Waterfox: A Firefox fork that could teach Mozilla a lesson

Why are some of Moz's axed projects bigger than its flagship?


Comment As Firefox's share of the browser market continues to slide, the Waterfox Project shows some of the ways that Mozilla is failing to listen to its users – and it's far from the only example.

Waterfox, which has just released its fourth version, came to your correspondent's attention after the arrival of Firefox 57, codenamed Quantum, which represented a major change in the program, complete with parts of the browser engine written in Rust.

(The Rust language itself started out as a Mozilla project. Despite Rust's popularity, within three years, Mozilla would also lay off members of the Rust language team.)

The problem with Firefox Quantum is that it also dropped a very significant feature: Netscape's XUL-based extension engine, added way back in 1997. To quote the Classic Addons Archive, dropping XUL meant losing "19,450 Firefox add-ons created by 14,274 developers over the past 15 years." At a stroke this crippled one of Firefox's killer features: how users could extensively customise it – unlike, say, Google Chrome.

This isn't the first time Mozilla has alienated its users. But one of the great things about open source is that if enough users are unhappy with some change a company makes to its software, they can just fork it and carry on. And if such forks already exist, dropping popular features gives them a chance to shine.

For instance, Mozilla's more Chrome-like Australis theme was upsetting users back in 2013. Nonetheless, it became the default in Firefox 29. That prompted some Firefox users to switch to a fork, Pale Moon, which is still in active development for both Windows and Linux. Pale Moon kept the pre-Australis UI, it's still single-process (so more memory-efficient), and it still supports classic Firefox extensions. It also begat a successor project, Basilisk, based off a later version of the Firefox codebase.

Waterfox targets higher-end PCs and Macs. Lead developer Alex Kontos started it when he was a student as a project to build a 64-bit edition of Firefox long before Mozilla offered such a thing. He went on to remove controversial features such as Mozilla's telemetry, sponsored links, and bundled additions such as Pocket.

Notably, the project forked and continued work on Firefox 56, the last version to support classic add-ons, while back-porting subsequent security fixes. That branch is now known as Waterfox Classic. Along with supporting older extensions, Waterfox Classic also supports older versions of Mac OS X back to 10.7, making it useful for users left stranded when new Apple OS releases no longer support their hardware.

Meanwhile, development based off the modern Firefox codebase continues. The third release, Waterfox G3, was based on Firefox 78 and added support for Chrome and Opera extensions, allowed the tab bar to sit below the URL box, and re-enabled the status bar. Waterfox G4, based on Firefox 91, adds support for Arm-compatible Macs (and soon Arm Linux), and starts the process of switching from tracking Mozilla's ESR releases to the central branch.

The project is not without its own controversies, such as its purchase by ad vendor System1. But currently, it's thriving, unlike its progenitor.

Alongside Waterfox and Waterfox Classic, Pale Moon, and Basilisk, other Mozilla forks carry on work in which the Mozilla Foundation lost interest. Until just last month, there were a handful of Firefox forks to help keep elderly Macs useful, such as Parrotgeeks Firefox Legacy for Mac OS X 10.6 and TenFourFox for PowerPC Macs.

Before Netscape was squeezed out of business, "Mozilla" was its internal codename for its product. Afterwards, it became the name of the newly open-source integrated internet client suite: browser, email, IRC, and webpage editor. Remarkably, this is still around too as Seamonkey.

Despite Moz's repeated attempts to evict Thunderbird from its nest, the app remains the leading cross-platform email (and Usenet and RSS) client. Even if you're happy with your free webmail, Thunderbird remains a handy way to keep a local backup of your messages and contacts in case, say, your provider randomly deletes your account.

Some of these ex-Mozilla products are doing relatively well. Rust is doing great. Waterfox is thriving. Thunderbird enjoys regular releases and remains a best-of-breed tool. But another has more users than all of them put together.

The Register memorably wasn't impressed by Firefox OS: "This desperately unimaginative product won't be bought as much as left behind after a mugging." Just two years later, Mozilla announced it was killing it off and the devices that ran it.

But it gave up too soon. A fork under the name Boot to Gecko lived on, then was adopted and taken commercial by KaiOS Inc – a company backed by Chinese phone giant TCL, which also makes modern Blackberry phones.

By 2018, KaiOS was the fastest-growing mobile platform and attracted backing from Google as well as Reliance Jio, India's largest mobile network. KaiOS phones cost as little as $17, and although they're basic, they give over 100 million people access to WhatsApp, Google Maps, Facebook and so on.

In time, the cheapest phones will become able to run richer and more full-featured smartphone OSes such as Android Go... But there's always room at the bottom. Back in 2013, it was already possible to profitably sell a $13 phone. Unfortunately, there are a great many very poor people in the world, and the cheaper tech gets, the more it can help them.

Mozilla was the power users' browser, even in the early days of Mozilla 0.6 and 0.7, when it became the default browser for almost all Linux distributions. Products based on Mozilla's technologies, including Rust and KaiOS, are used by hundreds of millions of people, even if they have no idea of it. Firefox doesn't need to be No. 1, but the Mozilla Foundation should stop trying to copy Chrome and try learning from its many forks and spinoffs. ®

Bootnote

An interesting side-question is how the open-source Firefox OS turned into the proprietary KaiOS. Since Mozilla is reportedly helping to update KaiOS, perhaps someone could ask. Maybe Mozilla CEO Mitchell Baker: Boot To Gecko was licensed under the Mozilla Public Licence 2.0, so if it was due to some issue with the licence, she should know – she wrote it.

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