Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

Feature seepage in Firefox

In the latest episode of “Neil comments on some controversial issue in the world of IT” we have the feature ‘seepage’ in Firefox prior to its 1.0 release. In summary, it was suggested that web developer features like View Source, JS Console and DOM Inspector and buggy features like Bookmark Notification, Work Offline and Stylesheet Switching were removed from Firefox 1.0. Fans of the various features were predictably outraged, to the point at which personal attacks were occurring.

Removing the buggy features is probably a good thing. These were features that hadn’t received any attention for ages, despite being broken for some time, and if kept in they would only confuse new users, or, worse, cause instability and data loss. While people like me who have used Firefox for a long time are used to quirks (and anyone who uses nightlies like I do will certainly be used to them), people who have been encouraged to Switch2Firefox or Browse Happy won’t be, and I can’t imagine it’ll leave them with a good impression. This is especially true with Work Offline which is not anywhere near as polished as its IE equivalent. Despite being on dial-up for a couple of years it was never something I personally missed having and as more people get broadband I’m sure less people will feel the need to have pages be available offline. And Bookmark Notification was so buried (it’s a tab on the property page for individual bookmarks) I’d be surprised if many noticed it missing.

Stylesheet switching is a bone of contention for some, because the CSS2 spec implies that users should be able to view alternative stylesheets. Sure, you can use Javascript to do this on your own pages but browsers should provide this built-in, apparently. It is, however, not a major feature and is rather buggy, so it’s probably best to remove it for now. From what I have read, the intention is to re-add it once it actually works properly, and so it’s likely it will be in a post-1.0 release of Firefox.

As for the features that worked, View Source was perhaps the most controversial, and the one I’d miss the most had it been removed. Almost every browser allows the user to view the source code of the page, and to me it would be a glaring omission. A lot of what I know about HTML was picked up by looking at the source code of other pages, and Firefox’s view source window is head and shoulders above IE which of course merely loads the page in Notepad; Firefox has syntax highlighting and other tricks.

These features wouldn’t actually be removed, however – instead, their UI elements would be taken out of the menus. The JS Console would still be reachable by typing ‘javascript:’ in the address bar, for example. And they would be optional upon install in Windows; enabling the ‘web development pack’ would add back the UI elements. But should you not install them originally (maybe because you didn’t notice the option or didn’t consider yourself to be a web developer) then you’d need to reinstall Firefox to get them back.

incidentally, I personally would probably not miss the DOM Inspector and JS Console much – the latter did come in useful for diagnosing a problem with a page which had some DHTML in it that wasn’t working a few weeks back, but it’s not something I use much. And I’ve never used the DOM Inspector, although maybe if I took some time to actually find out what on earth it does it might actually be useful.
While the decision to remove the web developer features was dropped, the gefuffle surrounding this issue won’t have done any good to relations between Mozilla developers and power users. I’m hoping that rather than dwell on this, everyone will move along and not take this personally. We’re trying to make a better browser here.

With regards to the dropping of the broken features, there’s perhaps a wider issue here – if they can’t realistically be fixed before the deadline for the release of Firefox 1.0, then maybe that deadline is too soon? I seem to remember that Mozilla 1.0 was released once all the glaring bugs were fixed – why wasn’t this the case with Firefox?

But then Mozilla never was to be an end-user browser; back then, it was Netscape’s poor relation. The masses were supposed to use Netscape – Mozilla was for nerds or people who simply had to have a browser which included everything and the kitchen sink with regards to features. Firefox isn’t like that – it’s target audience is, well, everyone. Obviously, everyone wants something different from a browser, so instead of being all things to all people and then confusing the lot of them, it needs to pick and choose which features to include (the ones that the majority want) and those to omit (the speciality features that only a few want).

Take for example Firefox’s tabbed browsing support. Some people criticise it, saying it’s only part-implemented and only offers the basic tabbed functionality. But the vast majority of internet users have never tried it. Imagine if Tabbrowser Extensions came bundled with Firefox – while it really makes tabbed browsing work to the max, many users would take one look at the Tab menu and run a mile after seeing all the options. Sure, it’s nice to be able to lock tabs, move them around, have the tab bar appear at the bottom etc., but most users don’t want that. So, we go for a compromise.

Of course, by that argument, users probably wouldn’t want a JavaScript Console or a DOM Inspector (how many normal computer users actually know what a DOM is?) but it looks like those features will end up in there anyway. View Source, as I mentioned, should still remain regardless as I think anyone switching to Firefox would expect it to be there as IE and almost every other browser since the dawn of time has included it.
But we shouldn’t be exposing users to bugs if we don’t have to. And if deadlines have been set and those features can’t be sorted in time, then it is probably best just to drop them. Better to have no light bulb than a light bulb that may occasionally give someone a nasty electric shock if they try to turn it on.

The other big reason why Firefox does need a deadline for 1.0 is that IE6 SP2 is now a reality. Before SP2, Firefox had some clear leads over IE with features like popup blocking and better security. Now that lead is somewhat finer, and so Firefox 1.0 needs to come out sooner rather than later. Otherwise people aren’t going to see switching to Firefox as offering them much in terms of a better user experience.

This article ended up being far longer than I had intended it to be, but there was a lot to discuss in it. I also realise that I haven’t quoted a lot of my sources and for this I apologise. Should you wish to verify/correct any facts, I’m sure a few minutes with Google/Feedster will suffice. But anyway, let’s just hope that we can move on from the turmoil.


  1. With regards to the dropping of the broken features, there’s perhaps a wider issue here – if they can’t realistically be fixed before the deadline for the release of Fx 1.0, then maybe that deadline is too soon? I seem to remember that Mozilla 1.0 was released once all the glaring bugs were fixed – why wasn’t this the case with Firefox?

    I remember seeing the credo “our milestone releases are bug-driven, not date-driven” on the Firebird roadmap at the time of 0.6 and 0.7. Interesting that it vanished somewhere after Firefox 0.8…

  2. I use browse offline in Mozilla all the time. I cannot get browse offline to work in IE. IE always wants to connect. I have checked IE help, which is no help. How do you do it?