What it would take to replace Firefox as my web browser

May 18, 2014

In the wake of Firefox's decision to support EME (cf) a number of people have been angrily advocating for switching away from Firefox to another browser. I think that this is wrong-headed (see here (via) for one cogent explanation of why), but let's set that aside for now and merely ask what it would take for something to replace Firefox as my web browser.

At one level the answer can be garnered from the Firefox extensions that I use. I don't just want 'a web browser'; I want a web browser with gestures and some equivalent of NoScript (practically speaking I also want the ability to edit text areas in a real editor). I also need a browser that can be remote controlled to open new URLs in new windows, because this is a big part of how I use Firefox in practice, but I think basically all of them will do that these days.

But that isn't the full story. What I really require is a browser and a set of extensions that I can trust both now and in the future, and this is at least partly a cultural issue that goes deep. As I've found out the hard way, Chrome does not have the right culture; 'good' Chrome extensions that provided more or less the equivalent of my Firefox environment have gone bad. It's likely that any smaller open source browser would have a browser and extensions culture that was good, but it's not absolutely guaranteed, and I don't think that I can really trust a commercial browser these days (sorry, Opera, although I may be selling you short).

All of which brings me around to my strong impression that there are no real browser alternatives left. In some ways Unix users have it better than Windows and Mac users, in other ways worse; we lack highly capable native system browsers but we have a number of reasonably capable free alternatives not beholden to various commercial interests, alternatives that optimistically might develop into something reasonably capable.

What this really points out is that developing an attractive, sophisticated modern browser is a lot of work, work that goes beyond the HTML rendering and associated issues (DOM, JavaScript, CSS, and so on). The days that browsers were just a thin wrapper around a HTML display widget are long gone, which means that you now need serious person-power to have a serious, competitive browser. And, well, there are not many places with that and it's probably not very attractive to duplicate the work of, say, Firefox. So I'm not surprised that there aren't all that many options for me to pick from.

(If I were serious about evaluating Firefox alternatives I think I'd have to look at Konqueror (although it seems to lack a NoScript equivalent) and Opera. Gnome has a browser but I doubt it's going to appeal to a power user like me. There are other Unix browsers but my impression is that none of them are up to a competitive level.)

Comments on this page:

I switched to Midori a couple of months ago. It's full of bugs, but generally works. Actually I hope to fix some of the bugs, we'll see.

The point about "up to the standard" does not fly with me. Nobody is up to the standard of the leading browsers, but so what? Using substandard goods is the price consciencious consumers pay.

By James A (trs80) at 2014-05-19 00:59:44:

I don't think you're selling Opera short, now that it's just Chrome with different chrome.

The amount of effort that goes into JavaScript performance alone is crazy - see Apple using LLVM as a JS backend for Safari. Mozilla is almost the new EMACS, just written in JS instead of LISP.

By cks at 2014-05-19 01:21:22:

I actually don't care that much about JavaScript performance in my main browser because I barely run any JavaScript in it. It's certainly not the browser I use for JavaScript heavy things such as Twitter.

The Opera situation is interesting because, to put it one way, the chrome is the stuff that matters to me here. The layout engine is not what I really care about, it's everything wrapped around it, and so Opera might be very different in the ways that I care about (eg support for extensions and the culture surrounding extensions).

Written on 18 May 2014.
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