TL;DR: Last year, I started work on a new Test Pilot experiment playing with themes in Firefox.
New theme APIs are fun
At the core of this experiment are new theme APIs for add-ons shipping with Firefox.
These APIs take inspiration from static themes in Google Chrome, building from there to enable the creation of dynamic themes.
For example, Quantum Lights changes based on the time of day.
VivaldiFox reflects the sites you’re visiting.
You could even build themes that use data from external HTTP services — e.g. to change based on the weather.
To explore these new APIs, Firefox Themer consists of a website and a companion add-on for Firefox. The website offers a theme editor with a paper doll preview — you can click on parts of a simulated browser interface and dress it up however you like. The add-on grants special powers to the website, applying changes from the theme in the editor onto the browser itself.
Editing themes on the web
The site is built using Webpack, React, and Redux. React offers a solid foundation for composing the editor. Personally, I really like working with stateless functional components — they’re kind of what tipped me over into becoming a React convert a few years ago. I’m also a terrible visual designer with weak CSS-fu — but using Webpack to bundle assets from per-component directories makes it easier for teammates to step in where I fall short.
Further under the hood, Redux offers a clean way to manage theme data and UI state. Adding undo & redo buttons is easy, thanks to redux-undo. And, by way of some simple Redux middleware, I was able to easily add a hook to push every theme changes into the browser via the add-on.
The website is just a static page — there’s no real server-side application. When you save a theme, it ends up in your browser’s localStorage. Though we plan to move Themer to a proper production server when we launch in Test Pilot, I’ve been deploying builds to GitHub Pages during development.
Another interesting feature of the website is that we encode themes as a parameter in the URL. Rather than come up with a bespoke scheme, I use this json-url module to compress JSON and encode it as Base64, which makes for a long URL but not unreasonably so. This approach enables folks to simply copy & paste a URL to share a theme they’ve made. You can even link to themes from a blog post, if you wanted to!
When the page loads and sees the ?theme URL, it unpacks the data and loads it into editor’s Redux store. I’ve also been able to work this into the location bar with the HTML5 History API and Redux middleware. The browser location represents the current theme, while back & forward buttons double as undo & redo.
Add-ons can be expansion cartridges
(Can you tell I’ve had retro computers on the mind, lately?)
Add-ons in Firefox can install content scripts that access content and data on web pages. Content scripts can communicate with the parent add-on by way of a message port. They can also communicate with a web page by way of synthetic events. Put the two together, and you’ve got a messaging channel between a web page and an add-on in Firefox.
Here’s the heart of that messaging bridge:
With this approach, the web page doesn’t actually gain access to any Firefox APIs. The add-on can decide what to do with with messages it receives. If the page sends invalid data or asks to do something not supported — nothing happens. Here’s a snippet of that logic from the extension:
And here’s a peek at that Redux middleware I mentioned earlier which updates the add-on from the web:
The add-on can also restrict the set of pages from which it will accept messages: We hardcode the URL for the theme editor into the add-on’s content script configuration at build time, which means no other web page should be able to ask the add-on to alter the theme in Firefox.
Add-on detection is hard
There is a wrinkle to the relationship between website and add-on, though: A normal web page cannot detect whether or not a particular add-on has been installed. All the page can do is send a message. If the add-on responds, then we know the add-on is available.
Proving a negative, however, is impossible: the web page can’t know for sure that the add-on is not available. Responses to asynchronous messages take time — not necessarily a long time, but more than zero time.
If the page sends a message and doesn’t get a response, that doesn’t mean the add-on is missing. It could just mean that the add-on is taking awhile to respond. So, we have to render the theme editor such that it starts off by assuming the add-on is not installed. If the add-on shows up, minutes or milliseconds later, the page can update itself to reflect the new state of things.
Left as-is, you’d see several flashes of color and elements on the page move as things settle. That seems unpleasant and possibly confusing, so we came up with a loading spinner:
When the page loads, it displays the spinner and a timer starts. If that timer expires, we consider things ready and reveal the editor. But, if there’s any change to the Redux store while that timer is running, we restart the clock.
This is the gist of what that code does:
Early changes to the store are driven by things like decoding a shared theme and responses from the add-on. Again, these are asynchronous and unpredictable. The timer duration is an arbitrary guess I made that seems to feel right. It’s a dirty hack, but it seems like a good enough effort for now.
Using npm scripts and multiple Webpack configs
One of the things that has worked nicely on this project is building everything in parallel with a single npm command. You can clone the repo and kick things off for development with a simple
npm install && npm start dance.
The add-on and the site both use Webpack. There’s a shared config as a base and then specific configurations with tweaks for the site and the add-on. So, we want to run two separate instances of Webpack to build everything, watch files, and host the dev server.
This is where npm-run-all comes in: It’s a CLI tool that lets you run multiple npm scripts. I used to use gulp to orchestrate this sort of thing, but npm-run-all lets me arrange it all in
package.json. It would be fine if this just enabled running scripts in series. But, npm-run-all also lets you run scripts in parallel. The cherry on top is that this parallelization works on Linux, OS X, and Windows.
In past years, Windows support might have been an abstract novelty for me. But, in recent months, I’ve switched from Apple hardware to a PC laptop. I’ve found the new Windows Subsystem for Linux to be essential to that switch. But, sometimes it’s nice to just fire up a Node.js dev environment directly in PowerShell — npm-run-all lets me (and you) do that!
So, the start script in our package.json is able to fire up both Webpack processes for the site and add-on. It can also start a file watcher to run linting and tests (when we have them) alongside. That simplifies using everything in a single shell window across platforms.
I used to lean on Vagrant or Docker to offer something “simple” to folks interested in contributing to a project. But, though virtual machines and containers can hide apparent complexity in development, it’s hard to beat just running things in node on the native OS.
Help us make themes more fun!
We’re launching this experiment soon. And, though it only makes limited use of the new theme APIs for now, we’re hoping that the web-based editor and ease of sharing makes it fun & worth playing with. We’ve got some ideas on what to add over the course of the experiment and hope to get more from the community.
Whether you can offer code, give feedback, participate in discussions, or just let us watch how you use something — everyone has something valuable to offer. In fact, one of the overarching goals of Test Pilot is to expand channels of contribution for folks interested in helping us build Firefox.
As with all Test Pilot experiments, we’ll be watching how folks use this stuff as input for what happens next. We also encourage participation in our Discourse forums. And finally, the project itself is open source on GitHub and open to pull requests.
In the meantime, start collecting color swatches for your own theme. Personally, I might try my hand at a Dracula theme or maybe raid my Vim config directory for some inspiration.
Originally published at blog.lmorchard.com on March 1, 2018.