Friday, November 12, 2010

The Open Source of Mozilla F1

I am a front end developer on Mozilla F1, a sharing extension in Firefox, and this is some technical background on it. Note that any opinions in here are from my personal perspective, you should not treat this as official Mozilla policy, etc...

F1 consists of a few components:

1) Firefox browser extension
2) HTML/JS/CSS share UI served from from the F1 web server
3) API server written in Python that lives on the F1 server

The extension (#1) is responsible for the share button in the toolbar, injecting navigator.mozilla.labs.share(), and for managing a browser instance that is inserted above the main web browser area. This browser area makes a call to the F1 server to server up the main share UI (#2).

The share UI is written in pure HTML/CSS/JS. They are static files that use RequireJS to build modular JavaScript which is then optimized via the RequireJS optimizer into a single application-level file. It does not yet use appcache, but it is something I want to add. It should be straightforward. Making sure we properly version files with long cache times will also help.

The share UI uses the API server (#3) to do the actual sharing. The API server also manages the complications of the OAuth dance.

If you are curious about the implementation, all the code is open. You can download it/fork it at the Mozilla Labs F1 GitHub repository. There is a file with setup instructions.

The great thing about this? You can run your own share server that you control. If you want the F1 browser extension to use your server for the share UI and API server, set the following F1 configuration in the about:config Firefox preferences: = ''

Ideally that would be an https URL, but if you are setting up your own server, hopefully you know the risks involved. Be sure to restart the browser so the extension will use this new config value.

If you think this is really cool and want to help contribute code/ideas/submit pull requests, be aware that we are still in the early stages of F1. We expect to make many changes as we refine it. Mozilla is also new to GitHub, so we appreciate your patience as we try out different work flows.

I will close out this post with a couple developer bikeshed questions and answers. Again, these are my personal perspectives, and other people on the team may have different ones.

Why is the share UI served from a web server and not from the extension?

This is an experiment. More things are moving to the cloud/server, and some of the auth APIs, like OAuth, are better suited to server use. While Mozilla already runs some non-trivial server-based services, it is good to get experience with varying types of server-based services.

I like the flexibility and ease of updates a server solution provides. Also, it is easier to debug web code that is served from content space vs. browser chrome space.

It may allow us to support mobile and even other browsers easier. I played around with doing a Google Chrome extension that served up the share UI. Unfortunately, the Google Chrome extension model is not as flexible as what we can do in Firefox, so it does not really work.

In particular, I was looking at a Chrome extension Browser Action that served up the UI in an iframe in a Popup, but I could not get the popup wide enough to show the UI, and it closes as soon as an OAuth window jump occurs. We would have to do some rethinking on UI to support that, and it is not clear how beneficial that is at this early development stage.

All that said, the UI could be burned in to the extension at some point. It is still too early to tell where this will go.

Why did you use Python for the server?

Ease of setup, combined with some knowledge of real services built with it, and the mix of developer skills of the F1 team.

Ideally I would like to see the server running JavaScript via Node, but that is because I am an irrational JavaScript zealot. However, the JS libraries for Node are still young, and at the end of the day we want to solve real user problems, not debug other people's code.

That could change in the future. But for now, it is more important to get something up quickly that works well so we can test our designer's usability theories for solving real user problems.


Mike Macgirvin said...

Any chance of an API to allow posting to other services besides the top 3/4? For instance I'd like to be able to post links to Friendika or They aren't huge services, but if there were a general purpose post api we'd gladly build engines for the networks that matter to us.

James Burke said...

Mike Macgirvin: yes, we want it to be extensible. We are just starting that process though, so it may take a while to sort out the path. We do understand that we need to have a scalable way to add other services to the extension.