Saturday, May 13, 2017

Firefox could make a comeback in 2017



Do you remember a browser with a fox in its logo that is named after the red panda? You probably do. You might even use it every now and then or maybe even as your main browser. But most likely you switched to Chrome a long time ago like many others. However, Firefox once was the way to go. A great and often better alternative to default browsers like Internet Explorer and Safari. But when Google’s revolutionary Chrome browser entered the stage it couldn’t keep up.


It’s slow compared to other browsers and crashed more often. But finally that’s changing. Mozilla has taken the first steps to modernize the browser, but at the same time it feels a little bit like “welcome to 2008”. When Chrome launched, one of its main features was sandboxing. This means that every browser tab runs in its own process. So if a page crashes, the rest of the browser would still run smooth. It’s also more secure, because possible bad stuff would stay inside that sandbox, which makes it harder to affect the rest of your computer.

Since last year, Firefox finally also has multiple processes, making the browser much more smooth, secure and stable. Finally, because the project was announced in 2009…

At the same time the company was working on Project Servo. A brand new browser project that is (for the moment) not meant for consumers. Servo is a so-called browser engine that is built from the ground up, using a new programming language called Rust. This is an immense project. Mind you, no one really built a completely new engine lately. Chrome uses Blink, a fork of Apple’s Webkit, which is based on KHTML, which is from 1998 (!). When Microsoft decided it wanted to make a new browser for Windows 10, it didn’t start from scratch, but built on top of Internet Explorer’s engine instead. This doesn’t mean browsers haven’t evolved however. There are many more components than just the rendering engine. Google and Microsoft have built new JavaScript engines for example.

But servo is new. It’s made with modern hardware in mind, which consists of multiple CPU cores and GPUs which are great for rendering. And so the engine will work more like a game engine, which also tries to use the GPU as much as possible. But because this is such a huge project. Mozilla decided to not completely replace Firefox’s engine, Gecko, but instead use parts of the Servo project and build them into the existing Firefox code. 

This effort is called Project Quantum and the goal is to “start delivering major improvements to users by the end of 2017.” It exists out of different parts:

  • Quantum CSS – This “aims to integrate Servo's parallelized CSS style system into Gecko.” Which basically means that it can load CSS resources faster.
  • Quantum Render – The rendering part of the engine which is optimized for using the GPU.
  • Quantum Compositor – This will now also run in its own process.
  • Quantum DOM – This will make sure that Firefox stays responsive even with a lot of background tabs open.
  • Qunatum Flow – This is actually a separate small project that will make sure that all different components result in good performance when working together.

Even though this is not a fully new engine for Firefox it still is quite an undertaking. Right now, the browser feels snappier and doesn't crash anymore for me, but pages still load slower compared to Chrome, which is even more annoying now that the browser itself is smoother. But if everything works out well it probably will be all worth it. It could mean that Firefox’s performance not only will be on par with the other browsers, but even surpass them. But does this mean that people will leave Chrome behind and switch (back) to Firefox?

Chrome is not flawless. It’s not good for your laptop’s battery (according to Microsoft) and if you have 4GB of memory or less you basically can’t run much more than Chrome. If Firefox is able to be faster than Chrome without using as much resources it might steal back users.

Nonetheless, without competition there really isn’t a need for innovation. Recently we’ve seen some new browsers like Vivaldi and Brave, but they’re based on Chromium and so is Opera. It’s important to have as many independent browsers trying to push the limits. That’s what Firefox once did and it’s about to do that again.

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