We’re at the end of our Performance work-week here in Brussels, and gearing up for a two-day orgy of European open-source culture at FOSDEM. I’ve successfully acquired a cold (and hopefully not worse) due to the temperature being consistently below freezing.
However, the people here in Brussels have made up for their weather shortcomings by welcoming us wherever we go. Between the hackerspaces and co-working spaces, and the restaurants that happily take large groups with little or no notice, I’m very impressed!
The hackerspace in Brussels is located in Schaerbeek, a neighborhood to the north of the city center. The space used to be a vehicle repair garage for the city, but was given up for use by the geeks. They’ve installed serious hardware, and have fully-equipped the place with everything needed for survival. Thanks to Rafael and Patrick, for answering all our questions and helping us make mate and to find food nearby. Lunch on the second day was described by Patrick as a “little French place”, but turned out to be a hall of worship dedicated to Tintin!
Faubourg St Antoine is filled with Tintin toys, art and knick-knacks, including some alternate interpretations and even a clarification for something I’d always wondered about. Sadly, they’ve been issued a legal notice from the current copyright (or EU equivalent) holders requiring them to remove all the Tintin materials from public display 😦
Once the temperatures dropped far below freezing, we relocated to BetaGroup Coworking Brussels in Etterbeek, to the southeast of the center. Ramon Suarez, the manager of the space was very accommodating, taking us on short notice. The wi-fi was blazing fast, the coffee was hot, and the ping-pong was a welcome break from heads-down hackery. The space itself was fantastic, with a great combination of quiet co-working areas, public spaces and private meeting offices. With tons of natural light, steel bridges and a meeting space on what looked like a submarine conning tower, it was truly impressive.
We had a wonderful lunch at a very tidy restaurant nearby.
Overall, it’s been a fun and productive week, if a bit chilly. Like, really chilly. Ridiculously so. Why do people even inhabit places that get this cold? Honestly, wtf.
The Performance team and some of the Firefox team are spending the week in Brussels, laying waste to some of the performance issues in the browser.
I’ll be uploading pics to flickr with the tag ‘perfworkweek2012’.
I am needy:
- I want to remember URLs. Bookmarking is too manual and akin to throwing URLs in the sarlacc pit. The user-interface pieces around bookmarking have not changed in a decade. No, the awesomebar is not a good tool for this. I don’t even come close to being able to recall what I want the awesomebar to recall. I need to be ambiently prompted in a way that is visual and has context.
- I need to be able to focus on a given task, project or idea. A single sea of tabs doesn’t help at all. I want blinders. I want an environment. Task immersion.
- I need to be able to categorize URLs into groups, such that the whole group is easily accessible. Trees and menus can go to hell, along with the RSI, eye-strain and visual boredom they provide.
- I need to be able to switch contexts quickly and easily. Eg: From bug triage to perf to dashboards to music, etc.
- I don’t want to leave the browser. Windows are super heavyweight feeling and come along with all kinds of operating system baggage: visual, interaction, performance, etc.
I realized recently that a pattern had emerged in my browser usage that meets a bunch of these needs:
- I set up Firefox to restore my session every time it starts. This way my groups persist, and all the URLs in each group are loaded with their cookies and other session data ready to go when I need them.
- I have “Don’t load tabs until selected” checked, so that Firefox does all this with as little memory as possible – the web pages in all the tabs in all the groups aren’t loaded until I actually use them.
- I restart the browser a couple of times per day to keep memory use slim, which in turn keeps the browser responsive. Restarting is super fast and responsive because I have “Don’t load tabs until selected” (see previous point).
This is the happiest I’ve been with any browser in years. However, there are still a bunch of pain points. I want SO much more.
- I want to tag URLs without bookmarking them. The bookmark concept just gets in the way. It’s an unnecessary unit of psychological weight. It’s a vestigial metaphor of days gone by.
- I want to open a tab group by typing the name of the group in the URL bar.
- I want to add URLs to multiple groups easily, similar to tagging. I’d like to do it via the keyboard.
- I want to send the current tab to a different group (or groups) using only the keyboard.
- I want app tabs that are specific to a given group, and some that are global.
- I want to switch quickly from an app tab back to the last non-app tab I was at. Or be able to peek quickly at an app tab without losing my context in the current set of tabs.
- I want to switch quickly back to the last tab I was at. (Eg: When I open a new tab, and get sent to the end of the current set of tabs). OR be able to have new tabs open immediately to the right of the current tab, with linked parentage.
- I’m tired of sites being browsers inside a browser. And I don’t want “site-specific” browsers – I want a “me-specific” browser, for local or dynamic content.
- Firefox creates the <tab> elements for hidden tabs when restoring the session. It would re/start even faster and use even less memory if the XUL elements for hidden tabs were not created until the group itself was opened.
- As I work, memory use increases and responsiveness decreases, since I keep visiting more and more tabs. If I haven’t visited a tab in a while, Firefox should unload it. If I haven’t visited a group in a while, Firefox should completely unload the whole group, session content *and* XUL elements.
- A downside of the “Don’t load tabs until selected” option is that tab content is not ready and waiting when you select the tab. The web content has to load and the session data for the tab must be restored. Firefox should pre-load tabs that are adjacent to the active tab. This feature, combined with the dormant-izing of tabs described above would result in a decent balance of instant-gratification availability and responsiveness and resource frugality.
One idea I had was a merging of tagging and groups: The groups in Panorama would be comprised of the set of tags that exist. This would result in nice integration bits like search-by-tag in the awesomebar being equivalent to search-in-group. It also might mean that we’ll need to make Panorama “bigger” – maybe allow it to be zoomed, or make it an infinite canvas.
An idea for navigating dynamic content is to merge feeds and groups. Imagine you have a BBC group, which has the BBC feed as it’s source. The set of “tabs” in that group are the items in the feed. If you open the group, all the URLs in the feed are loaded into tabs (but not *really* loaded if you restore-on-demand).
Anyways, it’s interesting to think about how to prototype some of these ideas in an add-on or a collection of them. I’m sure some of the items above already exist as add-ons.
I realize that I’m not a “typical user”. However, after almost 6 years of browser-making, I’m pretty damn sure that there is no such person. I do not believe that the one-size-fits-all browser is the future. When adding a feature or fixing a bug, we shouldn’t have to choose between grandma and the geeks. In order to stay relevant in a highly-personalized future, we should strive to ensure that Firefox is pliable enough that we who make it are not restricted by it, and more importantly we must ensure that add-on developers are free to mash-up and remix and experiment the f*ck out of it.
Ok, so maybe we aren’t in the post-browser age *yet*. But we’re getting there, and quickly. Most of the “apps” I use on my phone are useless without an always-on data connection, and they communicate with their respective motherships via HTTP. We’re staring down a near-future with multiple Web-stack operating systems for both desktop and portable devices. We have server-side application platforms that look startlingly like pieces of a traditional Web client.
All of those places are the Web, so that’s where Mozilla has got to be, when and if it’s possible to do so. And between desktop Firefox, mobile Firefox, Chromeless, B2G, Pancake, Open Web Apps and the various Firefox features developed by the Labs and the Services groups, we’ve got a lot of application logic that needs to exist in various forms across those disparate environments.
Up until recently, even including most of the mobile efforts to date, we’ve had a pretty narrow idea of what constitutes Firefox: Mozilla’s browser application with a front-end built in XUL, and rendering content using Gecko, stored entirely in a single source repository.
This narrow view is insufficient given the needs of internet users and the plans we have to serve those needs in the immediate future. This has been starkly illustrated by the recent move to a native UI for mobile Firefox, projects like Pancake, and the expansion of the development of Firefox features by groups outside of the core team.
A few months ago I dumped a couple of thoughts into a thread on the mozilla.dev.planning newsgroup about these things. More than anything, that thread showed me that the broad spectrum of activity in Mozilla today makes our narrow view of Firefox a huge barrier to future success. Some people didn’t agree that there was a problem at all. Some people railed against Jetpack or Github, while admitting they’d never used either. Some people agreed that developing Firefox is slow and fragile, and pointed at the relative historical success of that approach. Disturbingly, I got a bunch of private emails thanking me for starting the conversation… what does *that* mean?! Overall though, there was a lot of agreement on this point: We need more people to be able to work on Firefox faster, and in a more heterogeneous environment.
There’s a bunch of work towards that end going on right now, both in Firefox team itself and in Mozilla generally, around lowering the barriers to contribution. Specific to Firefox core development though, one experiment in alternate approaches is the attempt to ship the BrowserID feature as a Jetpack-based add-on that is developed on Github and bundled with Firefox. There are a lot of moving parts, but the exercise is helping us figure out the up- and downsides to building features as add-ons, as well as providing performance data about the Add-on SDK. Maybe it’ll work, maybe we’ll have to re-route and patch it against the core. Maybe we’ll land somewhere in-between.
Regardless of that experiment’s outcome, I think we need to be experimenting hard with how we develop Firefox, and asking questions about the longer-term development landscape:
- Code changes currently have non-deterministic effects in the Firefox ecosystem. We have a jumble of services that stagger into existence at startup, and then race for the exit at shutdown, beating up the file-system at both ends of the application lifecycle. “Async” is a pattern, not a system – without a system, making a bunch of things asynchronous means that the application’s behavior as a whole is generally less predictable. Is there a more systematic way that we can manage the loading and unloading of core browser services?
- Calcification: Check out the “cleanup page”. There are long-despised-and-untouched pieces of our core infrastructure, such as URL classifier, importers, autocomplete, and parts of Places. Why is it so hard to change these? What are the barriers to making them better?
- Modularity: Cu.import is great in that it provides some of the benefits that we used XPCOM JS services for, but without the XPCOM. But are we using it enough? Jetpack development puts much more emphasis on modularity via a core built on CommonJS, and I’ve found it to make browser features written in Jetpack far easier to follow, debug, and contribute to. Maybe we should be putting code into modules where we’d normally add it to browser.js, or XBL widgets moreso than we are now? This could reduce our dependence on the XUL window mega-scope that we get in browser.js, which I’d argue leads to code that is easier to developer, debug, test and maintain.
- Abstracting the application logic away from XUL/XPCOM where possible, allowing for more portable code. This doesn’t make sense in a lot of places in the front-end, but in others such as sync or expiration policies or tab grouping algorithms or frecency generation, it might. These are things which could be useful across a number of different application contexts.
So where from here? There’s general agreement that the Add-on SDK needs to ship in the browser. This might help address some of the questions above. However, it won’t immediately help us share code with other Firefoxes or Mozilla projects, or make core development inherently less-fragile or our application behavior any more deterministic. And there are tools like Cu.import, which we have now, and Harmony modules, which we might have soon (can we use those in chrome?!) that could help with the modularity part.
But only some of this is about the technology – other parts are social. As I said above, some people do not agree that developing Firefox is slow and fraught with peril. Is that plain ol’ resistance to change, or just the lack of a clear alternative? And maybe we code reviewers should be more forward-looking, demanding larger refactorings instead of non-invasive surgeries. But that’s challenging when you’re constrained for time, or the regression cost of refactoring is so high that you become risk averse.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the future of Firefox application development – especially the core Firefox team, and the people working on Firefox features in other groups or via add-ons. Myk Melez has been corralling a group to talk about feature development with the Add-on SDK specifically, but it quickly spreads into these broader issues. He’s starting a list for it, but until then there are regular meetings, details available in his dev.planning post.
The Mozilla Open Data Project is an index of all of the open APIs and data-sources available in the Mozilla project.
It’s also something that does not exist yet!
Or maybe it does, but I couldn’t find it…
Anyways, we’ve got massive amounts of data available throughout the project, from check-in logs to performance data to bugzilla APIs. However, there’s no central location that lists all of the sources that currently exist. This also means that’s it’s not easy to scan and see what’s not available that should be.
Maybe this is something we should list on a public index that already exists, like Programmable Web.
For now, I started a list here: https://wiki.mozilla.org/Modp
Please add any sources of data or public APIs that you know of to that list, or here in the comments and I’ll add them for you.
UPDATE: To clarify, this is different than the community metrics work being done by the Metrics team. But we’re talking about having this information available in the metrics portal at some point in the future, likely driven off a publicly editable source.
I remixed about:memory using D3 to make a treemap visualization of how loaded URLs are using memory in Firefox.
Load it by clicking the widget on the add-on bar, or Cmd/Ctrl+Shift+Y
This visualization focuses on which web pages are using large amounts of memory – this is not a complete accounting of all memory being used. This doesn’t yet show how much is being used by some of the Firefox internals.
Add-on installation does not require a restart. Only tested on Nightly builds.
Dormancy ‘retires’ tabs that have gone unused for a while, freeing up that memory. It then restores the tabs to life when accessed.
While Firefox 9 adds restore-on-demand for users that restore their session by default, many users will never benefit from it. This add-on targets users who don’t restore session, but do have long-running instances of Firefox and many tabs. This might land as a core feature in Firefox 9 (https://bugzilla.mozilla.org/show_bug.cgi?id=675539).
NOTE: This is highly experimental, has only been tested on the Nightly builds, and probably will destroy your session. You’ve been warned.
Tabs are considered inactive when they haven’t been selected in longer than 5 minutes. To change that, set this pref to a value in milliseconds:
Tabs are checked for inactivity every 5 minutes. To change this, set this pref to a value in milliseconds:
- Awesomebar entry for dormant tabs shows data URI
- Sometimes dormant tabs have no title and no favicon
EXPERIMENTAL. MAY EAT YOUR SESSION OR DO OTHER BAD THINGS.