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Two words, Mozilla: SPEED! NOW! Quit fiddling and get serious

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Opinion The Mozilla Foundation has recently announced that it will refocus its development efforts on Firefox. Again.

I know what you're thinking, what the heck else does Mozilla have to focus on? Well, you'd be hard pressed to find any evidence of it, but the company has been concentrating on building Firefox OS, which was supposed to be a mobile operating system and then maybe a television and devices platform.

Mozilla recently axed the last 50 employees working on that effort, though it claims it's still developing an open-source Alexa of some kind and a couple of other bad ideas that most likely no one wants. Apparently, press statements not withstanding, focus may still be a little lacking.

Here's the thing, Mozilla: Firefox is and likely will be the only viable product you're going to have. That you've lost sight of your only viable product tells us a lot about the leadership of Mozilla in recent years, or lack thereof.

Before I go any further, let me be clear – I like Firefox. I use it every day. I find it to be not quite as fast as Chrome, but easier on the RAM.

That's anecdotal, of course, and based on the Developer Edition, which is my daily browser. I also use and really like Mobile Firefox for Android, though I admit it's much slower than Chrome for Android.

My point is that I really want Mozilla to succeed. I even support the attention Mozilla gives to "defending" the open web because they're one of the only companies out there that doesn't have much in the way of ulterior motives for doing so.

But in the last three years Mozilla has gone from an organisation at the top of its game, with a web browser that constantly pushed the envelope of standards support and kept pace with Chrome in terms of performance, to an embarrassment that clings to life through a browser that can barely keep pace with today's web.

Even Brendan Eich, creator of JavaScript and one of Mozilla's founders – who was later forced out of the company after it came out that he had donated money to support anti-gay rights legislation in California – has gone on to create a new web browser dubbed Brave. Guess what codebase Brave is based on? Hint: it's not Firefox.

Brave will fizzle before the year's over – its value proposition is that it swaps out ads your favourite websites are earning good money with and replaces them with ads your favourite sites will earn little to no money from. Uh, OK? But it's telling that even Mozilla's founder has lost faith in the Firefox codebase.

Given this state of affairs, you'd think Mozilla's announcement – which amounts to the company saying "Hey, sorry, we screwed up and we're going to try fixing this" – would make me happy, but honestly, it makes me nervous.

If the thinking that led to three years wasted on head-scratching ideas like Firefox OS turns its attention to the web browser proper, what sort of disaster is coming to Firefox?

Recently, I wrote about Vim and the value of software that doesn't update unless it really needs to.

I'd like to see Mozilla embrace that approach. I'd like to see Mozilla continue to forget about the Firefox UI and focus their attention lower down in the stack. The Firefox UI isn't broken, it works quite well, it's stable, don't go messing with it. Don't go "innovating", don't add something stupid like rounded tabs just because you hired some new designer who needs something to do.

Some people objected to my comparison of Vim and Firefox, saying Firefox has to update because the web is a moving target while text files really haven't changed since Bram Moolenaar released Vim in 1991. That's a valid argument and I never suggested that Firefox shouldn't update, rather that it shouldn't go changing its base feature set and user interface all the time. It shouldn't add Pocket support for no discernible reason, it shouldn't round tabs for no discernible reason.

It should update to get separate processes for each tab, which took an embarrassingly long time to be released. It should also start developing a rendering engine that's faster than Gecko since it seems plain at this point that Gecko won't get any faster than it is now. The good news is that appears to be happening with Quantum.

But here's why I'm nervous about Mozilla "refocusing" on Firefox: developers are already talking about messing with the UI again. This is exactly the sort of thinking that got Mozilla where it is: "What if there was a better forward button?" Wait, isn't that the button no one uses so Firefox made it tiny? Right, problem solved. Next.

Even more alarming is this thinking later on in that piece: "What if web browsers were immediately useful instead of demanding input when you launched them?"

Well, what if Mozilla made a browser that was immediately useful when it launched because it was fast enough to accept input right away?

What if Firefox didn't hang immediately on launch because it was processing through a bunch of tabs (that aren't even loading, just displaying page titles)?

I feel pretty safe speaking for the masses here: we don't need a web browser that does any thinking for us. Browsers are task-driven software. When people open a browser it's because they want to do something on the web. They don't want a better forward button. They want a faster web browser and currently 85 per cent of them have solved that problem by choosing something other than Firefox.

That is your problem, Mozilla. Your bug number one is that Firefox is slower than Chrome. Fix that and spare us the UI "improvements". Who knows, people might start using Firefox again. ®

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