Mozilla tells extension developers to get ready to finally go mobile
Firefox Android add-ons coming soon
At long last, Mozilla is planning to make browser extensions, also known as add-ons, available for Firefox on Android, at some point following the expected November 21 release of the browser's version 120 build.
This week, the organization urged developers to evaluate their extension code in preparation for the occasion, since it's expecting a lot of demand.
"We anticipate strong interest from users excited to explore all the new ways they can customize Firefox for Android," said Scott DeVaney, staff editorial manager for Firefox add-ons, in an online post. "Current trends indicate we’ll have at least 200+ new Firefox for Android extensions on AMO [addons.mozilla.org] when open availability debuts in December."
Mozilla has been working on this idea since at least 2019, when Vesta Zare, product strategy lead for Firefox Mobile suggested the idea in a post to the GitHub repo for Fenix, a revised version of Firefox for Android.
But progress was slow and there were concerns about security, a vexing issue when it comes to extensions. Allowing Firefox for Android users to download and install extensions that haven't been thoroughly reviewed poses a risk, particularly given the sensitivity of data stored on phones (e.g. payment cards and personal details). In the desktop ecosystem, browser extensions have been a frequent source of malware and abuse.
Even with the security risks, the extensibility of web browsers is one of the defining characteristics of the open web. Unlike passive display technologies like televisions, the browser lets users take an active role in how content gets processed and presented.
This freedom is not entirely to the liking of online content providers. Web publishers for years have asked site visitors to disable ad blocking extensions, a step YouTube has recently undertaken in force.
Google, which makes the most popular browser at the moment, Chrome, does not currently support extensions in Chrome for Android. People speculate that Google does not do so because Android users would block ads, a known matter of concern for the advertising giant.
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However, Google's ongoing revision of its Chrome extension architecture, known as Manifest v3, aspires to make extensions less demanding of CPU resources and less dependent on persistent processes. That would make Manifest v3 extensions better suited for mobile devices, if Google chose to add extension support in Chrome for Android to avoid being left behind by competitors. It's worth noting that Apple, Mozilla, and Microsoft are all planning to support Manifest v3, with some variation, in their respective browsers.
The Yandex mobile browser, popular in Russia, added support for extensions on Android in 2016 and other Android-based browsers like Kiwi have done so. Among the larger browser makers, Mozilla managed to roll out support for a limited set of Recommended Extensions for Firefox on Android in January, 2021. But Apple managed a broader implementation when it introduced support for Safari extensions in iOS 15 in September 2021.
Mozilla mentioned browser extensibility in its 2022 vision for the web and hinted at some of the challenges that prevented the organization from realizing mobile browser extensions earlier.
"Add-ons have access to much more powerful capabilities than sites do, which makes them distinctly not casual," the company said. "This necessitates some degree of gatekeeping and curation in order to keep people safe from malicious add-ons. We are exploring ways to reduce this friction, but ultimately need to exercise some degree of oversight to balance openness, agency, and safety for browser extensions."
A year-and-a-half later, Firefox for Android is almost ready to live up to Mozilla's web vision. ®