Firefox for Android: Team Meetup, Brainstorming and Hacking

Last week, the Firefox for Android team, and some friends, had a team meetup at the Mozilla Toronto office. As is typical for Mozilla, the team is quite distributed so getting together, face to face, is refreshing. The agenda for the week was fairly simple: Brainstorm new feature ideas, discuss ways to make our workflow better, and provide some time for fun hacking.

We spent most of our time brainstorming, first at a high level, then we picked a few ideas/concepts to drill into. The high level list ended up with over 150 ideas. These ranged from blue-sky features, building on existing features, performance and UX improvements, and removing technical debt. Some of the areas where we had deeper discussions included:

  • Sharing: We talked about ways to improve the current Quick Share system by making it more context-aware, adding support for default providers and supporting Quick Share from more than the main menu. We also discussed adding support for more explicit sharing with integrated services. This would allow more control than Android’s Intent system supports by itself.
  • Cloud Services: We found that there are plenty of ways we can integrate with cloud services. Whether it’s a way to backup parts of your profile, pull external search results into the Awesomescreen, or use other services as a source for the Reading List. Lots of project ideas were created from this concept.
  • Focused UX: There were a lot of discussions around how specific types of users could benefit from new features. We ended up grouping some of these together around commonalities, which include: Privacy oriented features, parental control and child web-safety features, and hardening the application by reducing ways to corrupt the state and providing ways to rollback to a good state. While these ideas might fall into common groups, we decided that many of the details would benefit all users.

We also took some time to examine our workflow. We found some rough edges we intend to smooth out. We also ended up with a better understanding of our current, somewhat organic, workflow. Look for more write-ups from the team on this as we pull the information together. One technical outcome of the the discussions was a critical examination of our automated testing situation. We decided that we depend entirely too much on Robotium for testing our Java UI and non-UI code. Plans are underway to add some JUnit test support for the non-UI code.

The Android team is very committed to working with contributors and have been doing a great job attracting and mentoring code contributors. Last week they started discussing how to attract other types of contributors, focusing on bug triage as the next possible area. Desktop Firefox has had some great bug triage support from the community, so it seems like a natural candidate. Look for more information about that effort coming soon.

There was also some time for hacking on code. Some of the hacking was pure fun stuff. I saw a twitterbot and an IRCbot created. There was also a lot of discussion and hacking on add-on APIs that provide more integration hooks for add-on developers into the Java UI. Of course there is usually a fire that needs to be put out, and we had one this time as well. The front-end team quickly pulled together to implement a late-breaking design change to the new Home page. It’s been baking on Nightly for a few days now and will start getting uplifted to Aurora by the end of the week.

All in all, it was a great week. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next!

Patterns of Effective Teams

I have been lucky to build software products for a few different companies, each with a distinct culture. It’s help me form opinions about people, tools and processes that make teams effective at shipping software products.

Who makes up a software product team? Mileage may vary, but I like to include:

  • Developers
  • Testers
  • UX Designers
  • Project Managers
  • Product Managers
  • Support

Lots of companies organize people into functional groups: All the developers in a group, all the testers in a group, all the designers in a group… and so on. This doesn’t make it easy to ship software. It can create walls and make it harder to communicate. You also lose the “team” feeling, as well as the focus and drive that comes from that.

Product-centric teams seem to be more effective at shipping. These multidisciplinary teams embed members from the various groups on the team, all working together to create and ship a software product.

Over the years, I’ve seen productive teams using a few basic concepts. Some are process related, some can be aided by tools, but most deal with relationships between people:

  • Trust each other: Each member has a role, and members need to trust in each other’s ability to perform.
  • Talk to each other: Lots of open communication is important. The team is a safe place, so there are no stupid questions. Meet as a group often to discuss progress.
  • Support each other: You win and lose together. Help others, even if not asked directly.
  • Be passionate: The team needs to be passionate about succeeding and hungry to ship a great product. There will be rough spots on the way. There always are, but the team needs that passion to be able to power through.
  • Move as a single, focused group: Speed is important. Decisions, implementation, feedback – all need to happen ASAP. Distractions kill speed.
  • Plan work as a group and document the plan: If everyone is part of the planning, everyone is committed to the plan. Keeps the team focused.
  • Create a roadmap: You need a Big Picture too. What’s the vision and strategy? It helps set the tone for everything else.
  • Break work into small tasks and track the tasks: Small tasks are manageable and trackable. Small tasks are easy to scope and keeps the team focused. Watch out for scope creep.
  • Create milestones and track progress: Deadlines are a good thing, even if just internal. Forward progress is essential for shipping and milestones are great for tracking progress.
  • Adjust as needed: Don’t be afraid to adjust anything: schedule, milestones, tasks. You are collecting data every day. Use it to make informed decisions ASAP. Triage your work often.

I like to keep things lightweight. This includes tools and processes. Focus more on your product and the work at hand. Processes and tools can be distractions. The best ones are those that stay out of your way.

Update: Taras reminded me indirectly about the importance of passion, so I added it to the list.

Firefox for Android: Subscribing to Feeds

Firefox on desktop has nice support for previewing and subscribing to syndication feeds (RSS and Atom). There is even support for creating Live Bookmarks. Firefox for Android does not support anything related to syndication feeds… until now.

We just landed basic support for subscribing to feeds discovered on a web page. This is only initial support, so many things are not supported.

How it works:

  • If feeds are discovered on a page, Firefox will enable a menu action on the URLBar long-tap menu. Yes, we have a URLBar long-tap menu!
  • Tap the “Subscribe to Page” menu action.
  • If there is more than one advertised feed, choose the feed you want.
  • Pick the online web service where you want to add the subscription. The choices really depend on the locale, but initially Google Reader (but not for long) and Yahoo are supported.

The limitations:

  • We only support online web services right now. We are looking into local application support too, but have not seen a universal way of listing feed reader applications. We are working on a proposal and want to get support from native feed reader apps like Feedly and Newsblur.
  • No support for feed previews. No plan to add support
  • No support for adding new web service handlers. We are working to add this support.
  • No support for Live Bookmarks. No plan to add support.

In pictures:

Long-tap on the URLBar


Choose “Subscribe to Page”


Choose the feed


Choose the web service

Following the Firefox for Android Team

On The Web

If you want to stay up to date on any new developments in Firefox for Android (Fennec), check out the new Tumblr and Twitter stream. Lots of updates on what’s landing in Fennec Nightly, tips and tricks and summaries of the Mobile Engineering Team meetings.

Mailing List

We have a new mailing list at mobile-dev-firefox@mozilla.org. The newsgroup at mozilla.dev.platforms.mobile is being closed. Use the new mailing list to following along and give feedback on topics being discussed, or post your own ideas.

On IRC

As always, you can jump on Mozilla IRC and talk directly to the Mobile team in the #mobile channel. This is great if you want to start working on the code, need help writing an add-on, want to help investigate a bug or just rant about some design decision.

Firefox for Android: Running on Android x86

Intel and Lenovo launched the first Android device based on the Intel Atom processor in 2012 at CES. Some of the current Android x86 devices include the Lenovo K800, the Orange San Diego, the ZTE Grand X IN, and the Motorola RAZR i.

Mozilla has been internally testing Android x86 builds of Firefox. Firefox runs really well on the Motorola RAZR i. Once we get Android x86 nightly builds stood up and running automated tests, we’ll start planning for a release.

In the meantime, you can try a developer build of Firefox for Android x86 yourself. Just like the ARM version, Firefox runs on Android 2.2 or higher. It should run fine on the Lenovo K800, which shipped with Android 2.3.7 (Gingerbread).

WARNING: This is not an officially released version of Firefox. It will only run on Intel-based (x86) Android devices.

If you don’t have an Android x86 device, you can still try the build using the Android x86 emulator. It’s the same as standard ARM emulator, but since it’s x86, it runs a lot better on your PC. Just make sure you update your Android SDK so it has the latest AVD images, and make an AVD using the x86 image. Also make sure you enable Use Host GPU as well:

Please let us know how the build works on your Android x86 devices and remember to file bugs.

Firefox for Android: Remote Web Console is Here

I already blogged about support for remote debugging in Firefox for Android. Now we have support for remote Web Console too!

The remote console, like remote debugging, requires using Desktop Firefox to connect to Mobile Firefox over USB using ADB. Remote console is supported in Firefox 19 and newer releases. Here’s a quick guide to getting started:

  1. USB Connection: Connect your Android device running Firefox to a host machine running desktop Firefox using USB. In a terminal, forward the TCP connection using: adb forward tcp:6000 tcp:6000
  2. Firefox Desktop: Use about:config to enable remote debugging. Set the “devtools.debugger.remote-enabled” pref to true. Restart. You should see a “Tools > Web Developer > Remote Web Console” menu.
  3. Firefox for Android: Use about:config to enable remote debugging. Set the “devtools.debugger.remote-enabled” pref to true. Restart.
  4. Firefox Desktop: Choose “Tools > Web Developer > Remote Web Console” and a Remote Connection dialog should open. If you changed none of the other remote debugging preferences, just use the defaults. Press OK.
  5. Firefox for Android: You should see a remote connection prompt appear. Press OK to initialize the connection. You have 20 seconds, by default, to accept the connection. You can retry 3 times.
  6. Firefox Desktop: Once the connection is accepted, you should see a scope prompt. The prompt is used to pick the tab, or global, scope you want to attach to the web console.
  7. Firefox Desktop: After picking a scope, you should see a Web Console window appear.

Once you have the Web Console up and running, you can do pretty much everything the desktop version can do. For example, you can load a web page and monitor the network activity, including viewing the network request details:

You can also use the JS console to execute JS code in the scope of the web page running on the Android device! Pretty cool!

A big thanks goes out to Mihai Sucan, who did a mountain of work to get the Web Console remoted. Mihai also blogged about the remote Web Console and you can find some of the underlying details on the remoting API on MDN.

Happy (remote) Debugging!

Firefox for Android: Remote Debugging is Here

Lucas blogged a while ago about some of the initial work on creating a remote debugging system for Firefox on Android. The desktop patches Lucas mentioned have landed, and remote debugging Firefox for Android is now possible.

Remote debugging requires using Desktop Firefox to connect to Mobile Firefox over USB using ADB. Remote debugging is supported in Firefox 15 and newer releases. Here’s a quick guide to getting started:

  1. USB Connection: Connect your Android device running Firefox to a host machine running desktop Firefox using USB. In a terminal, forward the TCP connection using: adb forward tcp:6000 tcp:6000
  2. Firefox Desktop: Use about:config to enable remote debugging. Set the “devtools.debugger.remote-enabled” pref to true. Restart. You should see a “Tools > Web Developer > Remote Debugger” menu.
  3. Firefox for Android: Use about:config to enable remote debugging. Set the “devtools.debugger.remote-enabled” pref to true. Restart.
  4. Firefox Desktop: Choose “Tools > Web Developer > Remote Debugger” and a Remote Connection dialog should open. If you changed none of the other remote debugger preferences, just use the defaults. Press OK.
  5. Firefox Desktop: You should see an empty debugging window appear.
  6. Firefox for Android: You should see a remote debugging connection prompt appear. Press OK to initialize the connection. You have 3 seconds, by default, to accept the connection. You can retry 3 times.
  7. Firefox Desktop: Once the connection is accepted, the empty debugging window will fill with scripts running in the Firefox for Android web page.

Thanks to Lucas, Panos Astithas and the rest of the DevTools team for making this happen. Happy Debugging!

Firefox for Android: Docs for Building Add-on

I have talked about how add-ons interact with the new Firefox on Android, but we didn’t have any easily accessible documentation. Now we have some guides and code snippets:

Feel free to help make the MDN documents better!

Remember, the basics of building an add-on for Firefox on Android is no different than building an add-on for Firefox on Desktop.

I also added a basic restartless add-on skeleton for Firefox on Android on github.

Firefox for Android: Fx & Mobile Work Week

The Mobile team spent last week in not-so-sunny Toronto, pushing Firefox for Android closer to beta-level release criteria. We are getting very close. There is a lot of amazing work landing, especially in graphics. The Graphics team is working with Mobile to integrate GL support into the Gecko rendering system. It’s taken some time, but the results are really starting to look good in Nightly builds.

Mobile wasn’t the only team meeting in Toronto. The Firefox team also got together, and one of main features of the week was HACKING. Pure, seat-of-the-pants hacking. A few of the Mobile team were able to take part in the hack sessions too:

  • Lucas created a nice prototype of the new Reader Mode in Firefox Mobile. He integrated some of the readability code, created a special viewer and a way to manage reading lists.
  • Margaret has a work-in-progress of HTML5 context menu support working.
  • Margaret also updated a patch to add support for the site identity UI.
  • Sriram started work to support text selection in web page content.
  • Jan Odvarko (DevTools) created a prototype of a remote network monitor tool working with Firefox on Android. With the new remote JS debugger, that’s two new remote development tools in the pipeline.

Firefox for Android: After the Reboot

I was asked to give a presentation on the recent developments in Firefox Mobile for the Mozilla Vision 2012 conference in Tokyo. It gave me a chance to reflect a bit on what we did, why we did it and how things are going. The “what” in this case is rewriting the UI for Firefox Mobile using native Android widgets. The “why” can be summed up in the following goals:

  • Faster start-up time
  • Support for Flash
  • Use less memory

We have been fairly “heads down” working on native Firefox for Android over the last 3 months. Re-writes are scary. It’s a race to re-implement existing functionality while adding all new bugs. We are finally to the point in the project where things are settling down. We are focused on stability issues, getting ready to release the native version to a larger audience. As for the primary goals, we have good news:

  • Start-up time is many times faster than the XUL version. Launching via the icon is almost instantaneous.
  • Flash is supported on Froyo and Gingerbread. We need to reverse engineer the changes made for Honeycomb and ICS. There is no documentation for this work.
  • With a single-process, we have reduced memory quite a bit. We still can get killed in the background by Android – it’s supposed to do this – but when this happens, we start up very quickly and restore your session.
  • We still support add-ons using the native UI!

I’m looking forward to being able to move forward again, designing/implementing new features on a solid foundation. We have plenty of new experiments and projects waiting to move forward.

Mozilla Vision 2012 was a great conference and very well attended. I’m very glad I had the chance to participate. Here is the link to my Google Docs presentation. It has a bit more details.

… and go grab a Nightly and see the changes for yourself!