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Firefox just walked away from a key piece of the open web

Mozilla has always championed the open web. So why is it abandoning desktop web apps, the most powerful alternative to proprietary App Stores?

Firefox just walked away from a key piece of the open web
[Illustration: FC]
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In theory, I would love to use Mozilla Firefox as my everyday web browser.

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Mozilla’s stances on privacy are admirable, and Firefox has a lot of neat customization features that its competitors lack. I also just like the idea of supporting a web browser that isn’t controlled by tech giants and preserves a modicum of competition among web browser engines.

Unfortunately, Firefox is missing one key feature found in Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge, and that’s the ability to install websites as desktop apps. Over the last year, this feature has fundamentally changed the way I work by reducing browser tab clutter and providing faster access to favorite sites, and I can’t go back to Firefox without it.

So I was surprised to see recently that Mozilla has abandoned work on a similar feature for Firefox. Although Mozilla once championed the idea of web apps—and, to be fair, still supports them in its Android browser—it no longer has a path to enabling them on desktop computers.

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“Our focus is on developing and exposing features that deliver real value to our users,” Romain Testard, a Mozilla product manager, said in an email statement. “Initial exploration showed that [the current web app approach] was not going to provide that value.”

That puts Firefox at a disadvantage against Chrome and Edge, both of which are speeding ahead in making web apps an integral part of their desktop browsers. But it’s also just disappointing to see Mozilla abandon what is becoming a bastion against walled garden app stores.

A path to better web apps

To get a bit technical for a moment, the specific feature that Mozilla abandoned is called “site-specific browsers,” or SSBs. These allowed websites to run in their own windows, without address bars, navigation buttons, or other clutter. In Chrome, a similar feature is available by clicking the “…” menu, then heading to More Tools > Create Shortcut and selecting “Open as Window.” Microsoft Edge makes the feature even easier to reach: Under its “…” menu, there’s a menu called “Apps,” with an option to “Install this site as an app.”

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Firefox’s implementation clearly needed a lot of work. It didn’t integrate with any extensions that users might’ve installed, and it didn’t let users easily add launch icons to the MacOS dock or Windows Start menu. That may help explain why Mozilla had buried the feature in an advanced settings menu while developing it behind the scenes.

Still, Firefox’s SSBs were an important precursor to another technology called Progressive Web Apps, or PWAs, which let websites behave even more what you’d find in an app store. PWAs can store images and other assets locally so they load faster, and apps that don’t require data from the internet can run entirely offline. PWAs can also launch when users click an associated file type on their computers, keep the screen awake for things like presentations, and interact with a wider range of controllers and peripherals compared to standard websites.

Just as importantly, Progressive Web Apps are easier to find and install. Both Chrome and Edge show a “+” button in their address bars for sites that offer one of these apps, and the sites themselves can create pop-ups encouraging users to install their web apps. Once installed, PWAs can be uninstalled just liek a desktop app, for instance through the “Add or Remove Programs” menu in Windows.

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Instead of building toward those features, Mozilla is now removing support for SSBs entirely. While the company says it’s still evaluating other ways to support Progressive Web Apps on the desktop, it doesn’t have any alternatives under development.

“The signal I hope we are sending is that PWA support is not coming to desktop Firefox anytime soon,” Firefox architect Dave Townsend wrote in Mozilla’s bug tracking forums at the end of December.

Meanwhile, Apple’s Safari browser has not been particularly welcoming to Progressive Web Apps either. Although users can “install” web apps to their home screens on iOS, the same feature isn’t available in Safari for Mac, and Apple has refused to support a wide range of web technologies for what it says are privacy reasons. In the long run, this may be more damaging to the state of Progressive Web Apps than Mozilla’s decision, though it’s also less surprising given everything that Apple had riding on the success of native iOS apps.

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Usage on the rise

Alex Russell, a senior staff software engineer at Google and one of the biggest purveyors of Progressive Web Apps, says he’s sad to see Mozilla abandon some of the groundwork it had laid for PWA support.

“I understand the instinct to say, if you can’t do a really great job, then maybe don’t try,” he says. “We have a long list of scars from having to do it ourselves.”

From a user perspective, you just want these things to feel like apps.”

Alex Russell, Google
Russell notes that implementing Progressive Web Apps can be difficult for browser makers, but believes it’s worth the effort. Google says PWAs now have hundreds of millions of active users, and in 2020, the number of desktop app installs quadrupled year-over-year, while the number of mobile app installs doubled. Several major services such as Spotify, Hulu, and Adobe Spark offer installable Progressive Web Apps now, and Google itself has created apps for YouTube Music, Google Photos, and Google Maps.

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“From a user perspective, you just want these things to feel like apps,” Russell says.

Developers say they’re seeing a payoff from Progressive Web Apps as well. The web-based video editor ClipChamp says installation of its web app grew by 97% per month since launching last May, and user retention rates are 9% higher compared to ClipChamp’s desktop software.

Bil Bryant, CEO of the online music creation tool Amped Studio, says it’s too early to share usage numbers for its Progressive Web App, which just launched about a month ago. Still, he says it should be a popular with Amped’s users, many of whom use Chromebooks and other low-power computers that can’t run full-blown digital audio workstation software.

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“It’s a real game-changer, because one of the big fears of making music in the web is that you’re going to lose your stuff if you lose your internet connection,” he says.

An answer to walled gardens

For some app makers, the appeal of Progressive Web Apps isn’t just about the features they offer, but about their ability to circumvent app stores as a means of distribution.

“As a developer, you spend so much time and money creating this thing,” says Bil Bryant of Amped Studio. “A web app is giving you the freedom to do what you want to do, and not have to pay the Apple developer fee, and hope and pray it goes through after spending all your time developing it.”

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Although Google says avoiding app stores isn’t a primary motivation for most developers, the company itself has benefitted from being able to make more powerful web apps. Last month, Google released a web app version of Stadia for iOS, allowing the company to avoid the tight restrictions Apple has placed on game streaming services in the App Store. Other game streaming services, including Amazon’s Luna and Nvidia’s GeForce Now, have released their own web apps as well.

Russell says “it’s handy for Google and Stadia team” that web apps have advanced to the point of supporting features such as more responsive gamepad support, though he notes that Stadia’s competitors benefit from those developments as well.

While closed platforms tend to be more of an issue on smartphones, even desktop platforms are starting to look more like walled gardens. Apple’s M1-powered Macs, for instance, can now run iOS apps, which could further discourage development outside the App Store, and as a Windows user, I get my fair share of scary warnings while trying to install software from outside the Microsoft Store. Progressive Web Apps are, in some sense, a great equalizer, providing increasingly-powerful software that runs on practically any computer, no app store required.

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Mozilla was once fond of saying “the web is the platform.” It’s a shame the company has taken a break from building it.