even need to see passwords. Since Firefox handles the passwords, it can download every day a list of websites that are known to have been hacked, and use it to change passwords semi-automatically if necessary.

Security doesn’t stop there. The Identity Panel knows not only about passwords and identity providers, but also about the kind of information that Sacha has provided to each website. This includes Sacha’s e-mail address and physical address, Sacha’s phone number, and also Sacha’s credit card number. So when Firefox finds out that a website to which Sacha subscribes has been hacked, Sacha is informed immediately of the risks. This extends to less material information, such as Sacha’s personal blog of vacation pictures, which Sacha needs to check immediately to find out whether they have been defaced.

What now?

I would like to browse with this Firefox. Would you?

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