Can Firefox Be Saved? Two Proposals

Monday Apr 4th 2011 by Serdar Yegulalp
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The lackluster performance of Mozilla Firefox 4 suggests the browser may have lost its way.

After spending months on end watching Mozilla Firefox 4 go through eleven-and-some-odd betas, I’m less than impressed with what I’ve waited for all this time. The first time I launched a fresh install of Firefox 4 and navigated to the homepage of the New York Times, it hung for almost a minute on end – and then every ad block on the page burped with a “Flash plugin has crashed” message.

This is progress?

I know I’m not alone in this, either – many folks I know who had been suffering through successive Firefox betas were disillusioned with the quality of the release product. They’re either rolling back to Firefox 3.6 or ditching it entirely.

Me, I’d ditched Firefox for Chrome back around revision 3.4 or so. Maybe earlier.

Like too many other software projects before it, Firefox is starting to suffer from the very things it was originally developed to avoid. It’s falling victim to the exact stagnation that plagued Netscape before it. The competition – not just Chrome, but even lowly old Internet Explorer, now in its ninth version – is outpacing it in greater strides.

In short, there’s now less reason than ever to be a Firefox user.

That’s a shame, because Firefox isn’t a bad piece of software. It’s just increasingly suffering from third-wheel syndrome, which it hasn’t found an effective way to lick yet.

Google Chrome, by contrast, has come from behind to eclipse Firefox in a whole slew of ways. On the same hardware, it launches and browsers more quickly and with less inexplicable lag than Firefox. Flash doesn’t hiccup or stall, and hasn’t bombed on me at all for a few versions running now.

Google Chrome’s add-on architecture is a lot easier to work with and requires a prospective software author to jump through far less hoops. Its page debugging and inspection tools are remarkable; I rely on them constantly. And while running each tab in its own process is more memory-hungry than Firefox, at least I know that memory’s being put to good use: if one tab stalls, the rest don’t.

But wait: I’m not just here to bury Firefox and praise Chrome. If anything, I’d like to see Firefox rise all the more to the challenge and give Chrome a run for its money. I just don’t see that happening with Firefox’s current development cycle.

Mozilla is talking about ramping up their releases to match Chrome’s, but I’m not sure that’s enough. What might be needed are solutions that are either far more precise than what Mozilla is dreaming up, or way more radical than they will aim for.

Make a break from the past

When Firefox came along, it was a welcome relief from the tired and stagnant Netscape. Here was a browser that threw out everything that didn’t need to be there, gave the user a snappy browsing experience, and offered a far more appealing alternative to Internet Explorer.

The whole reason all this was possible was because Firefox was a radical break from the past – an experimental branch of Mozilla that overtook the parent. Firefox left behind more baggage than it kept, and the end result was a massive success story.

Maybe it’s time to do that again. Let’s have a spinoff of Firefox that is to that browser what Firefox itself was to Netscape. Not just another iteration in Firefox’s development, but a clean slate – a way to get back to the basics that the original iterations of Firefox prided itself on and were valued for in the first place.

This is something that might only be possible by a third party, though. Only a third party might have the distance required to take Firefox, strip out everything that no longer needs to be there, and start over again with as little of Mozilla’s existing baggage as possible. The hard part isn’t getting the code (Firefox is open source, after all). The hard part would be assembling a development team willing to commit to a project of that scope.

Much as I like to believe in the romance of open source, a project like this isn’t something you can do on nights and weekends – not in a competitive fashion, that is. That might well prove to be a bigger obstacle than writing the code: finding and supporting people who can do it and get it out the door in a timely way.

Ship smarter, not more often

Maybe kicking off a whole new branch of Firefox is too radical a suggestion for most people. Barring that, I took a look at the Firefox roadmap for 2011 to see what Mozilla itself has in mind.

There are a lot of goals here, and it’s not clear which goals are being targeted for what versions or if they’re all being attacked simultaneously. What’s more, there’s a lot of things discussed here that still don’t have any major relevance to users. Example: “Expand the Open Web Platform to include Apps, Social and Identity.” This could easily mean anything. And at any rate, it doesn’t add up to much right now given that most people are just surrendering and using Facebook to sign into everything.

(It’s a nice goal for Mozilla to promote more open-ended identity frameworks, but to my mind it’s pointless, given that the very browser being used to do the signing in keeps grinding to a crawl.)

My suggestion is this: Pick one major goal per iteration of Firefox, and commit everyone across the board to making that goal real.

The first goal I recommend is an expanded version of item #2 on the Firefox list: Declare an all-out war on lag.

Find every possible reason why the browser lags, slows down, or stalls entirely and get rid of it. Since the reasons for such a thing may be rampant throughout the product, that means you have all the more reason to make such an effort an all-fronts war and not just an ongoing priority.

Get that investigated, get it done, and release a version of the product where that is the major reason for an upgrade. If the answers lie in a bad user configuration, then at the very least let the user know that’s the culprit. Don’t give him an excuse to leave.

The same one-major-problem-at-a-time approach should also be applied to problems with Flash, and to the other show-stopping, browser-wide issues that everyone complains about.

These things are scaring people off, and they need to be attacked as fiercely as they can.

More is not better; sometimes it’s just more

It’s not hard to read Mozilla’s stated goal of releasing new iterations of the browser more often, and with more revisions to the left of the decimal point, as a way to play catch-up with Chrome.

The thing is, releases and revisions are entirely arbitrary: it doesn’t matter what they call the next iteration of Firefox. What matters more is how each revision represents real advances for the state of the program that end users can bank on.

Without that, no product is worth building on as a base of productivity. A stagnant program is just as unusable as one revised without clear goals.

What I really don’t want to see is Firefox become to browsers what Ubuntu has become to Linux distributions. I don’t want them shipping a product every six months whether we like it or not, one where there are at least as many regressions as there are advances.

And, most of all, I don’t want to turn my back on a browser that did a lot to make the Web what it is now. But software’s about what works, not where your heart’s at – and right now, for me, Chrome is what works. Firefox remains under wraps.

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