Firefox as the asphyxiating canary in the coalmine of the web.
Tuesday, January 11th, 2022
Wednesday, December 1st, 2021
Prompted by my talk, The State Of The Web, Brian zooms out to get some perspective on how browser power is consolidated.
The web is made of clients and servers. There’s a huge amount of diversity in the server space but there’s very little diversity when it comes to clients because making a browser has become so complex and expensive.
But Brian hopes that this complexity and expense could be distributed amongst a large amount of smaller players.
10 companies agreeing to invest $10k apiece to advance and maintain some area of shared interest is every bit as useful as 1 agreeing to invest $100k generally. In fact, maybe it’s more representative.
We believe that there is a very long tail of increasingly smaller companies who could do something, if only they coordinated to fund it together. The further we stretch this out, the more sources we enable, the more its potential adds up.
Sunday, August 8th, 2021
’Sfunny, when I look back at older journal entries they’re often written out of frustration, usually when something in the dev world is bugging me. But when I look back at all the links I’ve bookmarked the vibe is much more enthusiastic, like I’m excitedly pointing at something and saying “Check this out!” I feel like sentiment analyses of those two sections of my site would yield two different results.
My journal entries have been even more specifically negative of late. I’ve been bitchin’ and moanin’ about web browsers. But at least I’m an equal-opportunities bitcher and moaner.
- Mozilla, I complained about your Facebook Container extension for Firefox.
- Apple, I complained about the ridiculous way Safari’s update cycle is tied to operating system.
- Google, I complained about the way a breaking change was rolled out in Chrome (and the implications for future breaking changes).
- Microsoft, you got off lightly. But please consider any of my criticisms of Chrome to apply to Edge too, seeing as they’re basically the same now.
I wish my journal weren’t so negative, but my mithering behaviour has been been encouraged. On more than one occasion, someone I know at a browser company has taken me aside to let me know that I should blog about any complaints I might have with their browser. It sounds counterintuitive, I know. But these blog posts can give engineers some ammunition to get those issues prioritised and fixed.
So my message to you is this: if there’s something about a web browser that you’re not happy with (or, indeed, if there’s something you’re really happy with), take the time to write it down and publish it.
Publish it on your website. You could post your gripes on Twitter but whinging on Jack’s website is just pissing in the wind. And I suspect you also might put a bit more thought into a blog post on your own site.
I know it’s a cliché to say that browser makers want to hear from developers—and I’m often cynical about it myself—but they really do want to know what we think. Share your thoughts. I’ll probably end up linking to what you write.
Tuesday, August 3rd, 2021
Facebook Container for Firefox
Firefox has a nifty extension—made by Mozilla—called Facebook Container. It does two things.
First of all, it sandboxes any of your activity while you’re on the facebook.com domain. The tab you’re in is isolated from all others.
Secondly, when you visit a site that loads a tracker from Facebook, the extension alerts you to its presence. For example, if a page has a share widget that would post to Facebook, a little fence icon appears over the widget warning you that Facebook will be able to track that activity.
It’s a nifty extension that I’ve been using for quite a while. Except now it’s gone completely haywire. That little fence icon is appearing all over the web wherever there’s a form with an email input. See, for example, the newsletter sign-up form in the footer of the Clearleft site. It’s happening on forms over on The Session too despite the rigourous-bordering-on-paranoid security restrictions in place there.
Hovering over the fence icon displays this text:
If you use your real email address here, Facebook may be able to track you.
That is, of course, false. It’s also really damaging. One of the worst things that you can do in the security space is to cry wolf. If a concerned user is told that they can ignore that warning, you’re lessening the impact of all warnings, even serious legitimate ones.
Sometimes false positives are an acceptable price to pay for overall increased security, but in this case, the rate of false positives can only decrease trust.
I tried to find out how to submit a bug report about this but I couldn’t work it out (and I certainly don’t want to file a bug report in a review) so I’m writing this in the hopes that somebody at Mozilla sees it.
What’s really worrying is that this might not be considered a bug. The release notes for the version of the extension that came out last week say:
Email fields will now show a prompt, alerting users about how Facebook can track users by their email address.
Like …all email fields? That’s ridiculous!
I thought the issue might’ve been fixed in the latest release that came out yesterday. The release notes say:
This release addresses fixes a issue from our last release – the email field prompt now only displays on sites where Facebook resources have been blocked.
But the behaviour is unfortunately still there, even on sites like The Session or Clearleft that wouldn’t touch Facebook resources with a barge pole. The fence icon continues to pop up all over the web.
I hope this gets sorted soon. I like the Facebook Container extension and I’d like to be able to recommend it to other people. Right now I’d recommed the opposite—don’t install this extension while it’s behaving so overzealously. If the current behaviour continues, I’ll be uninstalling this extension myself.
Update: It looks like a fix is being rolled out. Fingers crossed!
Monday, March 29th, 2021
Good to see Google, Mozilla, and Apple collaborating on fixing cross-browser CSS compatability issues:
- position: sticky
You can track progress here.
Monday, September 7th, 2020
I’ve thought about these questions for over a year and narrowed my feelings of browser diversity down to two major value propositions:
- Browser diversity keeps the Web deliberately slow
- Browser diversity fosters consensus and cooperation over corporate rule
Monday, July 27th, 2020
John weighs in on the clashing priorities of browser vendors.
Imagine if the web never got CSS. Never got a way to style content in sophisticated ways. It’s hard to imagine its rise to prominence in the early 2000s. I’d not be alone in arguing a similar lack of access to the sort of features inherent to the mobile experience that WebKit and the folks at Mozilla have expressed concern about would (not might) largely consign the Web to an increasingly marginal role.
Thursday, July 9th, 2020
Jay quotes from a 1992 email by Tim Berners-Lee when there was real concern about having too many different browsers. But as history played out, the concern shifted to having too few different browsers.
I wrote about this—back when Edge switched to using Chromium—in a post called Unity where I compared it to political parties:
If you have hundreds of different political parties, that’s not ideal. But if you only have one political party, that’s very bad indeed!
In the discussion we dive deeper into the naunces of browser engine diversity; how it’s not the numbers that matter, but representation. The danger with one dominant rendering engine is that it would reflect one dominant set of priorities.
I think we’re starting to see this kind of battle between different sets of priorities playing out in the browser rendering engine landscape.
Webkit published a list of APIs they won’t be implementing in their current form because of security concerns around fingerprinting. Mozilla is taking the same stand. Google is much more gung-ho about implementing those APIs.
I think it’s safe to say that every implementor wants to ship powerful APIs and ensure security and privacy. The issue is with which gets priority. Using the language of principles and priorities, you could crudely encapsulate Apple and Mozilla’s position as:
Privacy, even over capability.
That design principle would pass the reversibility test. In fact, Google’s position might be represented as:
Capability, even over privacy.
I’m not saying Apple and Mozilla don’t value powerful APIs. I’m not saying Google doesn’t value privacy. I’m saying that Google’s priorities are different to Apple’s and Mozilla’s.
There is a contingent of browser vendors today who do not wish to expand the web platform to cover adjacent use-cases or meaningfully close the relevance gap that the shift to mobile has opened.
That’s very disappointing. It’s a cheap shot. As cheap as saying that, given Google’s business model, Chrome wouldn’t want to expand the web platform to provide better privacy and security.
Monday, June 15th, 2020
Myself and Stuart had a chat with Brian about browser engine diversity.
Here’s the audio file if you’d like to huffduff it.
Sunday, December 8th, 2019
Here’s an end-of-year roundup of all the data that Mozilla have gathered through their Firefox browser—very impressive!
Sunday, November 17th, 2019
A good overview of the unfair playing field of web browsers, dominated by the monopolistic practices by Google and Apple.
Mozilla is no longer fighting for market share of its browser: it is fighting for the future of the web.
Tuesday, November 12th, 2019
CSS for all
There have been some great new CSS properties and values shipping in Firefox recently.
In another video, Jen describes some new properties for styling underlines (on links, for example):
text-decoration-thickness: 0.1em; text-decoration-color: red; text-underline-offset: 0.2em; text-decoration-skip-ink: auto;
As far as I can tell, all of these properties are available to you regardless of whether you are serving your website over HTTP or over HTTPS. That may seem like an odd observation to make, but I invite you to cast your mind back to January 2018. That’s when the Mozilla Security Blog posted about moving to secure contexts everywhere:
Despite that “effective immediately” clause, I haven’t observed any of the new CSS properties added in the past two years to be restricted to HTTPS. I’m glad about that. I wrote about this announcement at the time:
I am in total agreement that we should be encouraging everyone to switch to HTTPS. But requiring HTTPS in order to use CSS? The ends don’t justify the means.
If there were valid security reasons for making HTTPS a requirement, I would be all for enforcing this. But these are two totally separate areas. Enforcing HTTPS by withholding CSS support is no different to enforcing AMP by withholding search placement.
There’s no official word from the Mozilla Security Blog about any change to their two-year old “effective immediately” policy, and the original blog post hasn’t been updated. Maybe we can all just pretend it never happened.
Friday, October 25th, 2019
Latest Firefox Brings Privacy Protections Front and Center Letting You Track the Trackers - The Mozilla Blog
I really like this latest addition in Firefox to show how many tracking scripts are being blocked. I think it’s always good to make the invisible visible (one of the reasons why I like RequestMap so much).
Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019
If you haven’t done so already, you should really switch to Firefox.
Then encourage your friends and family to switch to Firefox too.
Sunday, December 16th, 2018
Microsoft’s Edge browser is going to switch its rendering engine over to Chromium.
I am deflated and disappointed.
There’s just no sugar-coating this. I’m sure the decision makes sound business sense for Microsoft, but it’s not good for the health of the web.
Very soon, the vast majority of browsers will have an engine that’s either Blink or its cousin, WebKit. That may seem like good news for developers when it comes to testing, but trust me, it’s a sucky situation of innovation and agreement. Instead of a diverse browser ecosystem, we’re going to end up with incest and inbreeding.
There’s one shining exception though. Firefox. That browser was originally created to combat the seemingly unstoppable monopolistic power of Internet Explorer. Now that Microsoft are no longer in the rendering engine game, Firefox is once again the only thing standing in the way of a complete monopoly.
I’ve been using Firefox as my main browser for a while now, and I can heartily recommend it. You should try it (and maybe talk to your relatives about it at Christmas). At this point, which browser you use no longer feels like it’s just about personal choice—it feels part of something bigger; it’s about the shape of the web we want.
Jeffrey wrote that browser diversity starts with us:
The health of Firefox is critical now that Chromium will be the web’s de facto rendering engine.
Even if you love Chrome, adore Gmail, and live in Google Docs or Analytics, no single company, let alone a user-tracking advertising giant, should control the internet.
Andy Bell also writes about browser diversity:
I’ll say it bluntly: we must support Firefox. We can’t, as a community allow this browser engine monopoly. We must use Firefox as our main dev browsers; we must encourage our friends and families to use it, too.
Yes, it’s not perfect, nor are Mozilla, but we can help them to develop and grow by using Firefox and reporting issues that we find. If we just use and build for Chromium, which is looking likely (cough Internet Explorer monopoly cough), then Firefox will fall away and we will then have just one major engine left. I don’t ever want to see that.
If the idea of a Google-driven Web is of concern to you, then I’d encourage you to use Firefox. And don’t be a passive consumer; blog, tweet, and speak about its killer features. I’ll start: Firefox’s CSS Grid, Flexbox, and Variable Font tools are the best in the business.
Mozilla themselves came out all guns blazing when they said Goodbye, EdgeHTML:
Microsoft is officially giving up on an independent shared platform for the internet. By adopting Chromium, Microsoft hands over control of even more of online life to Google.
Tim describes the situation as risking a homogeneous web:
I don’t think Microsoft using Chromium is the end of the world, but it is another step down a slippery slope. It’s one more way of bolstering the influence Google currently has on the web.
We need Google to keep pushing the web forward. But it’s critical that we have other voices, with different viewpoints, to maintain some sense of balance. Monocultures don’t benefit anyone.
Andre Alves Garzia writes that while we Blink, we lose the web:
Losing engines is like losing languages. People may wish that everyone spoke the same language, they may claim it leads to easier understanding, but what people fail to consider is that this leads to losing all the culture and way of thought that that language produced. If you are a Web developer smiling and happy that Microsoft might be adopting Chrome, and this will make your work easier because it will be one less browser to test, don’t be! You’re trading convenience for diversity.
I like that analogy with language death. If you prefer biological analogies, it’s worth revisiting this fantastic post by Rachel back in August—before any of us knew about Microsoft’s decision—all about the ecological impact of browser diversity:
Let me be clear: an Internet that runs only on Chrome’s engine, Blink, and its offspring, is not the paradise we like to imagine it to be.
That post is a great history lesson, documenting how things can change, and how decisions can have far-reaching unintended consequences.
So these are the three browser engines we have: WebKit/Blink, Gecko, and EdgeHTML. We are unlikely to get any brand new bloodlines in the foreseeable future. This is it.
If we lose one of those browser engines, we lose its lineage, every permutation of that engine that would follow, and the unique takes on the Web it could allow for.
And it’s not likely to be replaced.
Friday, December 7th, 2018
Mozilla comes out with all guns blazing:
Microsoft is officially giving up on an independent shared platform for the internet. By adopting Chromium, Microsoft hands over control of even more of online life to Google.
Wednesday, December 5th, 2018
Losing [browser] engines is like losing languages. People may wish that everyone spoke the same language, they may claim it leads to easier understanding, but what people fail to consider is that this leads to losing all the culture and way of thought that that language produced. If you are a Web developer smiling and happy that Microsoft might be adopting Chrome, and this will make your work easier because it will be one less browser to test, don’t be! You’re trading convenience for diversity.
Saturday, September 1st, 2018
This is excellent news from Mozilla. Firefox is going to make it easier to block vampiric privacy-leeching and performance-draining third-party scripts and trackers.
In the physical world, users wouldn’t expect hundreds of vendors to follow them from store to store, spying on the products they look at or purchase. Users have the same expectations of privacy on the web, and yet in reality, they are tracked wherever they go.
Tuesday, August 21st, 2018
Mozilla’s work-in-progress style guide and pattern library.
Tuesday, July 31st, 2018
I’m impressed by Mozilla’s commitment to designing in the open—one of the hardest parts of any kind of brand work is getting agreement, and this process must make that even more difficult.
I have to say, I quite like both options on display here.