Another Debian dust-up with Firefox dependencies – but there is an annoying and awkward workaround

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Debian is having problems with a current version of Firefox that leaves users with a dangerously outdated browser.

One of the grey-bearded elders of the Linux distro world, Debian has had issues with Mozilla before. For years, it built its own forks of the Mozilla apps – Iceweasel, Icedove, Iceape, and Iceowl – because of a disagreement over trademark use. But this time the issues are technical rather than legal.

As a conservative, stable distro, Debian includes the Extended Support Release (ESR) version of Firefox – ideal for those who find Mozilla's four-weekly release cycle a bit too rapid.

The problem is that Firefox 91, the current ESR version, includes several dependencies that the current stable version of Debian – 11.1 "Bullseye" ­– can't fulfil, which poses the maintainers a problem: either update some components of the graphics stack, just for Firefox, or force the Debian version of Firefox to use older dependencies, which is doable but doesn't fix the problem, so it will happen again when the next ESR appears.

Debian releases get updates for five years, but Mozilla puts out a new Firefox ESR annually, so this will be a nuisance for years to come.

For users, there are several potential solutions. You can install either Flatpak or Snap support, and then install the current ESR (or the latest version, if you prefer) of Firefox. The snag is that by default, Debian doesn't come with either system installed, and both have significant drawbacks.

One of these, as the latest release of Ubuntu found out the hard way, is a serious problem if you use the GNOME desktop – which is the default in both distros. You can't install or manage GNOME extensions using either a Snap or Flatpak packaged version of Firefox.

One way round this that works on both Debian and Ubuntu is to use UbuntuZilla. This long-running third-party project packages the latest Mozilla builds of Firefox, Firefox-ESR, Thunderbird, and Seamonkey for Debian-derived distros.

Installing Firefox-ESR threw up a different Debian glitch, though: you can't install UbuntuZilla's Firefox-ESR until you remove Debian's version – and if you try to do that, it will automatically try to install the GNOME Epiphany browser. This is because other pre-installed programs require a browser to be present. You can either let it install Epiphany, then install UbuntuZilla Firefox, then remove Epiphany again, or you can install the chromium package for the FOSS version of Google's browser first. Note, though, that installing actual Google Chrome won't satisfy the requirement.

We can report that installing Chromium, then removing the built-in Firefox, installing Firefox-ESR from UbuntuZilla, and then removing Chromium left us with a fully working Firefox 91 with no apparent ill effects. We also tried Google Chrome, and that worked fine, too. ®


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