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The Real Difference Is The Platform

I just read this blog post on extensibility of Safari, Chrome, and Firefox - and it hits a very important point.

Chrome is winning an interesting share of users, Safari wants to do the same, Firefox recently goes out of its way for improvements that make it more alike to the "cool child in the block" that Chrome currently represents. Now, many of the improvements the teams are making are worth to be made by themselves, with our without having competition in that field - I'm not sure all of them are, but that's a topic for other discussions.

What's important is that we look into what makes a difference between Chrome, Safari and Firefox. Now, as I recently posted, the mission is the main philosophical difference. On the side of the product, there is a real difference as well though - even if we'd match Firefox to look, feel and function almost or completely like Chrome (which I'm sure the team are not really targetting, even if they're going a lot of the way in that direction), that would persist - and if it wouldn't, I'd not feel like it would still be right to be called a Mozilla product.

And that difference, the one thing that sets our technology apart from any competition, is the Mozilla platform.

The core of that platform goes back to a decision of a few probably visionary Netscape engineers back in 1998 who found out that the new web renderer they designed for "Netscape 5" in the newly founded Mozilla project was so fast in rendering basic web pages and even form elements that they decided it would make sense to use it even for rendering the browser UI with that renderer - using the same code and definitions on all supported platforms. As HTML didn't have support for all a UI needs and the HTML box model was made for scientific documents and not on-screen design, they created XUL as the markup language the web renderer (Gecko) would use for that UI - but the key was that it was extensible in many ways with very web-like technologies that were - and are - quite easy to learn and use (and IMHO, much of it is even easier than HTML itself, as e.g. <input> has strange syntax there).

The extensibility of that platform and making UI work with web-like technologies made it a no-brainer to support additional modules that could be installed, later called "extensions", nowdays a part of the refined "add-ons" system. As the UI itself is built with the same technologies, that also means those extensions or add-ons can do anything the UI can do or that the application can do - I just recently converted what I previously ran as a full-blown application into a Firefox (and SeaMonkey) add-on (KaiRo.at Mandelbrot), for example.

With the tremendous success of Firefox over the last years, a rather large add-ons ecosystem has formed around exactly that platform that allows any extension the same flexibility as the application itself - and even though generic packaging and installing isn't very well-supported, whole applications are powered by the Mozilla platform or based on Mozilla technologies.

And that is the real strength of Mozilla technology-wise. We have a very powerful platform that allows building extensions to our applications or whole products by themselves (using XULRunner), and all those use "web" or very "web-like" (but IMHO to some part even cleaner) technologies and work on all platform that platform can be compiled on, recently that even can include mobile devices.

The real technology difference of Firefox, Thunderbird, and SeaMonkey to any competition is that extensible and powerful platform. If we want to "win" over any competitor, this is one thing we really need to focus on, this is the ace we need to play. Other might try to match us there, but we have put 10 years of the work of great minds into developing that strength, others won't match that easily.

So, let's put this difference to work. Our mission for a better and open Internet and this great platform technology ought to be a game-changer. We need to build on those to succeed. But we can do it. So let's get to work, and let's tell people about it.

Entry written by KaiRo and posted on June 10th, 2010 18:38 | Tags: Firefox, Mozilla, platform, XULRunner | 11 comments | TrackBack

Comments

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AuthorEntry

Tiago

quote
Jetpack
Personally, I think Jetpack is the key for it all. That and extensions that don't require a browser restart to install. Mozilla Labs is looking mighty, and has been looking mighty for a while, but Jetpack, above all others, seems the key to me. If it receives proper publicity, it will be a huge boost to Firefox.

Other than that, I can't really see where Firefox needs to change. I think it only needs to improve, keep on improving, keep on getting more awesome into it, and don't change into some Chrome-like closed source crap. Firefox is the community, and it doesn't really matter if the community is big or small. What matters is how much that community loves Firefox and itself. Some Firefox users are using Chrome now? In my experience, those users were never really part of the community. They don't develop extensions, they don't help out at SUMO, they don't test, they don't patch... Because if they did, they'd know that Chrome has nothing relevant to offer over Firefox. That is my firm belief, and I'm not worried in the slightest about users leaving Firefox, and I really hope Mozilla isn't either. If anything, it's a good thing, since we'll have an easier time dealing with security issues (which are always harder to deal with on widely used software). But Firefox is far from recessing, anyway, so this isn't even relevant right now. We're into the summer where it's usual for Fx to loose market share (for whatever reason, I haven't the slightest clue why), but when Firefox 4 is release, it will absolutely smash the competition. Chrome is standing still, and has stood still since two years ago, when it was released. Safari is standing still too, for the most part, and I really doubt they'll get any kind of relevant market share with those blurry fonts... Opera... Opera is awesome, but I really doubt they'll ever grow in market share, whatever they do... IE is really the main competitor for Firefox, as it always was, but if IE9 doesn't deliver a great user experience, it's going down as always! I'm really hoping that IE9 is a brilliant browser, I really am. Just imagine, everyone that is too stubborn (or less polite adjectives) to change from IE getting a proper, decent, fantastic experience in their browser! THAT would wake hem up for the reality that is browsing the web in a fantastic browser :D

Hopefully Microsoft won't drop the ball... User experience is key.
2010-06-10 22:58

Wired Earp

quote
That's funny. Personally I think Jetpack could be an important player in the downfall of it all. Jetpack has no support for XUL, no support for XBL, no support for SVG, no support for XUL Templates, no support for XML and XSLT, no support for ANY kind of markup language, nor for the CSS we use to style it. In fact, Jetpack seems to abandon the whole idea of developing application interfaces using declarative web technologies, expecting you instead to emulate all this in Javascript; apparently the only web technology that Jetpack really supports. Reminds me in an eerie way about colleagues who think that websites are developed using only C#. I am not saying that Jetpack is a bad career move for Mozilla, just that aspiring young developers will have no idea what I'm talking about in just a few years from now. So thanks for blogging about Mozilla the Platform!
2010-06-11 13:28

MarkC

from UK

quote
I've been a "XUL dark matter" developer using Mozilla the platform for several years now - currently I'm earning a living as such. The platform is flexible, powerful and generally easy for an existing HTML developer to pick up (at least the basics). But there is one thing that is holding it back as a more versatile and widespread platform:

Mozilla themselves.

A few years ago there was much talk about the platform, verging almost on encouragement for other companies to build things with it. These days it seems that Mozilla only really cares about the platform to the extent that it supports what they want to do with Firefox. Obvious usability bugs go unaddressed, and new features and widgets arrive only sporadically - and usually only when they're needed for the latest Firefox fanciness.

I'd love to see more support for the platform as a whole. Ultimately it could bring more (and more disparate) developers to the table, which would help to make it a more robust and more versatile system for software development. Platform development _should_ be a case of "a rising tide raises all boats". Instead it's more of a case of the good ship Firefox steaming ahead while the rest of us get tossed around in its wake.
2010-06-11 15:45

johnjbarton

quote
MarkC from UK is spot on.
I am also puzzled and frustrated by the changes at Mozilla.
jjb
2010-06-11 17:27

Nils Maier

from Germany

quote
JetPack is the wrong direction.
I agree with MarkC, that Mozilla, the platform, gets too little attention these days. But I also understand why this is: limited resources.

JetPacks create, in my eyes, indeed a problem, but not because they exist, but because they get all the focus. The "regular" extensions fall short.
JetPacks might be indeed a good alternative for more or less "simple" addons, but as they gonna be limited in the same way Safari and Chrome extensions are, and hence cannot replace XUL extensions. But this seems to be the long term goal.
See the discussion about rehousing the statusbar in Firefox for example. There is some talk about implementing a "balloon" widget... in JetPack. So "regular" extensions cannot really use it without copying/reimplementing the code, which will ultimately lead to fragmentation. (I still hope this will be a toolkit widget with a nice API for JetPacks)
2010-06-11 17:59

Colby Russell

quote
John J. Barton, could you say more?

MarkC said:
"A few years ago there was much talk about the platform, verging almost on encouragement for other companies to build things with it. These days it seems that Mozilla only really cares about the platform to the extent that it supports what they want to do with Firefox."

Really? You think Mozilla is less focused on the platform now than they were a few years ago? Remember that the Camino guys got pretty bitter about Mozilla back then. You think it's worse now, even with stuff like decent standalone XULRunner?
2010-06-11 22:45

Keith

from the US

quote
Yeah, Mozilla is an awesome architecture (from a user's point of view). Now, if only someone would write "Mozilla Add-Ons for Dummies," I might be able to create a cool add-on myself.
2010-06-12 06:09

MarkC

quote
Quote of Colby Russell:
Really? You think Mozilla is less focused on the platform now than they were a few years ago? Remember that the Camino guys got pretty bitter about Mozilla back then. You think it's worse now, even with stuff like decent standalone XULRunner?

I never meant that they were particularly good in the past - just that they were making the sort of noises that implied that they _wanted_ other people to use the XUL platform for other applications. These days you don't even get that: Mozilla has only one product, and anything else is just a side-effect of that. The platform doesn't figure at all, other than as a means to create Firefox.

I'm delighted that there's a decent standalone XULRunner, and Prism makes it much easier for us to sell our remote-XUL solution to corporate customers who flinch at the suggestion that they'll have to install Firefox. But they both strike me as being a historical side-effect of the build process, rather than something which Mozilla actively promote and encourage the use of.


What I think it needs - at least to start with - is for someone to be employed within Mozilla whose role is to support platform users. By that I mean helping to foster a community, but also providing some internal pressure to fix some of the more obvious platform issues, even if they don't directly affect Firefox. Hopefully a little more attention to the platform might encourage some of the third-party platform consumers to start contributing a bit more themselves.
2010-06-14 11:14

EP

quote
IE9 does NOT run under XP
"IE is really the main competitor for Firefox, as it always was, but if IE9 doesn't deliver a great user experience, it's going down as always! I'm really hoping that IE9 is a brilliant browser, I really am. Just imagine, everyone that is too stubborn (or less polite adjectives) to change from IE getting a proper, decent, fantastic experience in their browser! THAT would wake hem up for the reality that is browsing the web in a fantastic browser"

Are you sure about IE being the "main" competitor for Firefox, Tiago?
some other people think that Opera and Google Chrome are the main competitors for Firefox.

AND remember, Tiago, IE9 (when the final release comes out) requires either Windows Vista SP2 or Windows 7 to use. You can NOT install nor run IE9 under WinXP and Server 2003. AND current versions of IE are Windows only browsers and can't work on other platforms like Linux and Mac (though a long time ago Microsoft did make a Mac version of Internet Explorer but gave up doing so).
2010-06-15 03:34

Tiago

quote
Re: IE9 does NOT run under XP
Opera doesn't seem to be able to increase its market share in any significant way. It's a shame for the web, I believe, but that's how it is. I don't think they'll be much competition for anyone, barring some specific countries/communities.

Google Chrome is probably gaining a few users that were Firefox users in the past, but I don't think it's anything to worry about. For one, Chrome is growing much slower than Firefox did when it was their age. Firefox was at 9% market share at 9 months of age, and Chrome is now at about 7.5% with almost 2 years of age. Furthermore, Google Chrome doesn't seem to be too keen on evolving, and has basically stood still since its initial beta release, two years ago. Firefox 4.0 is looking absurdly almighty, with groundbreaking stuff and many improvements. Besides, Google Chrome seems to be slowing down its market adoption. And then we have to consider that Google Chrome is mostly an ally of Firefox in the fight for an open web. Unlike Safari, for example.

Yeah, I don't think Google Chrome will give Firefox any trouble. Even if Firefox decreases its market share after Firefox 4.0 (which I think would be great, to lighten up on the developers...), it will never be to any significant extent.

But you are right in saying that IE9 will not run on Windows XP and will probably be hindered by that. But Server 2003 is loosing support in less than a month's time and Windows XP will loose support halfway through 2014. If Internet Explorer comes out early next year (which I think is a reasonable ETA), it will have about 40%-45% market share of Windows Vista and 7 to explorer, which is definitely plenty if they deliver a good browser. Maybe them not supporting XP will be a good think for Firefox and Chrome (because people on XP will tend to move away from IE), but if they do make a good browser with a good UX, then they are going to be a very serious competitor to Firefox, much more serious that Chrome-for-simple-people ever will.
2010-06-16 15:41

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