Firefox is doing the unthinkable. Or maybe I should say that Firefox is doing the unimaginable. Or maybe I should simply state that Firefox is doing something very right that could wind up very wrong.

They are embracing Chrome.

Okay, not directly. What they are doing is embracing the WebExtensions API… a new API which is Blink compatible. Blink happens to be the web browser engine, developed by the Chromium project, which is a fork of the WebCore component of WebKit.

Got that?

This has caused plenty of rumors to surface. One such rumor is that Firefox will be dropping its own extensions in favor of Google Chrome’s add-ons. This is false… to a degree. What the Mozilla Foundation has decided is to make extension development to be more inline with web development. In other words, a sort of “Develop once, run by many” approach.

In the official announcement, Kev Needham said:

“We would like add-on development to be more like web development: the same code should run in multiple browsers according to behavior set by standards, with comprehensive documentation available from multiple vendors.”

This should be viewed from all angles as a very important step forward. First and foremost, developing Firefox extensions has always been more complicated than with Chrome and Opera. Why? Because Firefox currently makes use of technologies like XUL and XPCOM for developing extensions in JavaScript in order gain access to underlying features. Those bits are being phased out in favor of the new Jetpack SDK (that does not use any lower level APIs).

Once this is in place, it will become (theoretically) easier for developers of Chrome and Opera add-ons to migrate their apps over to Firefox.

There will, however, be one hurdle for developers. As of Firefox 42, all extensions will be reviewed and signed by Mozilla before being deployed. Thanks to WebExtensions API, this review process will be streamlined to five days max (theoretically).

For those concerned about their favorite extension not working under the new system, some of those fears could be founded in a modicum of truth. Why? Because many existing extensions will have to be rewritten from the ground up. That doesn’t mean they will. Whether or not an extension is re-written to function within the new framework will be up to the developer(s) of each extension. Mozilla does plan on working with developers to make the transition go smoothly, but that doesn’t ensure the transition will actually happen for all.

This could mean your favorite extension winds up on the cutting room floor… “could” being the operative word. In fact, that “could” could be the downfall of this entire change. Why? Because the good folks at Mozilla don’t have all the answers to all the questions, even after making this announcement public. What about the fact that developers will now have zero motivation to update their extensions, knowing that in a year they’ll have to completely rewrite their code? And what if developers don’t want to migrate to the new API (because Mozilla may allow some access to XUL in the future)? How will Mozilla entice developers to make the change?

My suggestion for the future is that Mozilla have the answers to such questions before they make such a massive change public. The love for Firefox is quite tenuous at the moment. The last thing Mozilla needs is to watch all of their extension developers jump ship in favor of a technology that has a clear plan for the future. Namely, Chrome.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe this to be a positive change for the open-source browser, depending, of course, on this change actually working. If, in the end, we see a rise in the amount (and quality) of available extensions for Firefox, then this migration will have been worth it. If, on the other hand, there’s either little change or we find fewer quality extensions, this could be the death knell for Firefox.

In an effort to be more uniquely Firefox, Firefox is looking more and more like Chrome every day. Is this a good move forward? Honestly, at this point (and with all of these looming questions) I can’t say it is. If developers decide to jump on board with the new API, Firefox will enjoy a renaissance. If, however, the developers jump ship… well, you can do that math.

As a user of Firefox, I want it to be a smart move on the part of the Mozilla Foundation. What’s your take? Is this a smart move or a death knell?

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Firefox extends itself to Chrome