Firefox Drops Support For PWA
Written by Ian Elliot   
Wednesday, 06 January 2021

Firefox is removing its experimental support for installing Progressive Web Apps to the desktop. Whether or not this really constitutes giving up on PWA depends on your point of view, but I think it is disappointing, both for PWA and for Firefox.

PWA - Progressive Web Apps - are controversial in many quarters. It isn't a standard just a loose collection of ideas and intentions that has been promoted by Google. The idea is to use a set of modern JavaScript facilities - service workers, cache, push notifications, etc. to progressively enhance a web site into a web app. If you don't have support for any of the modern facilities then a PWA will still work but it won't be as "app" like.

Personally, I think that progressive enhancement is a bad idea as it leads to bloat and lower performance in most senses of the term. A much better idea it to simply target X% of the browser using population where X is as close to 100% as you can reasonably get - but this is off topic.

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If you are a PWA believer then one of the central ideas is that a PWA should be as good as a native app. This idea is important because it means that you can use PWA as a platform-independent app and gain all the advantages without having to create multiple versions for each device or operating system you want to support.

This is an old idea and PWA is just its latest incarnation and, of course, companies like Apple, who make money from controlling native apps via an app store, hate it. Indeed Apple has been dragging its feet as much as possible on supporting PWA within Safari - although there are some who would argue that this isn't the case.

However Mozilla doesn't have anything to gain from not supporting PWA and you might expect, given its open source credentials, that Firefox would be a among the first to embrace PWA technologies. This is true up  to a point. A bug tracker comment, however, reveals the problem:

Remove the SSB feature

The SSB feature has only ever been available through a hidden pref and has multiple known bugs. Additionally user research found little to no perceived user benefit to the feature and so there is no intent to continue development on it at this time. As the feature is costing us time in terms of bug triage and keeping it around is sending the wrong signal that this is a supported feature we are going to remove the feature from Firefox.

Notice that this is a Bugzilla report and not an official statement of policy or anything high level relating to Mozilla's attitude toward PWA. SSB means Site Specific Browser, which means that they want to remove the ability to install PWA-like apps on the desktop. When the user clicks on the desktop icon then the app opens in a browser with no URL bar, extensions or another obviously "browser-like" features.

Is this so important?

If you believe that PWAs are a way of getting platform-independent apps that as as good as native apps then yes it is is potential deal-breaker. The reason is that if you can't install a PWA as if it was a native app then it clearly isn't one - to the user that is.

The comments in the bug tracker make the point that the current implementation of SSB is bad and hence removing it is reasonable. Others comment that removing it sends the signal that the feature isn't important. If it was then improving it, not removing it, would be the correct thing to do. It is also clear that Firefox development is resource-limited and as we know from Mozilla Layoffs and Change of Focus, there is little prospect of Mozilla providing it more support. The answer to a question about the possibility of Firefox supporting PWA in the future now that SSB has been dropped, indicates that there is no such intention.

People clearly aren't happy, but it is a small disturbance in a small pond. Users aren't going to get upset because they have no idea what is being denied them and anyway why should they care that you have had to put extra effort in to create a native app? However, when and if PWA becomes important, its lack of support of Firefox is going to be another reason to use an alternative browser.

pwa2

More Information

https://bugzilla.mozilla.org/show_bug.cgi?id=1682593

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 06 January 2021 )