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.
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.
Designing the Firefox Performance Stats Monitor, part 1: Measuring time without killing battery or performance
October 27, 2015 § Leave a comment
For a few versions, Firefox Nightly has been monitoring the performance of add-ons, thanks to the Performance Stats API. While we are waiting for the greenlight to let it graduate to Firefox Aurora, as well as investigating a few lingering false-positives, and while v2 is approaching steadily, it is time for a brain dump on this toolbox and its design.
The initial objective of this monitor is to be able to flag both add-ons and webpages that cause noticeable slowdowns, so as to let users disable/close whatever is making their use of Firefox miserable. We also envision more advanced uses that could let us find out if features of webpages cause slowdowns on specific OS/hardware combinations.
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.
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 .
- 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.
- 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.
 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 (2): Beyond Bookmarks
June 3, 2015 § 17 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: Beyond Bookmarks. Let me emphasize that the features described in this blog post do not exist.
« Look, here is an interesting website. I want to read that content (or watch that video, or play that game), just not immediately. » So, what am I going to do to remember that I wish to read it later:
- Bookmark it?
- Save it to disk?
- Pocket it?
- Remember that I saw it and find it in my history later?
- Remember that I saw it and find it in my Awesome Bar later?
- Hope that it shows up in the New Tab page?
- Open a tab?
- Install the Open Web App for that website?
- Open a tab and put that tab in a tab group?
Wow, that’s 9 ways of fulfilling the same task. Having so many ways of doing the same thing is not a very good sign, so let’s see if we can find a way to unify a few of these abstractions into something more generic and powerful.
Bookmarking is saving is reading later
What are the differences between Bookmarking and Saving?
- Bookmarking keeps a URL, while Saving keeps a snapshot.
- Bookmarks can be used only from within the browser, while Saved files can be used only from without.
Merging these two features is actually quite easy. Let’s introduce a new button, the Awesome Bookmarks which will serve as a replacement for both the Bookmark button and Save As.
- Clicking on the Awesome Bookmarks icon saves both the URL to the internal database and a snapshot to the Downloads directory (also accessible through the Downloads menu).
- Opening an Awesome Bookmark, whether from the browser or from the OS both lead the user to (by default) the live version of the page, or (if the computer is not connected) to the snapshot.
- Whenever visiting a page that has an Awesome Bookmark, the Awesome Bookmark icon changes color to offer the user the ability to switch between the live version or the snapshot.
- The same page can be Awesome Bookmarked several times, offering the ability to switch between several snapshots.
By switching to Awesome Bookmarks, we have merged Saving, Bookmarking and the Read it Later list of Pocket. Actually, since Firefox already offers Sync and Social Sharing, we have just merged all the features of Pocket.
So we have removed collapsed items from our list into one.
Bookmarks are history are tiles
What are the differences between Bookmarks and History?
- History is recorded automatically, while Bookmarks need to be recorded manually.
- History is eventually forgotten, while Bookmarks are not.
- Bookmarks can be put in folders, History cannot.
Let’s keep doing almost that, but without segregating the views. Let us introduce a new view, the Awesome Pages, which will serve as a replacement for both Bookmarks Menu and the History Menu.
This view shows a grid of thumbnails of visited pages, iOS/Android/Firefox OS style.
- first the pages visited most often during the past few hours (with the option of scrolling for all the pages visited during the past few hours);
- then the Awesome Bookmarks (because, after all, the user has decided to mark these pages)/Awesome Bookmarks folders (with the option of scrolling for more favourites);
- then, if the user has opted in for suggestions, a set of Awesome Suggested Tiles (with the option of scrolling for more suggestions);
- then the pages visited the most often today (with the option of scrolling for the other pages visited today);
- then the pages visited most often this week (with the option of scrolling for the other pages visited this week);
By default, clicking on an Awesome Bookmark (or history entry, or suggested page, etc.) for a page that is already opened switches to that page. Non-bookmarked pages can be turned into Awesome Bookmarks trivially, by starring them or putting them into folders.
An Awesome Bar at the top of this Awesome Pages lets users quickly search for pages and folders. This is the same Awesome Bar that is already at the top of tabs in today’s Firefox, just with the full-screen Awesome Pages replacing the current drop-down menu.
Oh, and by the way, this Awesome Pages is actually our new New Tab page.
By switching to the Awesome Pages, we have merged:
- the history menu;
- the bookmarks menu;
- the new tab page;
- the awesome bar.
Bookmarks are tabs are apps
What are the differences between Bookmarks and Tabs?
- Clicking on a bookmark opens the page by loading it, while clicking on a tab opens the page by switching to it.
That’s not much of a difference, is it?
So let’s make a few more changes to our UX:
- Awesome Bookmarks record the state of the page, in the style of Session Restore, so clicking on an Awesome Bookmark actually restores that page, whenever possible, instead of reloading it;
- The ribbon on top of the browser, which traditionally contains tabs, is actually a simplified display of the Awesome Pages, which shows, by default, the pages most often visited during the past few hours;
- Whether clicking on a ribbon item switches to a page or restores it is an implementation detail, which depends on whether the browser has decided that unloading a page was a good idea for memory/CPU/battery usage;
- Replace Panorama with the Awesome Page, without further change.
So, with a little imagination (and, I’ll admit, a little hand-waving), we have merged tabs and bookmarks. Interestingly, we have done that by moving to an Apps-like model, in which whether an application is loaded or not is for the OS to decide, rather than the user.
By the way, what are the differences between Tabs and Open Web Apps?
- Apps can be killed by the OS, while Tabs cannot.
- Apps are visible to the OS, while Tabs appear in the browser only.
Well, if we decide that Apps are just Bookmarks, since Bookmarks have been made visible to the OS in section 1., and since Bookmarks have just been merged with Tabs which have just been made killable by the browser, we have our Apps model.
We have just removed three more items from our list.
We are down to one higher-level abstraction (the Awesome Bookmark) and one view of it (the Awesome Page). Of course, if this is eventually released, we are certainly going to call both Persona.
This new Firefox is quite different from today’s Firefox. Actually, it looks much more like Firefox OS, which may be a good thing. While I realize that many of the details are handwavy (e.g. how do you open the same page twice simultaneously?), I believe that someone smarter than me can do great things with this preliminary exploration.
I would like to try that Firefox. Would you?
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?