Mozilla treats Debian devotees to the raw taste of Firefox Nightly
Handle with care, but a native package is still a good sign
Mozilla has published a native Debian package of Firefox – the pre-beta-test Nightly build, rather than the current released version.
Considering that it remains the dominant web browser for Linux, the packaging of Firefox (and its derivatives) remains a contentious issue. Then again, application packaging formats are one of the main areas that differentiate the various families of Linux distros.
This week's announcement reveals that Mozilla is packaging Firefox as a native
.deb package for Debian-based distributions. Don't jump to grab it until you've considered the implications, though: This is the Nightly channel, which means unfinished, work-in-progress code, not even beta-test level. This means a new version every day, and probably a lot of crashes and unexpected behaviour. This is emphatically not for everyone, and not for normal use.
Even so, it's quite a departure. Until now, Mozilla remained aloof and avoided visibly favoring any particular distro or family. It didn't package its browser in any particular distro's format, and only offered compiled binaries as "tarballs," the Linux version of a ZIP file. They work: You can download them, unzip them into a folder, and just run them, almost like some barbarian Windows user, but they are not managed by the OS's own software maintenance tools. When you upgrade the OS, the tarball-packaged Firefox won't get upgraded. It won't be integrated into your desktop's menus. You may not be able to select it as your default browser. This is because the OS's management tools don't know it's there, which is substantially less than ideal.
Mozilla's new packages reflect that out in the field, the biggest Linux distro family is Debian, which, together with its many variants including Ubuntu and Mint, dominate in sheer numbers.
(After that comes Red Hat and the various distros that use Red Hat's packaging format, including the SUSE family, but those folks just quietly get on with packaging Firefox for themselves.)
The problem is that Debian is a very slow-moving distro, which puts out a new major release roughly every other year – and once released, package versions are fixed. It does put out point releases with bug fixes, but these don't contain new versions. That places it at odds with Mozilla, which emits a new Firefox approximately once a month. Even the enterprise-friendly, slow-release ESR version of Firefox comes out about twice as often as Debian does, which sometimes means Debian users are stuck with older, unsupported versions, something that can pose problems.
This, in turn, created a maintenance headache for Ubuntu, which at the time of writing has five releases currently supported. Rather than maintain half a dozen Firefox packages, for the last two years Canonical has been shipping Firefox in its own cross-distro Snap format, which means a single x86-64 Firefox package can run on everything from Ubuntu 18.04 "Bionic Beaver" to the latest 23.10 "Mantic Minotaur".
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However, while ordinary users won't care – nor should they -- the Snap format is not universally loved among Linux techies, to put it diplomatically. The leading distro based on Ubuntu, Linux Mint, makes a point of maintaining its own native Firefox package for Mint users.
As such, an official Mozilla Debian package is handy. For now, it's not as handy as it could be, because Nightlies are by definition unstable. This looks set to change, though – Mozilla's announcement says:
Following a period of testing, these packages will become available on the beta, esr, and release branches of Firefox.
The Reg FOSS desk tested the nightly on a Debian Bookworm-based distro, and it worked perfectly, with no additional config needed.
In the meantime, other ways to get more current versions of Firefox on Debian or Ubuntu exist and have done for years. The Ubuntuzilla project has been offering current versions of Firefox, Firefox ESR, Seamonkey, and Thunderbird for well over a decade, and works on all Debian derivatives. Canonical's own MozillaTeam offers a PPA repository with current versions specifically for Ubuntu, too.
We suspect that an officially sanctioned upstream version will be easier to get past company compliance teams and other cautious types, though.
To be strictly honest, even combined, the Debian and Ubuntu family are not really the most-used desktop Linux by sheer numbers. That's Google's ChromeOS – but as its name suggests, that comes with Chrome rather than Firefox. In any case, many penguinisti don't count ChromeOS as being a proper Linux. ®