Some notes on how xdg-open picks which web browser to use

June 14, 2016

Let's start with my tweet:

It sure would be convenient if xdg-open documented how it picked which browser to use, so you could maybe change that to one you like.

XDG here is what used to be called the 'X Desktop Group' and is now (per wikipedia). As you might then guess, xdg-open the program is the canonical KDE/GNOME/etc agnostic way of opening (among other things) an URL in whatever is nominally your preferred browser. Since providing a web interface as your package's UI is an increasingly common thing to do these days, there are any number of programs and scripts and so on that want to do this and do it by just running xdg-open, which gives you whatever strange browser xdg-open decided to inflict on you today.

If you read the xdg-open manpage, it's remarkably uninformative about how it decides what your default or preferred web browser is. On the one hand xdg-open is currently a shell script so you could just read it to find this out; on the other hand, it's a 900+ line shell script full of stuff, which makes it not exactly clear 'documentation'. So here are some notes on the current behavior, boiled down to the useful bits.

(Because none of this is documented, is free to change it at any time if they feel like it. They probably won't, though.)

Broadly, xdg-open does the following when you ask it to open an URL:

  • first, it tries to figure out if you're running a desktop environment that it knows about. If you are, it uses the desktop's own mechanism to open URLs if there is one (these are things like kde-open, gvfs-open, and exo-open). The important thing here is that this should automatically respect your normal desktop browser preference, since it's using the same mechanism.

  • if $BROWSER is set, it's used immediately. I'll discuss what it can be set to later.

  • in some but not all versions of xdg-open, it will attempt to determine the correct program to handle the nominal MIME type of 'x-scheme-handler/http' (or https, or ftp, or whatever) and then run this program. This determination is made by xdg-mime; how it works is complicated enough to require another entry.

    In versions of xdg-open that support this, it's extremely likely that this will produce a result and xdg-open will never go on to its final option.

  • if all else fails, xdg-open tries to run a whole bunch of possible browsers (via the $BROWSER mechanism). The most important thing about this is that the first default browser xdg-open tries is x-www-browser.

Some but not all Linux distributions have a /usr/bin/x-www-browser. If yours has one, it may or may not point to something useful or what you want, and it may vary from version to version (and on what packages you wind up installing). For example, on our Ubuntu 12.04 and 14.04 machines x-www-browser points to arora by default, which is not what I consider a particularly good choice on machines with Firefox installed (it's certainly likely to puzzle users who wind up running it). On 16.04 it points to Chromium, which is at least a plausible default choice.

On current Fedora and Ubuntu 16.04, the full list of (graphical) browsers, in order, is:

x-www-browser firefox iceweasel seamonkey mozilla epiphany konqueror chromium-browser google-chrome

The useful thing here is that xdg-open searches for all of these using your $PATH, so you can create a personal x-www-browser symlink that points to whatever you want without having to risk unintended side effects from eg setting $BROWSER.

If your xdg-open uses xdg-mime, you can determine what program it will use (more or less) by running eg:

$ xdg-mime query default x-scheme-handler/http

Xdg-mime will let you set this stuff as well as query it, but of course doing so may have more consequences than just changing xdg-open's behavior. However at that point there is no really good solution; if xdg-open is consulting xdg-mime, I think all you can do is either set $BROWSER or set xdg-mime's defaults.

(If you're setting scheme handlers in xdg-mime, remember to get at least http and https, and perhaps ftp as well.)

While the xdg-open manpage will refer you to the xdg-settings manpage, this is potentially quite misleading. If you aren't using a desktop environment, there's no guarantee that what xdg-settings reports as your default browser is what xdg-open will necessarily run. The two scripts use different code and as far as I can tell, neither makes any particular attempt to carefully duplicate each other's logic.

(If you are running a desktop environment that xdg-settings knows about, well, you're at the mercy of how well it can read out your DE's default browser. I wouldn't hold my breath there.)

Sidebar: What $BROWSER can be set to

As xdg-open interprets it, $BROWSER is a colon separated list of commands, not just program names (ie you can include things like command line switches). A command may contain a %s, which will be substituted with the URL to be opened; otherwise the URL is just tacked on the end of the command. Xdg-open does not exactly have sophisticated handling of quoting and argument splitting or anything, so I would do nothing tricky here; I wouldn't even really trust the %s substitution. If you think you need it, use a cover shell script.

Written on 14 June 2016.
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Last modified: Tue Jun 14 01:00:17 2016
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