From Vimperator to Tridactyl

Earlier this month I experienced a life-changing event — or so I thought it would be. It was fully anticipated, and I had been dreading the day for almost a year, wondering what I was going to do. Could I overcome these dire straits? Would I ever truly accept the loss, or will I become a cranky old man who won’t stop talking about how great it all used to be?

So what was this big event? On September 5th, Mozilla officially and fully ended support for XUL extensions (XML User Interface Language), a.k.a. “legacy” extensions. The last Firefox release to support these extensions was Firefox 52 ESR, the browser I had been using for some time. A couple days later, Firefox 60 ESR entered Debian Stretch to replace it.

The XUL extension API was never well designed. It was clunky, quirky, and the development process for extensions was painful, requiring frequently restarts. It was bad enough that I was never interested in writing my own extensions. Poorly-written extensions unfairly gave Firefox a bad name, causing memory leaks and other issues, and Firefox couldn’t tame the misbehavior.

Yet this extension API was incredibly powerful, allowing for rather extreme UI transformations that really did turn Firefox into a whole new browser. For the past 15 years I wasn’t using Firefox so much as a highly customized browser based on Firefox. It’s how Firefox has really stood apart from everyone else, including Chrome.

The wide open XUL extension API was getting in the way of Firefox moving forward. Continuing to support it required sacrifices that Mozilla was less and less willing to make. To replace it, they introduced the WebExtensions API, modeled very closely after Chrome’s extension API. These extensions are sandboxed, much less trusted, and the ecosystem more closely resembles the “app store” model (Ugh!). This is great for taming poorly-behaved extensions, but they are far less powerful and capable.

The powerful, transformative extension I’d been using the past decade was Vimperator — and occasionally with temporary stints in its fork, Pentadactyl. It overhauled most of Firefox’s interface, turning it into a Vim-like modal interface. In normal mode I had single keys bound to all sorts of useful functionality.

The problem is that Vimperator is an XUL extension, and it’s not possible to fully implement using the WebExtensions API. It needs capabilities that WebExtensions will likely never provide. Losing XUL extensions would mean being thrown back 10 years in terms my UI experience. The possibility of having to use the web without it sounded unpleasant.

Fortunately there was a savior on the horizon already waiting for me: Tridactyl! It is essentially a from-scratch rewrite of Vimperator using the WebExtensions API. To my complete surprise, these folks have managed to recreate around 85% of what I had within the WebExtensions limitations. It will never be 100%, but it’s close enough to keep me happy.

What matters to me

There are some key things Vimperator gave me that I was afraid of losing.

I keep all my personal configuration dotfiles under source control. It’s a shame that Firefox, despite being so flexible, has never supported this approach to configuration. Fortunately Vimperator filled this gap with its .vimperatorrc file, which could not only be used to configure the extension but also access nearly everything on the about:config page. It’s the killer feature Firefox never had.

Since WebExtensions are sandboxed, they cannot (normally) access files. Fortunately there’s a work around: native messaging. It’s a tiny, unsung backdoor that closes the loop on some vital features. Tridactyl makes it super easy to set up (:installnative), and doing so enables the .tridactylrc file to be loaded on startup. Due to WebExtensions limitations it’s not nearly as powerful as the old .vimperatorrc but it covers most of my needs.

In Vimperator, when a text input is focused I could press CTRL+i to pop up my $EDITOR (Vim, Emacs, etc.) to manipulate the input much more comfortably. This is so, so nice when writing long form content on the web. The alternative is to copy-paste back and forth, which is tedious and error prone.

Since WebExtensions are sandboxed, they cannot (normally) start processes. Again, native messaging comes to the rescue and allows Tridactyl to reproduce this feature perfectly.

In Vimperator I could press f or F to enter a special mode that allowed me to simulate a click to a page element, usually a hyperlink. This could be used to navigate without touching the mouse. It’s really nice for “productive” browsing, where my fingers are already on home row due to typing (programming or writing), and I need to switch to a browser to look something up. I rarely touch the mouse when I’m in productive mode.

This actually mostly works fine under WebExtensions, too. However, due to sandboxing, WebExtensions aren’t active on any of Firefox’s “meta” pages (configuration, errors, etc.), or Mozilla’s domains. This means no mouseless navigation on these pages.

The good news is that Tridactyl has better mouseless browsing than Vimperator. Its “tag” overlay is alphabetic rather than numeric, so it’s easier to type. When it’s available, the experience is better.

In normal mode, which is the usual state Vimperator/Tridactyl is in, I’ve got useful functionality bound to single keys. There’s little straining for the CTRL key. I use d to close a tab, u to undo it. In my own configuration I use w and e to change tabs, and x and c to move through the history. I can navigate to any “quickmark” in three keystrokes. It’s all very fast and fluid.

Since WebExtensions are sandboxed, extensions have limited ability to capture these keystrokes. If the wrong browser UI element is focused, they don’t work. If the current page is one of those extension-restricted pages, these keys don’t work.

The worse problem of all, by far, is that WebExtensions are not active until the current page has loaded (or something like that). This is the most glaring flaw in WebExtensions, and I’m surprised it still hasn’t been addressed. It negatively affects every extension I use. What this means for Tridactyl is that for a second or so after navigating a link, I can’t interact with the extension, and the keystrokes are lost. It’s incredibly frustrating, both having to wait on a slow remote server to get control back, and to forget about this issue and have a bunch of keystrokes eaten.

Other extensions

I’m continuing to use uBlock Origin. Nothing changes. As I’ve said before, an ad-blocker is by far the most important security tool on your computer. If you practice good computer hygiene, malicious third-party ads/scripts are the biggest threat vector for your system. A website telling you to turn off your ad-blocker should be regarded as suspiciously as being told to turn off your virus scanner (for all you Windows users who are still using one).

The opposite of mouseless browsing is keyboardless browsing. When I’m not being productive, I’m often not touching the keyboard, and navigating with just the mouse is most comfortable. However, clicking little buttons is not. So instead of clicking the backward and forward buttons, I prefer to swipe the mouse, e.g. make a gesture.

I previously used FireGestures, an XUL extension. I’m now using Gesturefy. I also considered Foxy Gestures, but it doesn’t currently support ESR releases. Unfortunately all mouse gesture WebExtensions suffer from the page load problem: any gesture given before the page loads is lost. It’s less of any annoyance than with Tridactyl, but it still trips me up. They also don’t work on extension-restricted pages.

Firefox 60 ESR is the first time I’m using a browser supported by uMatrix — another blessing from the author of uBlock Origin (Raymond Hill) — so I’ve been trying it out. Effective use requires some in-depth knowledge of how the web works, such as the same-origin policy, etc. It’s not something I’d recommend for most people.

GreaseMonkey was converted to the WebExtensions API awhile back. As a result it’s a bit less capable than it used to be, and I had to adjust a couple of my own scripts before they’d work again. I use it as a “light extension” system.

XUL alternatives

Many people have suggested using one of the several Firefox forks that’s maintaining XUL compatibility. I haven’t taken this seriously for a couple of reasons:

Even the Debian community gave up on that idea long ago, and they’ve made a special exception that allows recent versions of Firefox and Chrome into the stable release. Web browsers are huge and complex because web standards are huge and complex (a situation that concerns me in the long term). The vulnerabilities that pop up regularly are frightening.

In Back to the Future Part II, Biff Tannen was thinking too small. Instead of a sports almanac, he should have brought a copy of the CVE database.

This is why I also can’t just keep using an old version of Firefox. If I was unhappy with, say, the direction of Emacs 26, I could keep using Emacs 25 essentially forever, frozen in time. However, Firefox is internet software. Internet software decays and must be maintained.

Most importantly, the Vimperator extension is no longer maintained. There’s no reason to stick around this ghost town.

Special Tridactyl customizations

The syntax for .tridactylrc is a bit different than .vimperatorrc, so I couldn’t just reuse my old configuration file. Key bindings are simple enough to translate, and quickmarks are configured almost the same way. However, it took me some time to figure out the rest.

With Vimperator I’d been using Firefox’s obscure “bookmark keywords” feature, where a bookmark is associated with a single word. In Vimperator I’d use this as a prefix when opening a new tab to change the context of the location I was requesting.

For example, to visit the Firefox subreddit I’d press o to start opening a new tab, then r firefox. I had r registered via .vimperatorrc as the bookmark keyword for the URL template https://old.reddit.com/r/%s.

WebExtensions doesn’t expose bookmark keywords, and keywords are likely to be removed in a future Firefox release. So instead someone showed me this trick:

set searchurls.r   https://old.reddit.com/r/%s
set searchurls.w   https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?search=%s
set searchurls.wd  https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/?search=%s

These lines in .tridactylrc recreates the old functionality. Works like a charm!

Another initial annoyance is that WebExtensions only exposes the X clipboard (XA_CLIPBOARD), not the X selection (XA_PRIMARY). However, I nearly always use the X selection for copy-paste, so it was like I didn’t have any clipboard access. (Honestly, I’d prefer XA_CLIPBOARD didn’t exist at all.) Again, native messaging routes around the problem nicely, and it’s trivial to configure:

set yankto both
set putfrom selection

There’s an experimental feature, guiset to remove most of Firefox’s UI elements, so that it even looks nearly like the old Vimperator. As of this writing, this feature works poorly, so I’m not using it. It’s really not important to me anyway.

Today’s status

So I’m back to about 85% of the functionality I had before the calamity, which is far better than I had imagined. Other than the frequent minor annoyances, I’m pretty satisfied.

In exchange I get better mouseless browsing and much, much better performance. I’m not kidding, the difference Firefox Quantum makes is night and day. In my own case, Firefox 60 ESR is using one third of the memory of Firefox 52 ESR, and I’m not experiencing the gradual memory leak. This really makes a difference on my laptop with 4GB of RAM.

So was it worth giving up that 15% capability for these improvements? Perhaps it was. Now that I’ve finally made the leap, I’m feeling a lot better about the whole situation.

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Chris Wellons