Firefox for iOS

Firefox on iPad

I switched to Firefox on my work laptop a couple of months ago and it went so well that I thought I’d give it a try on iOS too. It hasn’t gone quite as well, but I think I’m in it for the long haul anyway, if only because I think it’s important to support alternatives. And incredibly important to support alternatives on a platform with artificial limitations on those competing with the platform owner.

The only way to change the limitations on iOS is to bump up against them and encourage Apple to make changes when possible. So I thought I’d share the notes I’ve taken over the past month using Firefox on iPhone and iPad — the biggest pain points I’ve experienced during that timeframe. Some of these are Firefox-specific where others are more generalized complaints about the state of third-party browsers on iOS in general.

  • Shortcuts’ Open URLs action always opens in Safari instead of your system’s default web browser.
  • Firefox’s URL scheme doesn’t support opening multiple URLs in tabs, it can only be used to open a single URL.
  • File downloads often don’t work at all. For example, I use AllTube to download YouTube videos as audio files, it always works in Safari, but results in simply loading the audio file within the current Firefox tab, without an option to save it to Files.
  • If you open an image file’s URL in Firefox, there’s no way to save it to Files, it can only be saved to the Photos app.
  • When opening links from external applications, if you’ve closed all tabs, you end up with two tabs — one empty tab and a tab with the link you opened.
  • The ad blocking built-in to Firefox is pretty weak. So the only option to improve it is to use a DNS-based solution. But that’s a little more difficult to bypass if you have trouble with a page. Apple should let third-party browsers use Safari Content Blockers.
  • No way to search browser history.
  • Bookmarks are buried two clicks within a menu and there’s a forced folder structure.
  • No way to add websites to your Home Screen from Firefox.
  • There’s no option to download directly to the Downloads folder in iCloud Drive. This makes downloading a file from a website and then uploading it to another website a cumbersome experience.
  • The “Get Details of Safari Webpage” action in Shortcuts only works on Safari webpages. It doesn’t work in Firefox.
  • No way to open multiple webpages side-by-side using Split View in Firefox.
  • No support for extensions, which Safari will add support for in iOS 15 and Firefox currently has support for on Android.
  • Firefox and all other third-party web browsers are forced to use WebKit as their rendering engine on iOS.

Even with all these faults, though, I’m sticking with Firefox for the foreseeable future. One of the primary reasons being the ability to add a custom default search engine to Firefox, which isn’t possible on Safari. I have a SearX instance setup and I prefer it to any of the options available in Safari.

But I’m going to keep complaining about the pain points. Because I want Apple to fix them. Because fixing those pain points will improve the platform for developers and users alike.

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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 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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