Add-ons have really been an integral part of Firefox ever since before its first release. In fact Firefox has had an add-ons manager of some form since version 0.2 (which was at that time called Phoenix). Firefox 4 will include a completely redesigned add-ons manager and while many nightly testers will have already seen our work, now the beta release is out I wanted to talk about some of the new features it includes. If you’re interested I’m also writing a companion piece that talks about the history of the add-ons manager from its first appearance through to what the future may bring.
Changing the home of add-ons
The most obvious change that you’ll see is that the add-ons manager in Firefox is no longer a separate window. Instead it appears as a tab within the main Firefox window, just like webpages. One of the big things that I think revolutionized web browsing was the introduction of tabs to allow you to keep many webpages open in the same window. This is because in general it is pretty difficult to keep track of multiple windows. Opening one tends to block the other making it difficult to quickly switch around them unless you are very careful about where you place them all. This really applies to parts of the user interface as well as webpages themselves. With the new design you’ll never go back to your webpage to read something and have a hard time finding the add-ons manager again.
The Firefox user experience team has been talking about putting parts of Firefox’s user interface into tabs for some time now and other web browsers have done this sort of thing already. When we were redesigning the add-ons manager this was one of the first choices that we made.
Learn more about add-ons
One of the first big features that I worked on when I started at Mozilla was adding the “Get Add-ons” pane to the old add-ons manager. It was an area that allowed users investigating what this part of Firefox was for to see a list of a few recommended add-ons as well as do simple searching for add-ons listed at addons.mozilla.org and install them right there without having to open a webpage. It turns out that many use this as their main way to get add-ons, somewhere around one in five of every add-on downloaded from addons.mozilla.org comes through this pane. What we wanted to do with this redesign was to extend the sorts of information and recommendations that we can provide directly in the manager.
While still only showing a placeholder in the current beta the revamped Get Add-ons section will eventually include recommended and features add-ons, lists of the most popular add-ons as well as a short overview of what add-ons are for those who have never used them before.
Make changes without restarting
The new add-ons manager supports a new type of add-on, one that doesn’t need you to restart Firefox in order to use it. It is possible for quite a lot of extension developers to change their add-on to use this feature but perhaps the easiest way to support it is to use the new Jetpack SDK to build your add-ons. An example of an extension built on the SDK is MailPing, a simple tool to let you know wen you have new emails at your Google or Yahoo mail account.
Find the add-ons you need
Once you have a large number of add-ons installed it can be hard to find the one you are looking for if you want to make changes to it. In fact if you can’t remember whether the add-on you were looking for is a Plugin, Extension or Theme then the old manager made you look through each list till you found it. With the new manager we’ve added a few tools to help you. You can quickly sort the add-ons in a list in a few different ways. We’re also building search right in. Typing something in the search box will look through all your add-ons for you trying to guess which you were looking for. In the future this will also return results from the extensive catalogue of add-ons available from addons.mozilla.org.
See more about your add-ons
You’ll probably see that in the new manager there is room for more information about your add-ons that was previously unavailable unless you visited addons.mozilla.org. Although in the initial beta lots of this information is not real, by the time we release Firefox 4 we expect you to be able to see information about ratings and reviews (particularly important when looking for new add-ons to download) and have the ability to easily contribute to add-ons that you could not do without.
Still to come
This is all just the early betas so there is still a lot of new things to come. In particular the way the manager looks right now is the same on every platform and based on early designs. The user experience team are now finalizing how the manager should look on all platforms. Future betas will also bring better feedback for the update and install processes.
Hopefully you’ll find the new add-ons manager easier to use but either way we are always looking for feedback so why not let us know what you think?