Developer Tools meet-up in Portland

Two weeks ago the developer tools teams and a few others met in the Portland office for a very successful week of discussions and hacking. The first day was about setting the stage for the week and working out what everyone was going to work on. Dave Camp kicked us off with a review of the last six months in developer tools and talked about what is going to be important for us to focus on in 2014. We then had a little more in-depth information from each of the teams. After lunch a set of lightning talks went over some projects and ideas that people had been working on recently.

After that everyone got started prototyping new ideas, hacking on features and fixing bugs. The amount of work that happens at these meet-ups is always mind-blowing and this week was no exception, even one of our contributors got in on the action. Here is a list of the things that the team demoed on Friday:

This only covers the work demoed on Friday, a whole lot more went on during the week as a big reason for doing these meet-ups is so that groups can split off to have important discussions. We had Darrin Henein on hand to help out with UX designs for some of the tools and Kyle Huey joined us for a couple of days to help work out the final kinks in the plan for debugging workers. Lot’s of work went on to iron out some of the kinks in the new add-on SDK widgets for Australis, there were discussions about memory and performance tools as well as some talk about how to simplify child processes for Firefox OS and electrolysis.

Of course there was also ample time in the evenings for the teams to socialise. One of the downsides of being a globally distributed team is that getting to know one another and building close working relationships can be difficult over electronic forms of communication so we find that it’s very important to all come together in one place to meet face to face. We’re all looking forward to doing it again in about six months time.

An editable box model view in the devtools

This week the whole devtools group has been sequestered in Mozilla’s Portland office having one of our regular meet-ups. As always it’s been a fantastically productive week with lots of demos to show for it. I’ll be writing a longer write-up later but I wanted to post about what I played with over the week.

My wife does the odd bit of web development on the side. For a long time she was a loyal Firebug user and a while ago I asked her what she thought of Firefox’s built in devtools. She quickly pointed out a couple of features that Firebug had that Firefox did not. As I was leaving for this week I mentioned I’d be with the devtools group and she asked whether her features had been fixed yet. It turns out that colour swatches had been but the box model still wasn’t editable. So I figured I could earn myself some brownie points by hacking on that this week.

The goal here is to be able to inspect an element on the page, pull up the box model and be able to quickly play with the margins, borders and padding to tweak the positioning until it looks right. Then armed with the right values you can go update your stylesheets. It saves a lot of trial and error with positioning.

It turned out to be relatively simple to implement a pretty full version. The feature allows you to click one of the box model values and type whatever value you like, in any CSS unit you prefer. If the size had been set in the stylesheet in some specific unit then that is what appears in the input box for you to change. Better yet as you type numbers the element updates in the page on the fly and you can use the arrow keys to increase/decrease the value until you’re happy. It’s a really natural way to play with the element’s position.

The changes made appear on the element so you can find them in the rule view pretty easily. This patch is based on an updated version of the box model view which is why it looks so different to existing Firefox, all my work does is make the numbers editable.

I actually completed this so quickly that I decided to take this one step further. One thing missing from the box model display is information about border colours. So I added some colour swatches for each border and made them editable with the regular devtools colour picker.

Both of these patches are pretty much complete but they’ll have to wait for the new box model highlighter to be complete before they can be reviewed and land.

Six years revisited

Two years ago I blogged about how it had been six years since I wrote my first patch for Firefox. Today I get to say that it’s been six years since I started getting paid to do what I love, working for Mozilla. In that time I’ve moved to a new continent, found a wife (through Mozilla no less!), progressed from coder to module owner to manager, seen good friends leave for other opportunities and others join and watched (dare I say helped?) Mozilla, and the Firefox team in particular, grow from the small group that I joined in 2007 to the large company that will soon surpass 1000 employees.

One of the things I’ve always appreciated about Mozilla is how flexible they can be about where you work. Recently my wife and I decided to move away from the bay area to be closer to family. It was a hard choice to make as it meant leaving a lot of friends behind but one thing that made it easier was knowing that I wouldn’t have to factor work into that choice. Unlike many other companies I know there is no strict requirement that everyone work from the office. True it is encouraged and it sometimes makes sense to require it for some employees, particularly when starting out, but I knew that when it came time to talk to my manager about it he wouldn’t have a problem with me switching to working remote. Of course six years ago when I started I was living in the UK and remained so for my first two years at Mozilla so he had a pretty good idea that I could handle it, and at least this time I’m only separated from the main office by a short distance and no time-zones.

The web has changed a lot in the last six years. Back then we were working on Firefox 3, the first release to contain the awesomebar and a built-in way to download extensions from AMO. Twitter and Facebook had only been generally available for about a year. The ideas for CSS3 and HTML5 were barely written, let alone implemented. If you had told me back then that you’d be able to play a 3D game in your browser with no additional plugins, or watch videos without flash I’d have probably thought they were crazy pipe-dreams. We weren’t even Jitting our JS code back then. Mozilla, along with other browser makers, are continuing to prove that HTML, CSS and JS are winning combinations that we can build on to make the future of the web open, performant and powerful. I can’t wait to see what things will be like in another six years.

Firefox now ships with the add-on SDK

It’s been a long ride but we can finally say it. This week Firefox 21 shipped and it includes the add-on SDK modules.

We took all the Jetpack APIs and we shipped them in Firefox!What does this mean? Well for users it means two important things:

  1. Smaller add-ons. Since they no longer need to ship the APIs themselves add-ons only have to include the unique code that makes them special. That’s something like a 65% file-size saving for the most popular SDK based add-ons, probably more for simpler add-ons.
  2. Add-ons will stay compatible with Firefox for longer. We can evolve the modules in Firefox that add-ons use so that most of the time when changes happen to Firefox the modules seamlessly shift to keep working. There are still some cases where that might be impossible (when a core feature is dropped from Firefox for example) but hopefully those should be rare.

To take advantage of these benefits add-ons have to be repacked with a recent version of the SDK. We’re working on a plan to do that automatically for existing add-ons where possible but developers who want to get the benefits right now can just repack their add-ons themselves using SDK 1.14 and using cfx xpi --strip-sdk, or using the next release of the SDK, 1.15 which will do that by default.

Hacking on Tilt

Tilt, or 3D view as it is known in Firefox, is an awesome visual tool that really lets you see the structure of a webpage. It shows you just how deep your tag hierarchy goes which might give signs of your page being too complex or even help you spot errors in your markup that you wouldn’t otherwise notice. But what if it could do more? What if there were different ways to visualise the same page? What if even web developers could create their own visualisations?

I’ve had this idea knocking around in my head for a while now and the devtools work week was the perfect time to hack on it. Here are some results, click through for larger images:

Normal 3D view

Normal 3D view

Only give depth to links

Only give depth to links

Only give depth to links going off-site

Only give depth to links going off-site

Only give depth to elements that have a different style on hover

Only give depth to elements that have a different style on hover

This is all achieved with some changes to Firefox itself to make Tilt handle more generic visualisations along with an extension that then overrides Tilt’s default visualisation. Because the extension has access to everything Firefox knows about the webpage it can use some interested sources of data about the page, including those not found in the DOM. This one I particularly like, it makes the element’s depth proportional to the number of attached DOM event listeners:

Give depth to elements based on the number of attached event listeners

Give depth to elements based on the number of attached event listeners

Just look at that search box, and what’s up with the two buttons having different height?

The code just calls a JS function to get the height for each element displayed in 3D view. It’s really easy to use DOM functions to highlight different things about the elements and while I think some of the examples I made are interesting I think it will be more interesting to just let web-devs come up with and share their own visualisations. To that end I also demoed using scratchpad to write whatever function you like to control the visualisation. You can see a screencast of it in action.

Something that struck me towards the end of the week is that it could be awesome to pair this up with external sources of data like analytics. What about being able to view your page with links given depth proportional to how often users click them? Seems like an awesome way to really understand where your users are going and maybe why.

I’m hoping to get the changes to Firefox landed soon maybe with an additional patch to properly support extensibility of Tilt, right now the extension works by replacing a function in a JSM which is pretty hacky, but it wouldn’t be difficult to make it nicer than that. After that I’ll be interested to see what visualisation ideas others come up with.

The Add-on SDK is now in Firefox

We’re now a big step closer to shipping the SDK APIs with Firefox and other apps, we’ve uplifted the SDK code from our git repository to mozilla-inbound and assuming it sticks we will be on the trains for releasing. We’ll be doing weekly uplifts to keep the code in mozilla-central current.

What’s changed?

Not a lot yet. Existing add-ons and add-ons built with the current version of the SDK still use their own versions of the APIs from their XPIs. Add-ons built with the next version of the SDK may start to try to use the APIs in Firefox in preference to those shipped with the XPI and then a future version will only use those in Firefox. We’re also talking about the possibility of making Firefox override the APIs in any SDK based add-on and use the shipped ones automatically so the add-on author wouldn’t need to do anything.

We’re working on getting the Jetpack tests running on tinderbox switched over to use the in-tree code, once we do we will be unhiding them so other developers can immediately see when their changes break the SDK code. You can now run the Jetpack tests with a mach command or just with make jetpack-tests from the object directory. Those commands are a bit rudimentary right now, they don’t give you a way to choose individual tests to run. We’ll get to that.

Can I use it now?

If you’re brave, sure. Once a build including the SDKs is out (might be a day or so for nightlies) fire up a chrome context scratch pad and put this code in it:

var { Loader } = Components.utils.import("resource://gre/modules/commonjs/toolkit/loader.js", {});
var loader = Loader.Loader({
  paths: {
    "sdk/": "resource://gre/modules/commonjs/sdk/",
    "": "globals:///"
  },
  resolve: function(id, base) {
    if (id == "chrome" || id.startsWith("@"))
      return id;
    return Loader.resolve(id, base);
  }
});
var module = Loader.Module("main", "scratchpad://");
var require = Loader.Require(loader, module);

var { notify } = require("sdk/notifications");
notify({
  text: "Hello from the SDK!"
});

Everything but the last 4 lines sets up the SDK loader so it knows where to get the APIs from and creates you a require function to call. The rest can just be code as you’d include in an SDK add-on. You probably shouldn’t use this for anything serious yet, in fact I haven’t included the code to tell the module loader to unload so this code example may leak things for the rest of the life of the application.

This is too long of course (longer than it should be right now because of a bug too) so one thing we’ll probably do is create a simple JSM that can give you a require function in one line as well as take care of unloading when the app goes away.

What is an API?

I recently posted in the newsgroups about a concern over super-review. In some cases patches that seem to meet the policy aren’t getting super-reviewed. Part of the problem here is that the policy is a little ambiguous. It says that any API or pseudo-API requires super-review but depending on how you read that section it could mean any patch that changes the signature of a JS function is classed as an API. We need to be smarter than that. Here is a straw-man proposal for defining what is an API:

Any code that is intended to be used by other parts of the application, add-ons or web content is an API and requires super-review when added or its interface is changed

Some concrete examples to demonstrate what I think this statement covers:

  • JS modules and XPCOM components in toolkit are almost all intended to be used by applications or add-ons and so are APIs
  • UI code in toolkit (such as extensions.js) aren’t meant to be used elsewhere and so aren’t APIs (though they may contain a few cases such as observer notifications, these should be clearly marked out in the file)
  • Any functions or objects exposed to web content are APIs
  • The majority of code in browser/ is only meant to be used within browser/ and so isn’t an API. There are some exceptions to this where extensions rely on certain functionality such as tabbrowser.xml

Do you think my simple statement above matches those cases and others that you can think of? Is this a good way to define what needs super-review?

What is Jetpack here for?

Who are the Jetpack team? What are they here for? A lot of people in Mozilla don’t know that Jetpack still exists (or never knew it existed). Others still think of it as the original prototype which we dropped in early 2010. Our goals have changed a lot since then. Even people who think they know what we’re about might be surprised at what our current work involves.

Let’s start with this basic statement:

Jetpack makes it easier to develop features for Firefox

There are a couple of points wrapped up in this statement:

  1. The Jetpack team doesn’t develop features. We enable others to develop features. We should be an API and tools team. We’ve done a lot of API development, but we should work with the developer tools team more to make sure that Firefox developer tools work for Firefox development, too.
  2. I didn’t say “add-ons.” I said “features”. The APIs we develop shouldn’t be just for add-on developers, Firefox developers should be able to use them too. If the APIs we create are the best they can be, then everyone should want to use them. They should demand to use them, in fact. It follows that this should make it easier for add-ons to transition into full Firefox features, or vice versa.

We happen to think that a modular approach to developing features makes more sense than the old style of using overlays and xpcom. All of the APIs we develop are common-js style modules (as used in Node and elsewhere) and we’ve built the add-on SDK to simplify this style of add-on development. That work includes a loader for common-js modules which has now landed in Firefox and is available to all feature developers. It also includes tools to take directories of common-js modules and convert them into a standalone XPI that can be installed into Firefox.

The next step in supporting Firefox and add-on developers is to land our APIs into Firefox itself so they are available to everyone. We hope to complete that by the end of this year and it will bring some great benefits, including smaller add-ons and the ability to fix certain problems in SDK based add-ons with Firefox updates.

Mythical goals

Jetpack has been around for a while and in that time our focus has changed. There are a few cases where I think people are mistaken about the goals we have. Here are the common things that were talked about as hard-goals in the past but I don’t are any longer.

Displace classic add-ons

Most people think Jetpack’s main goal is to displace classic add-ons. It’s obvious that we’ve failed to do that. Were we ever in a position to do so? Expecting the developers of large add-ons to switch to a different style of coding (even a clearly better one) without some forcing factor doesn’t work. The electrolysis project might have done it, but even supporting e10s was easier than converting a large codebase to the add-on SDK. The extension ecosystem of today still includes a lot of classic addons, and the APIs we build should be usable by their developers, too.

Forwards compatibility

Users hate it when Firefox updates break their add-ons. Perfect forwards compatibility was another intended benefit of the SDK. Shipping our APIs with Firefox will help a lot, as the add-ons that use them will work even if the specific implementation of the APIs needs to change under the hood over time. It won’t be perfect, though. We’re going to maintain the APIs vigorously, but we aren’t fortune tellers. Sometimes parts of Firefox will change in ways that force us to break APIs that didn’t anticipate those changes.

What we can do though is get better at figuring out which add-ons will be broken by API changes and reach out to those developers to help them update their code. All add-on SDK based add-ons include a file that lists exactly which APIs they use making it straightforward to identify those that might be affected by a change.

Cross-device compatibility

There’s a theory that says that as long as you’re only using SDK APIs to build your add-on, it will magically work on mobile devices as well as it does on desktop. Clearly we aren’t there yet either. We are making great strides, but the goal isn’t entirely realistic either. Developers want to be able to use as many features as they can in Firefox to make their new feature great. But many features in one device don’t exist or make no sense on other devices. Pinned tabs exist on desktop and the SDK includes API support for pinning and un-pinning tabs. But on mobile there is currently no support for pinned tabs. Honestly, I don’t think it’s something we even should have for phone devices. Adding APIs for add-ons to create their own toolbars makes perfect sense on desktop, but again for phones makes no sense at all.

So, do we make the APIs only support the lowest common denominator across all devices Firefox works on? Can we even know what that is? No. We will support APIs on the devices where it makes sense, but in some cases we will have to say that the API simply isn’t supported on phones, or tablets, or maybe desktops. What we can do, again by having a better handle on which APIs developers are using, is make device compatibility more obvious to developers, allowing them to make the final call on which APIs to employ.

Hopefully that has told you something you didn’t know before. Did it surprise you?

After an awesome Jetpack work week

It’s the first day back at work after spending a great work week in London with the Jetpack team last week. I was going to write a summary of everything that went on but it turns out that Jeff beat me to it. That’s probably a good thing as he’s a better writer than I so go there and read up on all the fun stuff that we got done.

All I’ll add is that it was fantastic getting the whole team into a room to talk about what we’re working on and get a load of stuff done. I ran a discussion on what the goals of the Jetpack project are (I’ll follow up on this in another blog post to come later this week) and was delighted that everyone on the team is on the same page. Employing people from all around the world is one of Mozilla’s great strengths but also a potential risk. It’s vital for us to keep doing work weeks and all hands like this to make sure everyone gets to know everyone and is working together towards the same goals.

Mossop Status Update: 2012-05-11

Done:

  • Submitted pdf.js packaging work for review (bug 740795)
  • Patched a problem on OSX with FAT filesystem profiles (bug 733436)
  • Patched a problem with restartless add-ons when moving profiles between machines (bug 744833)
  • Added some quoting for the extensions crash report annotation (bug 753900)
  • Thoughts on shipping the SDK in Firefox and problems with supporting other apps: https://etherpad.mozilla.org/SDK-in-Firefox