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Quantum Leap: Mozilla Aims for Chrome’s Crown With Major Browser Update

Brian Baglow

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Mozilla Firefox Quantum

Faster, smaller, safer. Can Firefox Quantum put the web’s alternative browser back on top?

The Mozilla Foundation has released the latest version (57) of its Firefox browser, codenamed Quantum, promising massive improvement in speed, memory usage and privacy.

The organisation has been rebuilding many of the browser’s legacy components to take advantage of the latest developments in hardware, user interface and browsing habits. Mozilla is taking aim specifically at Google’s dominant Chrome browser by claiming 30% less memory use and more private browsing as key features.

Despite being the world’s browser of choice, there’s been growing discontent with Google Chrome, thanks to the browser’s reputation for hogging memory and the perception of Google’s data gathering through the browser.

Introducing Stylo

Quantum is built on an entirely new CSS engine called Stylo. This replaces the practically prehistoric Gecko engine, which was inherited from Netscape (in around 1998). The Inquirer reports one Mozilla engineer describing the process as “replacing a jet engine while the plane is still in flight.”

The browser’s focus on privacy introduces an option to turn on tracking protection to block known tracking scripts at all times, not just while using private browsing mode. The organisation is also promising protection against HTML5 canvas fingerprinting (which allows users to be tracked online without using cookies), which is a feature of the ultra-secure TOR browser, in the next update.

The new Firefox also introduces a fundamental change to the plug-ins and add-ons system. The XML User Interface Language (XUL) used in previous versions has been replaced by extensions using WebExtensions, the standard used by Chromium and Edge browsers.

This means that plug-ins written for Chrome and Opera should run on Firefox Quantum, but any existing extensions will not work the the new browser unless developers developers rewrite them to use the new application program interface (API).

Multi-Threading

Nick Nguyen, Mozilla’s VP of technology told The Register: “Firefox is 13 years old – and very few applications have been around for 13 years without accruing technical debt. We’ve been rolling out multicore for the last year. It’s like cribbing from the game engine book: prioritising loads that people care about. So this means things like prioritising tabs that are in the foreground. Making sure the Facebook timeline scrolls really well. With ESPN we were spending time rendering the navigation bar when what people wanted was the content.”

“With Stylo – which is our first large scale Rust deployment – we’re dividing the work much better. Stylo scales perfectly with the number of cores. If you have four cores it’s four times as fast as one core. We do scale on the number of threads based on the user’s hardware profile. We can do more with two to four threads, rather than one thread per tab. We’re optimising per thread. One thread can share multiple tabs but we have a separate processes for the UI and addons so an addon can’t bring down the browser.”

Initial Results

Initial results from the major consumer tech websites look promising for Quantum. ZDNet reports the browser beating the stuffing out of its predecessor and equalling Chrome in three out of the seven benchmark tests carried out (Microsoft Edge won up a single category), while Digital Trends published an adorably gushing review that rated the browser highly:

“This is a slick and modern-looking browser, not the old-school Firefox you might be accustomed to. The new UI and design language even puts Chrome’s brand of minimalism to shame — by comparison, Chrome looks dated.”

The mobile versions of Quantum won’t be nearly as dramatic. Apple does not allow third-party rendering engines, so the iOS version is based up a re-wrapped WebKit, although the privacy advantages remain. Android delivers more Quantum enhancements, including the new version of the renderer, along with new add-ons. Tracking protection can also be activated. However, as every Android phone uses Chrome by default (unless the manufacturer is willing to forgo Gmail), it’s less likely to get as much pick up.

Firefox Quantum is OUT NOW for Windows, Mac and Linux with the new look rolling out on iOS and Android too.

The DIGIT team will be trying the new browser and reporting back in the near future…

 

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Brian Baglow

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