The future of Firefox and/or Firebug (?)

20 Jul

Two days ago I read an article named “Firefox world loses Web dev guru to Chrome“. To sum things up, it seems like lead developer John Barton is leaving for Google’s Chrome. I was very alarmed to read this as Firebug is not only my favorite browser debugger, but because I think that Firebug is probably the number one reason for web developers to choose Firefox at all, which makes it probably the number one reason that it was able to rupture IE market dominance for Windows users. OK, OK, OK – maybe I got a little carried away. Firefox has had tons of features that made it the better alternative for IE and other browsers at the time, mainly it’s extensibility. But Firebug was, and still is, one of the preferred web debuggers out there.

It reminded me that I was also amazed several months ago when Mozilla published a list of extensions that was slowing down Firefox, with Firebug somewhere in the lead (as of this writing, Firebug is leading the list). I was amazed because although I understand Mozilla’s willingness to defend itself against those who claim that Firefox uses lots of memory, is slow and sometimes crashes, I was definitely feeling that Mozilla was also kind of “shooting themselves in the leg”, as Firefox doesn’t have a built-in alternative for Firebug, and as I mentioned earlier, it’s one of the top reasons for Firefox’s success in the first place. However, even if Firebug is slowing down the browser, it is a tool for developers and not for your average user, so being the great tool that it is, I for one am willing to “forgive”, or ignore, the performance issues caused by it. This doesn’t mean that I think Mozilla isn’t making a mistake by not fixing their memory leaks and memory load even on a Firefox that runs no extensions at all.

So, back to that article, this made me think what’s going to happen to Firebug, and how it might affect Firefox in the already tough competition with Chrome and the “reinvention” of IE as of IE9. I was thinking that there are two possibilities: Firebug will continue to exist, hoping that it’ll manage the competition, despite the quote from John Barton in that article, claiming that “Firebug hasn’t really been able to keep up with Firefox, let alone compete with other tools.” The other possibility is that Mozilla won’t have a choice now – they’ll have to provide us developers with an alternative, and this time, they won’t be able to blame others for their memory leaks. In other words, it’ll be a “do or die” scenario. Mozilla will have to provide a decent debugging alternative to keep developers from dumping Firefox in favor of Chrome. If they don’t, they risk losing even more browser market share.

I continued my reading and found some more bothering news about Firefox and Mozilla. This time it was about a talkback of one of the readers of Mike Kapli blog, who complained about the End of Life policy of Firefox, following the new rapid release of Firefox versions. The talkback explained the problem for enterprises to rely not only on rapid release, but especially on the End of Life policy. Turns out that Mozilla will retire Firefox versions quite fast. As a response, this article quoted several Mozilla managers, which basically stated that “[…] Firefox, fundamentally, is aimed at individuals, not corporations […]

Say what??

Are you guys for real??

There are large-scale corporations who adopted Firefox as their “official browser”, such as IBM. Why give that market away? How do you expect developers to advocate a browser to their executives with such statements? Why should an executive support adopting a browser whose managers make such statements? Is it not clear that people tend to use the same browser at work and at home? What, you think that if IBM decides to replace Firefox with an alternative following such statements, those 400,000 employees are going to remain loyal to Firefox back home when they function as “individual users”? No – most of them will install the alternative at home, because that’s what they’ll get used to. Personally, while I fully understand Mozilla’s willingness to adopt Google’s rapid policy of version and End Of Life, think it’s a huge mistake to declare that Firefox isn’t targeting corporates, only individuals.

I did some more reading and found out that I was probably so frusted and shocked, that I missed a minor comment about the alternatives in the original article. Seems like Mozilla has already founded a team to work and create web developers tools, side by side with supporting Firebug. Work seems to be undergoing as of December 2010. In the developers blog, they stated that they also support Firebug directly by assigning a full time developer to that team (I also read on John Barton’s tweeter that this person is actually going to replace him as Firebug lead developer). Who knows – maybe these devtools are one of the reasons John Barton decided to leave in the first place? In the blog it was also written that:

“At this stage, Firefox needs to ship with a strong baseline set of tools for web developers. Firebug is a standalone project with a lot of history behind it and big plans for the future. We want to be able to build new tools that head in some new directions while allowing the Firebug project to continue to explore their ideas. Our goal is to help the whole developer tools ecosystem. We want to make it easier for people to hack on the built-in devtools, on Firebug and on entirely new experiments, too.”

To be honest, I’m not sure what this quote means. While I appreciate the guys for the development of the new web devtools, and maintaining & upgrading Firebug, I think that they are probably feeling comfortable with maintaining Firebug as an alternative to the devtools till they go live. Once they go live, they’ll probably stop their support of Firebug sooner or later, as there seems to be no real justification to support both. Especially when Mozilla themselves name Firebug as one of the heaviest extensions for Firefox.

In conclusion, I’m satisfied that Mozilla is developing integrated out of the box devtools; I think that Firebug has it’s days (months) numbered; and I think that Mozilla should not only produce devtools at least as good as Firebug is today, but they should also fix those memory leaks which are causing plenty of frustration, and they should also stop giving (foolish) statements about not targeting corporates. Mozilla must understand that if they don’t wake up soon and react faster, they’ll be late for the “battle” over the browser market.

1 Comment

Posted by on 20/07/2011 in Software Development


Tags: ,

One response to “The future of Firefox and/or Firebug (?)

  1. Kevin Dangoor

    21/07/2011 at 04:17


    Thanks for the article! You pulled a number of things together, and I thought I’d respond with a bit of info.

    I’m the product manager for Mozilla’s developer tools and the author of the paragraph you quoted regarding Firefox devtools and Firebug.

    At the end of your article, you say that we need to “react faster”. We are indeed acting much faster than we used to. Firefox had support for the video tag early in Summer 2010, but we didn’t ship that until Firefox 4 was released in March 2011. With our new release cycle, that feature would have been out in early fall 2010.

    The switch to rapid releases is really amazing for both our mainline users who see new capabilities faster and for our developers who have a process that is generally easier to work within.

    Regarding memory leaks and overall performance, you’re going to see some big improvements in the September release of Firefox (Firefox 7, though we’re not really broadcasting version numbers these days). Again, I’ll stress that the new rapid release process is what is getting these improvements into the hands of users with that speed.

    Regarding enterprises, our “enterprise working group” has come back to life and will look for ways to meet our goals for rapid release *and* help enterprise users with their needs around deployment, testing, etc. It’s a complex topic.

    Finally, getting around to my little slice of the world, we have a lot of great things in store for Firefox developer tools. We’re exploring new ideas that we’ll be shipping later in the year. Everything that ships with Firefox is tested for startup time performance, page opening performance and memory leaks. When turned off, our tools will all be neutral with respect to performance. Some things that developer tools do do come with a cost relative to performance, but we’ll do our best to keep things snappy.

    It is unfortunate that Firebug appears on that list of “slow performing add-ons”. I agree that for a developer tool as powerful as Firebug, this benchmark is not really critical. I don’t think its appearance on that list has slowed usage of Firebug. For their part, the Firebug team has been working on ways to reduce its startup performance impact, and that same work is having other benefits on their code as well.

    Regarding Firebug’s future, I don’t really have anything to add beyond what I wrote in the paragraph you quoted. Losing John is indeed a significant loss to the project, but Jan (Honza) Odvarko remains committed to it and there are several other developers who have a hand in making the project better. Firebug had been following a path of trying to work cross-browser. That effort was largely led by John, and I think that will likely be the biggest casualty of him leaving the project.

    Anyhow, my proverbial door is open to any web developer that wants to talk to me about what they’re looking for in devtools. The opportunity to make life better for webdevs is huge, and all of the tools that are out there today are just scratching the surface.



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