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Firefox to speed up dev cycle, go multi-process, rip and replace UI – soon

Big changes could take 'a while,' say Moz bods

Mozilla is planning big changes in how it builds its Firefox web browser, including speeding up its release schedule and – in the long term – getting rid of some of the Mozilla-specific technologies that have traditionally been used to build the browser's UI and add-ons.

The decisions were discussed at Moz's "Coincidental Work Week" meetup in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada during the last week of June and were made public in a pair of forum posts by Mozilla engineering director Dave Camp on Monday.

For starters, Mozilla plans to ditch its current 18-week release cycle in favor of something more agile.

"We think there are big wins to be had in shortening the time that new features reaches users," Camp wrote. "Critical fixes should ship to users in minutes, not days. Individual features rolling out to small audiences for focused and multi-variate testing."

As for new features, however, Camp also said the nonprofit has rethought how it plans to add new capabilities to the browser. In future, it will focus on features that set Firefox apart from other browsers, particularly where it comes to giving users control over their web browsing experience, such as managing their privacy.

Mozilla has also launched a project bluntly named "Great or Dead," aimed at pruning out features that aren't up to quality standards.

"Every feature in the browser should be polished, functional, and a joy to use.  Where we can't get it to that state, we shouldn't do it at all," Camp wrote.

Not that it won't try. Camp said in some cases Moz might decide to commit additional resources to a feature to get it up to snuff. In other cases, he said, it might even hand off development of features to outside parties.

Major engineering ahead

One particular area of focus remains Project Electrolysis, the effort to re-engineer Firefox with a multiple-process architecture that has been underway, off and on, since 2009.

"This is a big project," Camp wrote. "It needs work not just in Firefox but large parts of the Gecko as well.  It also affects work outside of the core Mozilla code – addons in particular are going to need a lot of work to adapt to the [Electrolysis] world."

And if that project wasn't ambitious enough, Camp added that Mozilla is now planning a radical rethink about how the entire Firefox UI is built.

Firefox today is built using XUL and XBL, two XML-based markup languages – somewhat similar in nature to Microsoft's XAML – that were developed internally at Mozilla. Camp said it's time for Moz to think about how it can move away from these, toward technologies that are developed by larger, more active developer communities.

"Because XUL and XBL aren't web technologies, they don't get the same platform attention that HTML does (for good reason!)," Camp said. "Performance problems go unfixed and it creates a lot of unnecessary complexity within Gecko [Firefox's HTML rendering engine]. It's harder for even experienced web developers to get up to speed. It's further from the web, and that doesn't help anybody."

Just how Firefox will get away from XUL and XBL and what will replace them is still under discussion.

A lighter-weight UI could make it easier to port Firefox to new platforms, however, particularly mobile ones. Mozilla is currently working on a "Firefox-like" browser for iOS, even though all browsers for that platform are forced to use Apple's WebKit rendering engine, rather than their own.

In a blog post last week, Mozilla also let slip that it's working on a Windows Store version of Firefox for Windows 10. The nonprofit had earlier promised such a browser for Windows 8, but it pulled the plug in 2014 when it realized hardly any users were testing the preview builds. No demand, no project. But now with Windows 10's July 29 launch looming, it's apparently back on the table.

Mind you, when we'll actually see any of these ideas is anyone's guess, and even Camp admitted that even committing to a course of action for some of them will "take a while."

"There’s a huge body of shared wisdom about how to build applications on the web," he wrote. "It’s time to go back and examine how we can bring that wisdom back into Firefox." ®

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