Tired fox asleep

Mozilla celebrates 1M new non-Gecko users

Firefox Focus browser for Android has been downloaded 1 million times in just one month since its initial release. The new web browser from Mozilla blocks ads and trackers by default, and is branded as a privacy focused alternative to traditional web browsers. Along the way, Mozilla seem to have lost their focus on building a cohesive mobile platform.

What makes a web browser unique? To me, one of the essential things that sets Firefox apart from other web browsers is its open-source Mozilla Gecko web rendering engine. Gecko is used in Firefox for desktop and Android. However, the first two releases of Firefox Focus for Android have shipped with Android WebView, based on Chromium’s Blink rendering engine, instead of Gecko.

Firefox Focus, also known as “Firefox Klar” in some markets, has a quite different design to that of Firefox Mobile. Focus is limited to only a single tab and comes with built-in blocklists of known internet trackers and advertisement. Focus was released for iOS last year, using the WebKit WebView rendering engine. Notably, Apple doesn’t allow other rendering engines to be distributed through their App Store, so Mozilla had no other choice. On Android, however, they could have chosen to use Gecko instead.

Does Mozilla really have so little faith in their own rendering engine — which is already available on Android — that they’d choose to release their new mobile web browser product for Android without it?

The Android WebView version of Focus for Android was initially referred to as a prototype. From digging around in Mozilla’s public bug trackers, it seems their GeckoView — slated to become a drop-in replacement for WebView on Android — just wasn’t ready to ship. The bug tracker also shows signs of ongoing efforts to bring GeckoView and its interfaces up to par with and introduce a shim for Android WebView.

Focus can be built from source to use GeckoView today. It’s not quite on feature parity with its WebView counterpart just yet. Some basic functionality in a mobile browser is still missing from the current Firefox Focus builds with Gecko including page-zoom gestures and audio playback.

It sure looks like a switch to Gecko is on the roadmap for Firefox Focus on Android some time in the future. I still find it worrying that one of the few remaining web rendering engines isn’t more important to Mozilla’s strategy.

Not a productivity tool

Firefox Focus is meant to be a more privacy friendly option by default. As such, it doesn’t store history to the internal storage and keeps everything in RAM. This means the app doesn’t sleep when it’s left open in the background, causing it to drain your battery more quickly by design.

There are also a lot of features missing by design. As the browser is designed to not remember anything about your browsing habits, there are also no list of frequently visited websites nor a bookmarks manager. Opera tried stripping the bookmarks manager when it abandoned its own Presto rendering engine in favor of WebKit. This greatly angered users at the time; and that was while there were other options like Speed Dial and “Stash” available. Firefox Focus has no way of storing your favorite websites.

The current beta builds contain a new “Add to Home screen” menu item that currently doesn’t do anything. This will likely add a shortcut to the current page to the user’s Home screen.

Firefox Focus is limited to only one tab and one instance/window at a time. Combined with the lack of a real bookmarks manager, reading list, stash, or other way of managing multiple pages; this essentially kills Focus as a productivity tool. It’s great for logging in to one thing and keeping it separate from your main web browser, but it means Focus is more limited than other options. I theorize that this one-tab limit is put in place to limit the RAM and power consumption, and as it’s hard to isolate tabs/cookies/sessions from each other in a tabbed browser. When do users expect logins and cookies to be shared between two tabs? and when do they prefer to keep them separate? These are questions the browser couldn’t really answer on its own without annoyingly prompting the user.

Speaking of logins: there is no password manager built-in to Focus and WebExtensions and thus LastPass and similar alternatives aren’t supported. Combined with the short session duration and lack of persistent cookies, this can be a real hurdle depending on your personal password hygiene.

Why not focus on Firefox Mobile?

Mozilla already has a superior product available on Android: Firefox Mobile for Android. It has multiple tabs, bookmarks, it supports WebExtensions and Firefox Sync, there are a bunch of accessibility settings available and it’s an actual web browser and can be used as an actual productivity tool.

Firefox Mobile allows users to install additional privacy enhancing plugins that goes beyond just blocking advertisement and trackers including Decentraleyes and Privacy Badger among other privacy focused extensions.

Firefox Mobile can be configured to clear all user data on exit. When used in combination with a tracking and ad-blocking extension, you’ve essentially recreated Firefox Focus in a more capable packaging (and with Gecko!) Firefox Mobile is not private by default, but maybe what is needed is to improve the capabilities of Private Browsing mode.

Since the , Firefox has a built-in tracking protection in Private Browsing mode imaginatively called “Private Browsing + Tracking Protection”. It’s enabled by default, and users can toggle it on and off from an empty private window. However, this is much harder to communicate to users than Focus’ “it’s private by default.”.

Firefox Mobile is a better replacement for Google Chrome and Samsung Browser than Focus as it has all the features users would expect of it. I fear that many of the 1 million users who’ve downloaded Firefox Focus may be put-off by its barebones nature and will never want to use Firefox again on any of their devices. It’s easier to understand than Private Browsing mode for users who wants increased privacy. However, it does a poor job for anyone who want to get any work done in their browsers.

The User-Agent of Firefox Focus varies by market. In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland the User-Agent contains “Klar/2.0” and “Focus/1.1” in the rest of the world. I’ve never seen any product change their User-Agent like this before, but I guess there is always a first for everything. Additionally, Focus sends a “X-Requested-With“ of “org.mozilla.focus” HTTP header with every request while Klar sends “org.mozilla.klar” in the same header.

The User-Agent of Firefox Focus doesn’t contain the word “Firefox”. It’s a not so subtle reminder that Firefox Focus isn’t the Firefox users know and love. It’s something else entirely that is diluting the Firefox brand. The User-Agent of Firefox Mobile, however, contains both “Gecko” and “Firefox”.