Open Source

How the Test Pilot program could help save Firefox

The Firefox developers have brought the Test Pilot program back. Here's why that's important for both developers and users.

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Image: Jack Wallen

Quite some time ago (2009 to be exact), Mozilla launched an add-on for Firefox called Test Pilot. This now legacy add-on allowed users to test out new features. After some time, the developers have decided to bring the program back with a new Test Pilot add-on. Once you install the add-on, you'll be prompted to enter an email address where you can find out about new experiments as well as see test results for experiments you've tried.

Experiments.

That's right; this new Test Pilot program is all about users taking part in testing out new features for the Firefox browsers. At the moment you can test out the likes of:

  • Snooze Tabs - a feature that will allow you to snooze a tab and bring it back at a later time
  • Pulse - Help the Firefox developers understand what websites work well with Firefox and which don't
  • Page Shot - Intuitive tool that allows you to capture, save, and share screenshots
  • Min Vid - Allows you to display YouTube and Vimeo videos in a small frame that remains in the foreground as you browse
  • Activity Stream - A visual history feed to make it easier to find what you're looking for
  • Tab Center - Move tabs from the top of the browser to the side

Once you've enabled Test Pilot, you can locate a feature you want to add, click the Get Started button (Figure A) and then click Enable for the feature.

Figure A

Figure A

Getting started with the Snooze Tabs feature.

Testing out the Snooze Tabs feature

Let's take a look at the Snooze Tabs feature. Once enabled, you will see a small bell icon in the upper right corner of the browser. Open up a tab, visit a website, and then click on the Snooze Tab button. A drop-down will appear that allows you to select when you want the tab to reappear (Figure B).

Figure B

Figure B

The Snooze Tab drop-down in action.

I've found the Snooze Tab feature to be incredibly handy. As well the Tab Center experiment offers a more modern take on the regular browser tabs (Figure C).

Figure C

Figure C

The Tab Center experiment is something that has grown on me.

It's more than just getting new features

That email address you used to sign up for the program is important. With it you will be kept up to date on new experiments — one of the added bonuses of the program. This way you won't have to check out the Test Pilot page to see if any new experiments have arrived. What's more important than the convenience of not having to point your browser to a specific page regularly is actually participating in the program. One thing you will discover is that some experiments fail (aka are "retired"). One such experiment was Universal Search. This feature was designed to make searching faster by adding site recommendations to the Awesome Bar results. The experiment failed by way of user feedback. That feedback is important to the program, as it will help determine if an experiment continues or is retired.

As you might expect, successful experiments have a chance of becoming baked-in features for Firefox. That is why this program is so crucial. It gives the users a voice in determining the future of the open source browser. For example, one particular experiment, Tracking Protection, graduated to become a new feature in Firefox (which can be found when you open a Private Firefox window). With the help of user feedback, it was determined that Tracking Protection was a useful and popular experiment, thus it made the cut.

In other words, developers do listen.

This could help save Firefox

As you may know, Firefox has been in a steady decline over the last few years. Part of the reason for this was due to the browser suffering from significant bloat. I firmly believe the Test Pilot program can go a very long way to reshape Firefox into a much more streamlined tool, one users want to use (thereby saving it from a most unwanted fate). Instead of developers simply throwing every possible feature they could dream up into the mix, Test Pilot allows them to gain crucial feedback from those that use the browser daily to ensure that feature creep and bloat don't drag the open source browser into obscurity.

Kudos to the developers of Firefox for bringing back a program that does an outstanding job of taking into consideration the wants and needs of their target audience. That is how software should be developed.

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About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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