Tip: Use Firefox for Web Apps

A reader tipped me off to an experimental Firefox feature that lets it work as seamlessly with PWAs as does Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, and other Chromium-based web browsers.

What’s odd about this feature is that Mozilla originally innovated the ability to run webpages and apps as if they were native applications using a technology called Prism that has long since been stripped out of that browser. But as web apps have grown more sophisticated in more recent years, Chrome and other browsers have picked up similar capabilities, and Google has an entire platform, called Chrome OS, dedicated to running these apps outside of the normal browser container.

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I’ve long wondered why Mozilla dropped Prism and discontinued the ability to run web apps as if they were native apps. But it turns out that the firm didn’t give up completely. The mobile versions of Firefox have been able to create apps from webpages since 2017. And Mozilla started testing a similar approach for supplying this functionality on desktop almost a year ago.

I can’t explain why I wasn’t aware of this (at least the desktop bit), but it’s called Site Specific Browser (SSB) and it’s here now for those interested in testing it.

“An SSB is an application with an embedded browser designed to work exclusively with a single web application,” Mozilla explains. “It doesn’t have the menus, toolbars, and accouterments of a normal web browser. Some people have called it a ‘distraction-free browser’ because none of the typical browser chrome is used. An SSB also has tighter integration with the OS and desktop than a typical web application running through a web browser.”

To use SSB with Firefox, you must be running Firefox 73 or newer—which won’t be hard, as the latest version is 84—and you have to enable it first. To do so, type about:config in the Firefox address bar and click-through the warning. Then type browser.ssb.enabled in the address bar to find the feature. It is currently set to false. Use the toggle button on the right to change it to true and then restart Firefox.

Now, you can run any webpage (and not just PWAs and other web apps) as if it was an app. To do so, navigate to the webpage or web app you wish to use, then click Page actions (“…”) in the address bar and choose “Use This Site in App Mode.”

When you do, the page/app will appear as a standalone app window, and shortcuts will appear on the desktop and in the Start menu. You can pin this app to the taskbar or to the tiles area of the Start menu, just as with any other app.

To manage the apps you’ve installed this way, open Firefox, open the (hamburger) menu, and choose “Sites in App Mode.” You can uninstall any app here by choosing its Uninstall (“x”) button.

Thanks to SherlockHolmes for tipping me off to this feature.

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Conversation 26 comments

  • winner

    10 January, 2021 - 12:53 pm

    <p>I use Firefox for just about everything.</p>

  • sherlockholmes

    Premium Member
    10 January, 2021 - 1:06 pm

    <p>Its still a little buggy. But its a start. </p>

  • cyclequark

    Premium Member
    10 January, 2021 - 1:08 pm

    <p>I have been looking to do this for Twitter. For reasons that I do not understand Twitter misbehaves in Chrome and Edge for me, so I run Firefox, but I would move to Edge if I could run Twitter is a standalone mode. </p>

    • IanYates82

      Premium Member
      10 January, 2021 - 7:22 pm

      <blockquote><em><a href="#606779">In reply to cyclequark:</a></em></blockquote><p>I find the Twitter app works OK.</p><p><br></p><p>Although I see people using more and more extensions for Twitter (like BotSentinal) and can see why you'd want it to run in a browser. When I have tried it, I don't think I have issues with it in Edge. I'll have to try it more to report back :)</p>

  • dxtremebob

    Premium Member
    10 January, 2021 - 4:25 pm

    <p>When SSB application shortcuts are saved to the Desktop, task bar, etc, clicking them invokes the app only when Firefox is already running. </p>

  • griszimek

    10 January, 2021 - 4:42 pm

    <p>Sadly, they've just announced to remove this feature? And that they have no plans to support PWAs at all in the future?</p><p><br></p><p><a href="https://bugzilla.mozilla.org/show_bug.cgi?id=1682593&quot; target="_blank">https://bugzilla.mozilla.org/show_bug.cgi?id=1682593</a></p&gt;

    • ianhead

      10 January, 2021 - 8:51 pm

      <blockquote><em><a href="#606803">In reply to Griszimek:</a></em></blockquote><p>Oh man. What a depressing thread. After reading about Mozilla's continued financial problems, seemingly largely caused by their increased focus on social initiatives and fruitless side ventures at the expense of resources devoted to their flagship browser, it reads like one more very avoidable nail in Firefox's coffin.</p>

      • Username

        10 January, 2021 - 10:05 pm

        <blockquote><em><a href="#606843">In reply to ianhead:</a></em></blockquote><p>unlike other browsers, Mozilla doesn’t have means to have its expenses offset by cross-subsidies. Hence, relying on donations and “increased focus on social initiatives and ‘fruitless’ side ventures”. </p><p>(BTW. Masquerading websites as applications is daft. Hopefully, a short-lived brain fart.)</p>

        • omen_20

          11 January, 2021 - 2:32 pm

          <blockquote><em><a href="#606847">In reply to Username:</a></em></blockquote><p>If daft means modern or the future in your mind, then yeah.</p><p>Windows 10 works very well with PWAs and having them burried in a browser's tabs, instead of being top level in the task bar is just terrible UX.</p>

          • LT1 Z51

            Premium Member
            25 January, 2021 - 3:47 pm

            <blockquote><em><a href="#606974">In reply to Omen_20:</a></em></blockquote><p>I don't get PWA's or even "apps" on my phone that are just websites (with no additional functionality).</p><p><br></p><p>I guess I still have expectations that Software is USEFUL and not just another way to skin something that's already garbage.</p>

            • Paul Thurrott

              Premium Member
              26 January, 2021 - 10:05 am

              Um. Web apps are apps. They can be great, bad, or indifferent, but them being web apps doesn’t preordain them to be garbage.

  • jdawgnoonan

    10 January, 2021 - 6:47 pm

    <p>Firefox should expand on this. On Linux running a web app in that mode does not make it available as an app except for from within the browser. </p>

  • clowg

    Premium Member
    10 January, 2021 - 9:03 pm

    <p>I've just tried this in 84.0.2, and find it will only allow one 'App Mode' window to be created. After creating the first one OK, when I try the 2nd one nothing happens.</p>

    • wright_is

      Premium Member
      11 January, 2021 - 2:48 am

      <blockquote><em><a href="#606844">In reply to clowg:</a></em></blockquote><p>I just tried it with 2 sites, it worked fine. </p><p>That said, I quickly deactivated it for the two sites, I prefer working in tabs in my browser. Having separate windows for websites feels so 1990s.</p>

      • sherlockholmes

        Premium Member
        11 January, 2021 - 4:02 am

        <blockquote><em><a href="#606859">In reply to wright_is:</a></em></blockquote><p>Same. I can see why this is important for developers. But as a user I dont see any advantage over an old style browser tab. </p>

        • wright_is

          Premium Member
          11 January, 2021 - 4:41 am

          <blockquote><em><a href="#606863">In reply to SherlockHolmes:</a></em></blockquote><p>Probably because we look at them as web sites… And the Jungspund see them as "apps".</p>

          • sherlockholmes

            Premium Member
            11 January, 2021 - 4:45 am

            <blockquote><em><a href="#606864">In reply to wright_is:</a></em></blockquote><p>Thats another thing I dont get. Nowadays they called "apps". In our time they were just "programms" 😉 </p>

            • wright_is

              Premium Member
              11 January, 2021 - 5:26 am

              <blockquote><em><a href="#606865">In reply to SherlockHolmes:</a></em></blockquote><p>Everything gets abbreviated. It used to be applications.</p><p>If you diminish the name, you diminish the subject…</p>

  • madthinus

    Premium Member
    11 January, 2021 - 3:20 am

    <p>Mozilla is somehow anti PWA's, but I don't think it has anything to do with the feature, more to do very limited resources. </p>

  • adinas

    11 January, 2021 - 2:32 pm

    <p>Once I realized they support totalitarianism I stopped using them. They seem more interested in politics than making good software</p>

  • waethorn

    11 January, 2021 - 3:03 pm

    <blockquote><em><a href="#606834">In reply to proftheory:</a></em></blockquote><p>It's slow, buggy, and still to this day has memory issues, probably because it doesn't use any existing desktop environment API's for its UI layout. Even Linux DE builders only tolerate it because Mozilla doesn't make it easy to integrate into the DE skin while other browsers do it with alacrity. The open-source nature of it is suspect due to the way the company is structured, they still haven't lived down the Mr. Robot adware event, and the company has now stated that Internet freedom isn't allowed if you offend someone with your opinion, although they previously eluded to this with their recent corporate code of conduct changes.</p>

  • Stoicjim

    Premium Member
    11 January, 2021 - 7:47 pm

    <p>I did this for the Facebook site but lost my "Fluff Busting Purity" addon to manage it. </p>

  • blinkertoon

    16 May, 2021 - 12:50 pm

    <p>Hi. Have been looking for this feature for quite some time, and also found this solution. However, I’m using FF Dev 89.0b12 and my SSB option doesn’t look the same (instead has boolean, number, string radio buttons). Also, possibly as a result, I don’t have the three dot menu with option to "Use this site in App mode" or the "Sites in App mode" option under the burger menu.</p><p><br></p><p>Any help much appreciated!</p><p><br></p><p>Thanks.</p>

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