Firefox

April 20, 2017 — August 7, 2023

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A good default web browser. Functional. The host organisation, Mozilla, makes a reasonable attempt at arguing for user interests, more often than the competition at least. AFAICS user interests only sometimes comes into conflict with the interests of their funding model.

Firefox is my default browser and I use it all the time.

Figure 1: Fighting For The Open Web by David Revoy depicts the Firefox vibe. Appropriately enough it is an open-source copyleft image.

1 Browser containers

This is hard to explain, but hands-down one of my favourite features of firefox. I use it constantly. Please do stay tuned for this slightly boring explanation because it will make life better. The shortest version is that containers are Private Browsing mode revised and improved.

Currently containers only work smoothly for Firefox and no other browser gets it right as far as I know. Firefox multi-account-containers compartmentalise our different online activities from each other so that each website lives in its own solipsist universe. Go and download that add-in right now.

The browser containers have obvious privacy implications, in that they better segregate of my different activities from each other. At the bare minimum, keeping a container called “work” and one called “personal” is probably a good idea. Then, from the perspective of the websites I visit, the “work” persona and the “personal” one are different users. (Or at least, more different — they can still tell the traffic comes from the same VPN exit node and make some guesses, of course). Unlike private browsing mode, though, all the add-ins work, browser history is preserved, password managers connect and so on. I can stay logged-in to a site across sessions etc. This configuration gives me control of my identity, still, while limiting the amount of control third parties have.

There are many uses for browser containers. For example,

  1. my organisation will not let me log into two separate Outlook servers at the same time, in the Outlook client. But it will let me log in to multiple browser instances of outlook.com, in the same browser, if they are in separate containers.
  2. One can also use them to create multiple fake identities for nagware sites like medium.com that only let me read a certain number of articles per month. Now it is the same number of articles per container per month.
  3. If a site wants me to unlock a download or get on a waiting list or whatever by retweeting it, I can make a disposable twitter account which I log in to in a container, so that my main twitter account is not polluted with automated spam.

Why is this not more widely used? Well, for one thing, it is an intrinsically boring thing to think about. But also, even though this is incredible and useful, Mozilla left the feature kind of half-finished. The UI is a little unpolished, somewhat confusing, and the workflow is not well explained. This is a great tragedy, but it is worth pushing through the confusion.

2 Backspace for backspace not back-one-page

What an awful shortcut. In Firefox:

You can set the Integer pref browser.backspace_action to 2 on the about:config page to disable the backspace action.

3 Privacy

Various other privacy-related tweaks are available and advisable. See browsing confidentially.

4 Unable to sign in Error code 801

Disable enhanced tracking protection for this site.

5 Pro tips

mhoye notes some clever tab-management tricks.

There are a lot of other small navigation tricks that come in surprisingly handy:

  • Holding down Alt while selecting text allows you to select text within a link without triggering the link
  • Shift-right-click will show Firefox’s context menu even on sites that override it. This is great for Picture-In-Picture most video sites, and getting your expected context menu back from GDocs. (PiP is another feature I’m fond of.)
  • Clicking and dragging down on the forward and back buttons will show a list of previous or next pages this tab has visited.
  • You can use Ctrl-click and middle-mouseclick on most toolbar buttons to open whatever they point at in a new tab; Ctrl-reload duplicates your current tab. You can use this trick to pop stuff out of the middle of your back and forward history stack into new tabs.
  • You can do this trick with the “view image” option in the right-click menu, too — Ctrl-clicking that menu item will open that image in its own new tab.
  • New Tab then Undo — Ctrl-T then Ctrl-Z — will populate the address bar with the URL of the previously focused tab, and it’s useful to duplicate the current tab from the keyboard.
  • You can right click an iframe and use the This Frame option to open the iframe in a tab of its own, then access the URL and other things.
  • Ctrl+Shift+N will reopen the most recently closed window, Ctrl+Shift+T the most recently closed tab. The tabs are a history stack, so you can keep re-opening them.
  • Knowing you can use Ctrl-M to mute a tab is invaluable.

6 Searches

Firefox eschews automatically detecting search engines in favour of a manual search installation on a per-site basis. It is particularly difficult to get Google Scholar search in Firefox, although not impossible, because the Google Scholar site is missing the XML document that describes how to search.

One can, e.g. load the following XML search description document into Firefox.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<OpenSearchDescription xmlns="http://a9.com/-/spec/opensearch/1.1/">
    <ShortName>Google Scholar</ShortName>
    <Description>
        Google Scholar provides a simple way to broadly
        search for scholarly literature.
    </Description>
    <Tags>Google scholar academic</Tags>
    <AdultContent>false</AdultContent>
    <Image height="16" width="16"
        type="image/vnd.microsoft.icon">
        http://etienne.gaudrain.eu/opensearch/scholar_16x16.ico
    </Image>
    <Image height="32" width="32"
        type="image/vnd.microsoft.icon">
        http://etienne.gaudrain.eu/opensearch/scholar_32x32.ico
    </Image>
    <Url
        type="text/html"
        template="http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q={searchTerms}"/>
</OpenSearchDescription>

mhoye notes some built-in general search tricks for firefox.

the spirit of the command line, in all its esoteric and hidden power, lives on in a few places in Firefox. Most notably in a rich set of Quantumbar shortcuts you can use to get around your browser state and history:

  • Start typing your search with ^ to show only matches in your browsing history.
  • * to show only matches in your bookmarks.
  • + to show only matches in bookmarks you’ve tagged.
  • % to show only matches in your currently open tabs.
  • # to show only matches where every search term is part of the title or part of a tag.
  • $ to show only matches where every search term is part of the web address (URL). The text https:// or http:// in the URL is ignored but not file:///.
  • Add ? to show only search suggestions.
  • Hitting Ctrl-enter in the URL bar works like autocomplete; "mozilla" go straight to www.mozilla.com, for example. Shift-enter will open a URL in a new tab.

It’s sort of Quantumbar-adjacent, but once you’ve been using it for a few hours the Search Keyword feature is one of those things you just don’t go back to not having. If you right-click or a search field on just about any site, “Add a Keyword for this Search” is one of the options. give it a simple term or letter, then <term or letter> <search term> in the Quantumbar and you’re immediately doing that search. A lot of us have that set up for Bugzilla, Github, or Stack Overflow, but just about any search box on just about any site works. If you’re finding yourself searching particular forums, or anywhere search engines can’t reach, this is a fantastic feature.

7 Tab navigation

Vertical tabs and why Firefox is the new hotness (again) is an extended love letter to tree style tabs. I kind of like the idea but in practice do not seem to use them.

8 State management

Organising windows/tabs/bookmarks and possibly even syncing tabs/booksmarks/history/etc across devices.

Worldbrain Memex is a browser note-taking assistant which does fancy version of this.

For now I’m just synchronising groups of tabs. Ideally I would like an extension that synchronises across all the browsers I use, i.e. mobile Safari, Firefox, Chrome.

I started with One Tab:

Whenever you find yourself with too many tabs, click the OneTab icon to convert all of your tabs into a list. When you need to access the tabs again, you can either restore them individually or all at once.

Sadly it’s closed-source abandonware. There are competitors, such as better-onetab, (Chrome/Firefox) and tabs-aside, which are also open source. I like better-onetab, which I turned into a cross-browser sync via exporting to files and using file sync, so I gave the extension’s creator money.

A commercial option (free for beta) is : Toby. Looks neat but I wonder how much one should trust them with such intimate data as what you are browsing?

9 Password managers

You need a password manager. There is one built in, plus the usual ones work.

10 Automation

See browser automation.

11 Incoming