In many ways extensions are what defined Firefox and helped it carve out an identity for itself. Extensions are the reason why many early adopters and opinion makers switched to Firefox in the first place. And extensions continue to remain the reason why so many opinion makers and tech enthusiasts continue to swear by Firefox.
Firefox’s extensions are almost infinitely powerful and allow users to truly make the browser their own. However, extensions have their own disadvantages. First of all, developing and maintaining extensions for Firefox isn’t easy. Maintaining a popular extension requires significant amount of time and energy. The other problem is that, extensions have a considerable overhead and can be responsible for major issues including instability, UI quirks and memory leaks.
Google Chrome recently introduced their own extensions gallery, which was generally well received by both developers and users. Chrome’s extension architecture is a lot more restrictive than Firefox’s. While this potentially limits what you can achieve through extensions, there are several advantages. To begin with, Chrome’s extensions have little or no impact on browser performance. They are also significantly easier to develop and maintain.
Mozilla has been experimenting on similar lines with Personas and Jetpacks. Jetpack is basically an API which permits development of Firefox extensions using existing web technologies, while Personas are light-weight skins for Firefox. Mozilla hopes to significantly boost Firefox’s developer ecosystem by simplifying the development process.
Firefox Architect Mike Connor discussed the benefits of Personas and Jetpacks at length in a recent blog post. He also revealed that Firefox wishes to move away from extensions and emphasize more on Jetpacks in the future. However, don’t get worried. Your favorite extensions aren’t going to vanish all of a sudden. This is only a general direction Firefox wishes to take in the future. If and when, this change happens, most of your favorite add-ons should be already available on the new API.
It is likely that Mozilla has been contemplating on this switch for a long time. There are tradeoffs to be made. XUL overlays will have to go. Although Jetpack add-ons are faster and lighter they lack tight and polished integration with the UI. It’s not surprising that many Firefox fans resent even the suggestion of ditching the current extension architecture. However, the success of Google Chrome extensions has undoubtedly emboldened Firefox.