Supporting icons for disabled extensions

I’ve just landed code that allows extensions to include their icon in the add-ons manager view even when disabled. Currently extensions provide their icon by giving a chrome iconURL for us to load. This can only work when the extension is enabled since we don’t register the chrome otherwise. Themes on the other hand provide their icon as a simple file called “icon.png” alongside the install.rdf. Well extensions can do this too now and it will be used in preference to the iconURL but more importantly works at all times (well not before installation yet, but that is at least feasible this way).

We’ll continue to support iconURL for a time to come I imagine, but if you want to keep your icon when users disable you then just put your icon.png alongside the install.rdf (keep the iconURL if you want to work in Firefox 3.5 and lower of course).

This is only in trunk builds right now (today’s Linux nightly has it, tomorrow’s OSX and Windows nightlies will have it). It will be making its way to the Firefox 3.6 nightlies soonish.

Notifying users about third-party add-ons

You may have noticed many of the Firefox team starting to blog progress reports on Fridays. This is a part of our new plan to clearly define the main projects we are all working on and communicate a much as possible about them rather than just having users surprised to see them turn up in nightlies. So here is my report for this week:

I’ve been working on improving the level of information and control we give users over add-ons installed by other applications on the system (think Skype, Java, AV tools etc.). The work for this is being tracked in bug 476430 and on the project wiki.

The basic problem is that sometimes when another application installs an extension into Firefox the user either isn’t told so by the application, or more likely the information is missed in installer pages that users click straight through. It is then a surprise when users later find this thing in the add-ons manager, sometimes when it is causing problems. The goal is to make sure that this never happens by telling users that something has been installed and giving them the option not to use it.

We considered a couple of principles for the design here:

  • Firstly we should not delay starting Firefox. If we present UI asking a question before startup then users will just click through it.
  • Secondly we shouldn’t just run Firefox with the new extensions enabled, users should be given the option whether to use them before they are run for the first time.
  • Thirdly the eventual result of a user taking no additional action should be that the new extensions should be enabled. If we default to disabling these items then the majority of users will never enable them. This would make other applications stop using these mechanisms to integrate with Firefox and seek out more hacky, less controllable ways to do it, something that no-one wins from really.

The resultant plan is a hybrid approach. The first time Firefox runs after a new extension is detected it will not enable it. Firefox will tell the user what has been installed and tell them that the extension will be enabled the next time Firefox restarts. The user can then choose to disable it permanently (or at least until they choose to re-enable it in the extension manager). The user will probably also be presented with a quick way to restart Firefox to use the new extension.

Status

The backend code that disables detected extensions during the first run is complete, as is the frontend code that marks them to be enabled after a restart. The UI still needs to be connected but that will require the doorhanger notification API to be completed.

Next steps

  • Finalise the UI
  • Wait for doorhanger notifications to be implement
  • Wire up the detection code to the UI
  • Figure out whether we can test the UI

Improving the add-on install experience

Add-on developers face a bit of a challenge when it comes to helping users get the most out of their add-ons. Even once you are past the first hurdle and have got a user to install the add-on, you then need to help them get up and running quickly after Firefox has restarted. Presented with just the blank Firefox window it can be difficult for a user to know where to go next. Many add-on developers have taken to including a first-run experience to give the user some help. Display a webpage with some instructions or open a wizard to start setting up. As this practice started it was generally acceptable. Few add-ons actually did anything so it was helpful. These days though many add-ons are doing it, no doubt with more to come. It is starting to be an annoyance in some cases. Others have already been discussing ways that we can improve this.

In Firefox 3.0 we introduced a small feature to try to alleviate a little of this. After restarting Firefox the user would be shown new add-ons that had been installed so they could configure them. It also provided a little consistency across the restart which was normally done from the add-ons manager.

The current post-install display
The current post-install display

This UI had the additional small benefit that it would also display when other applications installed extensions into Firefox without the user’s knowledge. However as a post-install experience it really hasn’t worked out all that well for a few reasons:

  • It’s invasive. It pops up in front of the user after the restart and they feel the need to close it before doing anything else. This makes it almost as bad as some of the first run experiences provided by extensions.
  • It’s confusing. It can be pretty difficult to identify just what add-ons have been installed especially when the list is long.
  • It provides no next steps. Although if you click on the new add-ons you might get a chance to configure it, it doesn’t actually help push the user in any direction.

We’ve been thinking about ways to improve this for a while and there are a few different ideas floating around. I’d like to float one of them here and see what people think. The goal is both to let users know that new add-ons have been installed and let the add-on help the user move forward without needing to show popup dialogs or inundate the user with a webpage per add-on. It also needs to work in applications that aren’t Firefox. Excuse the poor mock-up, my UI skills aren’t all that hot.

Proposed first run experience
Proposed first run experience

The idea is that in Firefox this would display in the webpage content area. It might display immediately after startup, or it might be better to use an alert to tell the user new add-ons are there and then display it when they click on the alert. Other applications can open this in a new window or wherever they wish.

It’s designed to be clear exactly what has been installed and give the user things to do with those items. Preferences at a bare minimum, but the yellow highlighted areas are the interesting bit. Those represent overlay points where the add-on can put whatever UI it likes. This might be a simple message to tell the user how to get started. It might be a few of the most common settings, maybe a login box. It might be a button to launch further UI like a wizard.

I think, even if this were to open immediately in Firefox, this addresses the main deficiencies of what we currently do. I’d hope that many add-on developers could then stop their custom first-run stuff and instead just use this, but I know there are lots of different needs out there so I’d like to hear where this doesn’t work to see if we can accommodate.