Photon Engineering Newsletter #1

Well, hello there. Let’s talk about the state of Photon, the upcoming Firefox UI refresh! You’ve likely seen Ehsan’s weekly Quantum Flow updates. They’re a great summary of the Quantum Flow work, so I’m just going to copy the format for Photon too. In this update I’ll briefly cover some of the notable work that’s happened up through the beginning of May. I hope to do future updates on a weekly basis.

Our story so far

Up until recently, the Photon work hasn’t been very user-visible. It’s been lots of planning, discussion, research, prototypes, and foundational work. But now we’re at the point where we’re getting into full-speed implementation, and you’ll start to see things changing.

Photon is landing incrementally between now and Firefox 57. It’s enabled by default on Nightly, so you won’t need to enable any special settings. (Some pieces may be temporarily disabled-by-default until we get them up to a Nightly level of quality, but we’ll enable them when they’re ready for testing.) This allows us to get as much testing as possible, even in versions that ultimately won’t ship with Photon. But it does mean that Nightly users will only gradually see Photon changes arriving, instead of a big splash with everything arriving at once.

For Photon work that lands on Nightly-55 or Nightly-56, we’ll be disabling almost all Photon-specific changes once those versions are out of Nightly. In other words, Beta-55 and Beta-56 (and of course the final release versions, Firefox-55 and Firefox-56). That’s not where we’re actively developing or fixing bugs – so if you want to try out Photon as it’s being built, you should stick with Nightly. Users on Beta or Release won’t see Photon until 57 starts to ship on those channels later this year.

The Photon work is split into 6 main areas (which is also how the teams implementing it are organized). These are, briefly:

1. Menus and structure – Replaces the existing application menu (“Hamburger button”) with a simplified linear menu, adds a “page action” menu, changes the bookmarks split-button to be a more general-purpose “library menu”, updates sidebars, and more.

2. Animation – Adds animation to toolbar button actions, and improves animations/transitions of other UI elements (like tabs and menus).

3. Preferences – Reorganizes the Firefox preferences UI to improve organization and adds the ability to search.

4. Visual redesign – This is a collection of other visual changes for Photon. Updating icons, changing toolbar buttons, adapting UI size when using touchscreens, and many other general UI refinements.

5. Onboarding – An important part of the Photon experience is helping new users understand what’s great about Firefox, and showing existing users what’s new and different in 57.

6. Performance – Performance is a key piece throughout Photon, but the Performance team is helping us to identify what areas of Firefox have issues. Some of this work overlaps with Quantum Flow, other work is improve specific areas of Firefox UI jank.

Recent Changes

These updates are going to focus more on the work that’s landing and less on the process that got it there. To start getting caught up, here’s a summary of what’s happened so far in each of the project areas though early May…

Menus/structure: Work is underway to implement the new menus. It’s currently behind a pref until we have enough implemented to turn them on without making Nightly awkward to use. In bug 1355331 we briefly moved the sidebar to the right side of the window instead of the left. But we’ve since decided that we’re only going to provide a preference to allow putting it on the right, and it will remain on the left by default.

Animation: In bug 1352069 we consolidated some existing preferences into a single new toolkit.cosmeticAnimations.enabled preference, to make it easy to disable non-essential animations for performance or accessibility reasons. Bugs 1345315 and 1356655 reduced jank in the tab opening/closing animations. The UX team is finalizing the new animations that will be used in Photon, and the engineering team has build prototypes for how to implement them in a way that performs well.

Preferences: Earlier in the year, we worked with a group of students at Michigan State University to reorganize Firefox’s preferences and add a search function (bug 1324168). We’re now completing some final work, preparing for a second revision, and adding some new UI for performance settings. While this is now considered part of Photon, it was originally scheduled to land in Firefox 55 or 56, and so will ship before the rest of Photon.

Visual redesign:  Bug 1347543 landed a major change to the icons in Firefox’s UI. Previously the icons were simple PNG bitmaps, with different versions for OS variations and display scaling factors. Now they’re a vector format (SVG), allowing a single source file to be be rendered within Firefox at different sizes or with different colors. You won’t notice this change, because we’re currently using SVG versions of the current pre-Photon icons. We’ll switch to the final Photon icons later, for Firefox 57. Another big foundational piece of work landed in bug 1352364, which refactored our toolbar button CSS so that we can easily update it for Photon.

Onboarding: The onboarding work got started later than other parts of Photon. So while some prototyping has started, most of the work up to May was spent finalizing the scope and design of project.

Performance: As noted in Ehsan’s Quantum updates, the Photon performance work has already resulted in a significant improvement to Firefox startup time. Other notable fixes have made closing tabs faster, and work to improve how favicons are stored improved performance on our Tp5 page-load benchmark by 30%! Other fixes have reduced awesomebar jank. While a number of performance bugs have been fixed (of which these are just a subset), most of the focus so far has been on profiling Firefox to identify lots of other things to fix. And it’s also worth noting the great Performance Best Practices guide Mike Conley helped put together, as well as his Oh No! Reflow! add-on, which is a useful tool for finding synchronous reflows in Firefox UI (which cause jank).

That’s it for now! The next couple of these Photon updates will catch up with what’s currently underway.


3 thoughts on “Photon Engineering Newsletter #1”

  1. About the sidebar PLEASE consider to merge the OmniSidebar extension (that will not be possible to build with the WebExtension platform) features in the Firefox code.

    To use a sidebar I need a damn sidebar toggle to fast open/close it. Options are made for this.


    1. We have no plans to integrate addons into Photon. I’d encourage the addon author to work with our WebExtensions team to see about adding any APIs they might need.

      1. Just for taking, I’m not asking for adding an addon, but to add a sidebar toggle to fast open/close it on the fly.

        WebExtensions don’t support any API able to achieve this (or any other UI modification, you know) so I was asking to add the feature in the browser (or simply remove the sidebars, useless if you can’t access them)

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