Back to Firefox

Firefox Web Browser

I’ve been using Chrome on my work laptop for the past few years. It’s what most of my colleagues use and a sizable portion of the customers I interact with use Chrome too. So I sort-of fell into it.

But I never really loved the idea of using Chrome as my default browser because I don’t like how much power and influence Google has over the web in general. Chrome perpetuates that. Ideally, I would be using something that was developed by anyone else.

Prior to joining Automattic, I was using Safari on macOS, but that’s not a viable option for my work laptop because of browser extension limitations. We have a browser extension that we develop internally that’s vital for my work and it can’t be built for Safari — it’s Chrome- and Firefox-only.

I was a die-hard Firefox user back during my Windows days in the mid-2000s. And truthfully, my heart has always been with Firefox. It’s neck-and-neck with Microsoft Edge for market share and is developed outside of the largest technology companies. It’s always been the underdog and I like rooting for the underdog.

They develop their own browser engine too. Even though I appreciate consistency in the rendering of HTML and CSS, I don’t like that practically every web browser is built on WebKit or Blink. I want a viable alternative. And a viable alternative developed by someone outside of The Big Five.

My setup is pretty customized with browser extensions, bookmarks, and whatnot. And just about my entire workday is in a web browser, so making the switch is pretty serious business. I need everything to be reliable and just work.

There were some quirks to start, but after some customizations, add-ons, settings changes, and hacks, I’m falling in love with Firefox all over again.

I’m using the MacOS – Safari (Big Sur) – Light theme, which gives the browser a delightfully light feel without sacrificing too much contrast in the tabs bar. Aside from the Automattic-developed internal tool, I also use the following browser extensions:

  • 1Password: My current password manager of choice, which recently added support for Touch ID.
  • Firefox Multi-Account Containers: This helps keep browsing of selected domains separate from the rest. I currently have containers for Facebook and Amazon, but plan to add one for Google as well.
  • Load Progress Bar: Displays a progress bar along the top of the webpage when loading. I have it configured with a blue bar for normal windows and a purple one for private windows.
  • RSSPreview: I wish every browser on the market offered RSS feed previews, but unfortunately that isn’t the case.
  • Stylus: Allows me to add custom stylesheets for specific websites. At the moment it’s only used to make some adjustments to internal Automattic tools and communication channels.
  • Tampermonkey: Let’s you run custom scripts for specific websites. Only currently used to customize the functionality of internal Automattic tools.
  • Translate Web Pages: Chrome had this feature built-in, but on Firefox it requires an extension. I’ve tried a handful and this seems like the best one.
  • Wallabagger: I recently switched to Wallabag, a read later service with a self-hosted option. This extension lets me quickly save links to it.

Firefox also offers some more obscure settings through the Configuration Editor, accessible with about:config in the address bar. I feel like I’ve made a handful of adjustments there, but the only one that jumps out to me as crucial is setting browser.urlbar.trimURLs to false. This prevents Firefox from hiding the protocol portion of the URL in the address bar.

But the customization doesn’t stop there, Firefox offers even more options through a custom stylesheet file named userChrome.css that you can add to a specific location within your profile folder.

I’m not too fond of the new design of tabs in Firefox, which was introduced in version 89. But userChrome.org has a tool that can generate a CSS snippet to add to userChrome.css and customize the look of tabs. I set mine to no tab corner rounding, connect the tabs to the toolbar, use compact height, and using a vertical bar.

Another annoyance was the lack of visual distinction between private browsing windows and regular browsing windows. But I was able to find a userChrome.css snippet on Reddit that changes the background color of the tab bar to purple in private browsing windows. I use private windows frequently for work-related tasks and this helps ensure I won’t get my windows mixed up.

And lastly, I added the following in userChrome.css to hide the action buttons that appear on the right-hand side of the browser address bar:

/* Hide page actions buttons in URL bar */
#page-action-buttons { display: none !important;}

I don’t find those buttons to be particularly useful. And the ones built-in to Firefox and added through my collection of extensions were accessible in other ways. I would rather just have the clean URL bar.

I’m so happy to be using a browser that offers a deep level of customizability again. And one that’s developed by a company that shares my enthusiasm for a free and open web. It’s far more important than most of us realize and I hope there’s a lot more effort aiming in that direction in the future. From more than just Mozilla.

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Option C

John Gruber, in reference to The New York Times’ piece on Apple, China, and user privacy:

It’s a big report, but the above is fundamentally true and gets to the heart of the conflict: physical access to the hardware in the facility is game over. But what’s missing from the whole piece is any serious discussion of what else Apple could do. Apple has no option other than to comply with Chinese law, or else stop selling products in the country.

Option A: Apple does what it did — store all Chinese users’ iCloud data on servers in China, under the ultimate control of the Chinese government.

Option B: Apple refuses to do so, and the Chinese government shuts down iCloud in China and probably bans the sale of Apple devices.

Is there an Option C? I don’t think there is.

There’s a very clear and obvious Option C — build Apple products that are less reliant on iCloud.

If access to the physical servers is the biggest privacy issue, then give users the tools to effectively opt-out of it entirely and take control of their own data.

Why can’t the iPhone backup to a shared Time Machine drive on the local network? Macs have been able to do this for years. It’s not as if iPhone’s have some sort of hardware limitation — the iPhone of today is significantly more capable than the Macs of 2008, when Time Capsule was first introduced.

Backing up your device to iCloud is actually the biggest point of failure of iMessage’s security. Despite the fact that iMessage is encrypted end-to-end when sending messages, Apple can access and view your messages within iCloud backups. If Apple offered a more convenient way to backup your iPhone locally, it would give users the option of better security if they prefer it.

Reintroducing Time Capsule would be the best way to do this, as it would be an easy, single-purchase solution for users that want to own their data.

But it could go beyond just device backups — Apple could pitch the Time Capsule as “iCloud at Home” and mimic many of the services that iCloud offers on a box that you physically control.

iCloud Photos, iCloud Drive, Notes, and any other service that syncs or stores data in iCloud could be stored locally on a Time Capsule. Apple’s servers would just be there to tell the device I’m using how to connect to the Time Capsule on my home network. In other words, Apple facilitates the connection and then my devices talk directly with the Time Capsule using end-to-end encryption.

This would seemingly eliminate offsite backups, leaving you vulnerable to data loss if there was a fire, flood, or something else that physically damages your Time Capsule. But this could be solved too. Apple could develop a system where you could pair a Time Capsule in your home with a Time Capsule in a friend or family members home giving them the ability to backup data to each other. Synology already offers this, actually.

But of course, there’s always the possibility that China pulls the rug out from these endeavors — enacting policies or practices that hamper these types of services or outlaws the sale of Time Capsules outright. But at least Apple would be making more of an effort. And a rising tide raises all ships — I imagine a lot of iPhone users would jump at the opportunity to buy an “iCloud at Home” Time Capsule to take greater ownership of their data.

And then there’s the issue of censorship in the App Store. This one is simple and I’ve advocated for it a number of times, even outside of the discussion of China — open up the platform to apps from outside the App Store. Make it more difficult to police iOS software by decentralizing.

This would almost certainly introduce the possibility of spyware on the platform, but given China’s relationship with large tech companies, one could argue that this is already happening. The difference is, if there was an app that the Chinese government didn’t want their citizens to have access to, instead of it simply being banned from the App Store, they would be be able to install it. Albeit through underground channels. But even that would be tremendously empowering.

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