It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Firefox. But, given Firefox’s slow start-time and Google’s Chrome browser’s recently announced support for extensions, I did a recent re-evaluation of my browser choice. Although I’ve chosen to stick with Firefox, the comparison of the two browsers is now much closer than its ever been before to the point where I think, if the pace of Chrome development continues, I could actually switch within a few months. What I would need are:
- Full browser synch – Mozilla Weave is probably the most important extension in my Firefox install. Weave provides a secure and fast method for me to have the same set of bookmarks, browser history, passwords, and preferences between every copy of Firefox that I run (i.e. on my work computer vs. on my personal computer). This has made it easier for me to not only continue research between browser sessions, but also to quickly get up to productivity on any computer with a working Firefox installation. While Chrome now supports bookmark synchronization, the lack of a history or a secure password synch makes it harder for me to have the same degree of flexibility that I have with Firefox. What’s ironic, though, is that a few years ago, I was very reliant on Google’s Browser Synch Firefox extension to do the same thing, and found Firefox to be a lot less flexible when Google stopped updating it. But, this historical precedent means I’m relatively confident it should be easy for Google to introduce a similar feature for Chrome.
- A Firebug-like web development tool – Chrome has a lot of useful web development tools but, up until now, I have yet to see a platform built into Chrome (or any other browser) which has the same level of sophistication and feature set as Firefox’s Firebug extension. For most people, this isn’t that relevant, but as someone who’s done a fair amount of web development in the past and expect to continue to do so in the future, the lack of something as versatile and easy-to-use as Firebug is a big downside to me. With the opening up of Chrome to extension developers, I’m hopeful that it will only be a matter of time until something comparable to Firebug is developed for Chrome
- Extensions to replicate the Greasemonkey hacks I use -Another Firefox extension which I’ve come to rely heavily on is Greasemonkey. It’s a bit difficult to explain how Greasemonkey works to someone who’s never used it, but what it basically does is allow you to install little scripts which can add extra functions to your Firefox browsing experience. These scripts can be found on repositories like Userscripts. Some scripts I’ve become attached to include Google Image Relinker (which lets me go straight to an image from Google Images and skip the intermediary site), LongURL Mobile Expander (which lets me see where shortened URLs, like those from TinyURL or Bit.ly, are actually pointing), and Friendfeed Force Word Wrap (which forces word wrap on improperly formatted Friendfeed entries). Because most of these are pretty minor browser modifications, I am hopeful that these functions will emerge when Chrome’s extension developer community gets large enough.
- Advanced web standard support – I think its pretty odd that despite being a major proponent of the HTML5 standard and new rich browser technologies like WebGL and Native Client, that Chrome has yet to truly distance itself from its browser peers in terms of support for these new standards. True, the technologies themselves are still under development and very few websites exist which support them, but a differentiated level of support for these new technologies would give me a whole set of reasons to pick Chrome over its browser peers, especially given the direction I expect the rich web to move.
Now, in the off chance someone from Mozilla is reading this, what could Mozilla do to keep me firmly in the Firefox camp?
- Faster release cycle – It’s difficult to maintain a constant technological edge when your software is open source, but a faster release cycle will help prolong the advantages that the Mozilla ecosystem currently have like a strong extension and theme developer community, a large user base, and a rich set of experimental projects (like Weave and JetPack and Ubiquity).
- Faster startup time – I appreciate that my startup speed issues with Firefox may be entirely due to the fact that I have hefty extensions like Greasemonkey and Weave installed, but given that my current build of Chrome has some 16 extensions (including the Chrome version of AdBlock and Google Gears) and still loads much faster than Firefox, I believe that significant opportunity for memory management and start-time improvement still exists within the Firefox code base.
- Better web app integration – The Chrome browser was clearly designed to run web applications. It makes it easy to load individual applications in their own windows and to set up web applications as default handlers for specific file types and events. While Firefox has come a long way in terms of its advanced web technology support, I don’t feel that enough attention has been dedicated to making the web application experience nearly as seamless. Whether this means an overhaul of the Prism project or a new way of handling browser events, I’m not sure, but this is a direction where the gap between Chrome and Firefox can and should be closed.
- Firefox everywhere – I have been painfully disappointed in the slow roll-out of the Fennec mobile Firefox project. In a world where Safari, Opera, and Internet Explorer all have fully functioning mobile browsers, there’s no reason Firefox should be behind in this arena. Fennec also makes the Firefox value proposition more compelling with Weave as a means of synchronizing settings and bookmarks between the two.
- More progress on experimental UI – I have been an enormous fan of the innovations in browser use which I consider to be pioneered by Mozilla – tabbed browsing, extensions, browser skinning, the “awesome bar”, etc. One way for Mozilla to stay ahead of the curve, even if they are only “on par” along other dimensions with their peers, is to continue to push on progress in the Mozilla Labs research projects like Ubiquity and JetPack, or a smarter way to integrate Yahoo Pipes!, or something akin to Cooliris’s technology (to throw out a few random ideas).
- Advanced web technology support – Ditto as with the Google Chrome comment above.
With all of this said, I’m actually fairly happy that there are so many aggressive development efforts underway by the browser makers of our era. It looks like the future of the web will be an interesting place!