Opinion by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

Firefox Quantum: A leap forward, or a fatal trip?

Firefox Quantum is faster, but users will lose all their rich extensions.

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Opinion by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

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I used to really like Firefox. Back in 2004, when Firefox 0.93 rolled out, I loved it. It was so much better than the competition. Mind you, when your chief rival is Internet Explorer 6, it doesn’t take much to be impressive. My love didn’t last, though.

Within a few years, Firefox grew slow and bloated. By the time Google released Chrome in 2008, I was ready for a change. Since then, I’ve kept a reviewer’s eye on Firefox, but I was never tempted to go back.

In the most recent web browser report from the federal government’s Digital Analytics Program (DAP), (the only reliable measurement of web browser popularity), Firefox is down in the dumps with 6%, far, far below Chrome, at 44.5%; Safari, at 26.7%; and even Internet Explorer, at 12.9%. Indeed, earlier this year, Andreas Gal, a former Mozilla CTO, declared Firefox all but doomed to a long, slow death. Not good.

So Mozilla decided not just to give Firefox a furlift, but to rebuild it from the bones out into a new, powerful and fast web browser. The result is here today and it’s called Firefox Quantum.

Is Firefox Quantum, the first named Firefox release, a.k.a. Firefox 57, fast enough to satisfy its speed-hungry users? Does its other changes work for users? Well, I’ve been playing with it for a week now, and I’ll tell you what I’ve found.

First, though, let’s look under the hood. The faster Firefox comes with a new rendering engine with a fresh cascading style sheets (CSS) layout engine, Stylo. All of this is written in Rust to take advantage of today’s computers multiple cores. It also comes with a new user interface, Photon.

Mark Mayo, Mozilla’s head of all things Firefox, said, “Firefox Quantum is over twice as fast as Firefox from six months ago, built on a completely overhauled core engine with brand new technology stolen from our advanced research group.”

I hate to say it, but it wouldn’t take that much to be twice as fast as Firefox used to be. The real question is: “Is it faster than Chrome?”

Believe it not, sometimes it is. I threw a slew of benchmarks at the latest browsers on my Windows 7 test box. Firefox Quantum and Chrome 62, the latest version of Google’s web browser, split the results down the middle. Oh, and Internet Explorer 11? Please! It was gasping for breath, usually in last place.

Firefox Quantum also beat Firefox 56 handily. But you might not want to upgrade to the new Firefox anyway. That’s because its great performance comes at a cost. Remember how I mentioned all those things under the hood that had changed? Those same improvements have also put an end to many tried-and-true Firefox extensions.

The people I know who were still using Firefox kept with it because they liked how those extensions gave them complete control over the browser. Now, many of those extensions are defunct.

This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Back in 2015, Mozilla started deprecating XPCOM and XUL, the foundations of its extension system, in favor of WebExtensions.

Sure, a lot of popular extensions have been ported to WebExtensions, but some add-ons couldn’t be ported, their developers had stopped supporting them, or, I’m sorry to say, too many programmers simply didn’t get around to porting them … until it was too late.

This left us with many ticked-off Firefox users. Most don’t really know what happened. They just know their favorite extension doesn’t work any longer. More tech-savvy users know what happened but wish Mozilla had waited even longer to change over or had given them a way to keep running legacy extensions.

Want to know if your favorite extension will work before making the jump? Mozilla has an Add-on Compatibility Reporter so you can report what happens. Most of the big-name extensions, if they’re not working yet, will be soon. That said, many people’s favorite extensions aren’t among the big names.

So am I going to go back to Firefox? No. I’m a Chrome user now. That said, I’m glad to see Mozilla trying its damndest to make Firefox relevant again. I wish it luck. I fear, though, that even with Firefox’s speed increase, the extension problem is going to tick off many of its most loyal users.

Good luck, Firefox. You’ll need it.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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