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 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.

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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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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.

What now?

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

Detecting slow add-ons

May 6, 2015 § 13 Comments

When it is at its best, Firefox is fast. Really, really fast. When things start slowing down, though, using Firefox is much less fun. So, one of main objectives of the developers of Firefox is making sure that Firefox is and remains as smooth and responsive as humanly possible. There is, however, one thing that can slow down Firefox, and that remains out of the control of the developers: add-ons. Good add-ons are extraordinary, but small coding errors – or sometimes necessary hacks – can quickly drive the performance of Firefox into the ground.

So, how can an add-on developer (or add-on reviewer) find out whether her add-on is fast? Sadly, not much. Testing certainly helps, and the Profiler is invaluable to help pinpoint a slowdown once it has been noticed, but what about the performance of add-ons in everyday use? What about the experience of users?

To solve this issue, we decided to work on a set of tools to help add-on developers and reviewers find out the performance of their add-ons. Oh, and also to let users find out quickly if an add-on is slowing down their everyday experience.

about:performance

On recent Nightly builds of Firefox, you may now open about:performance to get an overview of the performance cost of add-ons and webpages :

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 17.46.15

The main resources we monitor are :

  • jank, which measures how much the add-on impacts the responsiveness of Firefox. For 60fps performance, jank should always remain ≤ 4. If an add-on regularly causes jank to increase past 6, you should be worried.
  • CPOW aka blocking cross-process communications, which measures how much the add-on is causing Firefox to freeze waiting for a process to respond. Anything above 0 is bad.

Note that the design of this page is far from stable. I realise it’s not very user-friendly at the moment, so don’t hesitate to file bugs to help us improve it. Also note that, when running with e10s, the page doesn’t display all the useful information. We are working on it.

add-on Telemetry

Add-on developers and reviewers can now find information on the performance of their add-ons on a dedicated dashboard.

These are real-world performance data, as extracted from user’s computers. The two histograms available for the time being are:

  • MISBEHAVING_ADDONS_JANK_LEVEL, which measures the jank, as detailed above;
  • MISBEHAVING_ADDONS_CPOW_TIME_MS, which measure the amount of time spent in CPOW, as detailed above.

If you are an add-on developer, you should monitor regularly the performance of your add-on on this page. If you notice suspicious values, you should try and find out what causes these performance issues. Don’t hesitate and reach out to us, we will try and help you.

Slow add-on Notification

Add-on developers and reviewers, as well as end-users, are now informed when an add-on causes either jank or CPOW performance issues:

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 19.16.19

Note that this feature is not ready to ride the trains, and we do not have a specific idea of when it will be made available for users of Aurora/DeveloperEdition. This is partly because the UX is not good enough yet, partly because the thresholds will certainly change, and partly because we want to give add-on developers time to fix any issue before the users see a dialog that suggest that an add-on should be uninstalled.

Performance Stats API

By the way, we have an API for accessing performance stats. Very imaginatively, it’s called PerformanceStats.jsm [link]. While this API will still change during the coming weeks you can start playing with it if you are interested. Some add-ons may be able to throttle their performance use based on this data. Also, I hope that, in time, someone will be able to write a version of about:performance much nicer than mine🙂

Challenges and work ahead

For the moment, we are in the process of stabilizing the API, its implementation and its performance. In parallel, we are working on making the UX of about:performance more useful. Once both are done, we are going to proceed with adding more measurements, making the code more e10s-friendly and measuring the performance of webpages.

If you are an add-on developer and if you feel that your add-on is tagged as slow by error, or if you have great ideas on how to make this data useful, feel free to ping me, preferably on IRC. You can find me on irc.mozilla.org, channel #developers, where I am Yoric.

Je Suis Charlie

January 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

Charlie

Where Am I?

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