Mozilla's ‘Great or Dead’ philosophy may save bloated blimp Firefox

Moz shop's rebuild-the-fox plan begins to take shape

For some time now Firefox, the once mighty web browser, has been bleeding market share and – perhaps more importantly – developer mind share.

Between bundling unwanted features such as Pocket, proffering popcorn-worthy CEO dramas atop Mozilla, being led by a seemingly clueless management, and the fact that that Chrome feels faster, more stable and less bloated, Firefox long ago started to feel like a project in need of euthanising.

In fact, Firefox feels a bit like it has come full circle. The browser that started as a fork of the bloated, poorly managed Netscape project has become the very same thing itself. That sort of symmetry makes Firefox feel a bit dead.

It's tempting to dance on Firefox's grave, but that doesn't help the web. Firefox and yes, Mozilla.org, were a huge part of making the web the standards-friendly, accessible thing that it is today.

Firefox will soon be almost the only browser not using the WebKit rendering engine. Despite what, some web developers would have you believe, monocultures, whether potatoes or web browsers, are almost always bad for users.

Firefox is also the only web browser not developed by a major corporation with shareholders to answer to, putting it in a unique position to give voice to a non-corporate or even anti-corporate agenda for the web.

In short, we need Firefox. The web needs Firefox.

But the web needs the Firefox of old, not the Firefox of pointless Pocket integrations, CEOs that polarize the web, and pointless UI tinkering.

The good news is that Mozilla seems to be slowly waking up to the reality around it. Recently Dave Camp, Firefox’s director of engineering, fired off two emails outlining what sounds like a big shift in focus for the company and, one hopes, the future of Firefox.

In the first email Camp outlines three areas Mozilla intends to change, namely, less bloat in the browser, smarter, optional partnership integrations (making things like the Pocket integration optional) and more user-facing features, such as some upcoming improvements to Firefox's Private Browsing mode.

Perhaps the most encouraging big of Camp's email is the news that Mozilla has a new effort called "Great or Dead".

"Every feature in the browser should be polished, functional, and a joy to use," writes Camp. "Where we can't get it to that state, we shouldn't do it at all." In other words, if it isn't great, it should go.

Top of that list, for many users, would be the Pocket integration that showed up recently amid much gnashing of users' teeth. Users wanted to know why a service that only a tiny fraction of Firefox users actually use was made a default, non-removable part of the browser.

The answer is money. Partnerships like the one with Pocket help Mozilla stay afloat.

That said, Camp acknowledges: "Pocket should have been a bundled add-on that could have been more easily removed entirely from the browser ... fixing that for Pocket and any future partner integrations is one concrete piece of engineering work we need to get done."

In other words, don't expect Pocket to be the last bundled deal Firefox pushes out, but in the future it will be easier to disable. Given the current state of software in general, users have already become experts in disabling things.

Another item in Camp's list of things that need to be Great or Dead is Firefox's transition to per-tab process. This effort, known as the Electrolysis project or "e10s" for short, will mean that each Firefox tab runs in a separate process.

That means one tab crashing does not affect the rest of the browser. It also provides better security by sandboxing each tab. If all goes according to plan the early versions of this effort (that will separate the web content process from the Firefox UI process) should arrive by the end of the year.

While the Electrolysis project will eventually make Firefox more stable and secure, it's worth noting that Chrome and even IE have worked this way for years now.

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