Firefox Snap

Ubuntu plans to make the Firefox Snap the default version for new installations of Ubuntu 21.10.

A feature freeze exception (FFE) filed by Canonical’s Olivier Tilloy replaces the Firefox .deb package in the Ubuntu ‘seed’ with the Snap version. He writes: “Per Canonical’s distribution agreement with Mozilla, we’re making the snap the default installation of firefox on desktop ISOs starting with Ubuntu 21.10.”

Ubuntu is making snap the default installation of Firefox starting with Ubuntu 21.10

Firefox is currently distributed via the Ubuntu repos as a deb package. If this feature freeze request is granted users who install Ubuntu 21.10 next month will find the official Snap version of the vaunted web browser there, in its place.

Why? Mozilla asked for it apparently:

“This is the result of cooperation and collaboration between the [Ubuntu] Desktop and Snap teams at Canonical and Mozilla developers, and is the first step towards a deb-to-snap transition that will take place during the 22.04 development cycle,” Ubuntu desktop team’s Ken VanDine explains in a Discourse post.

So what does the software switch-around mean for your typical Ubuntu user?

Well, faster (and invisible background) updates of the browser ‘direct’ from Mozilla, on release day.

You know how often there are a couple of days delay between a new Firefox release being announced (and covered on blogs like this) and the update actually landing in the Software Updater tool? That’s because Canonical developers have to package, test, upload, and release the .deb build. it takes time and effort.

The Firefox 92 release notes Mozilla say that “Canonical is now building the official Firefox snap”, and Ubuntu say Mozilla is in charge of publishing the Snap.

New installs of Ubuntu 21.10 (as well as those who upgrade from Ubuntu 21.04) will get the Firefox Snap package as default.

Additionally, Canonical and Mozilla dev are working to ensure Firefox profiles are brought over to the Snap version automatically, and iron out some other issues that affect the Snap version directly.

The hope is that by doing all of this work now, here in 21.10, it gives everyone enough time to test, check, and ensure the Snap build runs on par with the regular repo version in time for the next long-term support (LTS) release, due in 2022.

For now, Ubuntu flavours are not affected by this switch, nor downstream distros like Linux Mint who rely on the repo version. The Firefox deb package will remain available in the repo until the transition takes effect.

Assuming all goes well for the LTS, a formal deb to snap transition will happen during that cycle.

Don’t like Snaps or debs? Mozilla will continue to provide distro-agnostic Linux binaries for download as well as source code.

Isn’t the Firefox Snap Slower?

Same browser, same OS, different packages

Migrating the single most critical pieces of software on an Ubuntu install to a package format regularly criticised as slow and buggy is a brave move.

So hey: kudos for that.

Most of us are willing to put up with a 15 second wait for a Snap’d music player to open, but an app as urgent as a web browser…? Such a long pause between clicking the Firefox icon and it bothering to open isn’t likely to go down well with users.

It’s not just your system that Snaps are slow on either: they are slow for everyone — a fact acknowledged by people who work(ed) on the Snap team. While Snap’s slow startup speeds are said to be improving now many will be cautious given Canonical has said similar things before.

So it’ll be interesting to see some benchmarks and testing to see how the startup performance compares.

The change is a curious one as Ubuntu removed a couple of Snap apps it loaded by default due to their (comparatively) poor performance and quirky behaviour to repo versions.

Clearly something’s changed for them to turn-tail.

There are a some pressing deficiencies that need to be fixed in the Firefox Snap as you can’t install GNOME extensions using it; the browser doesn’t use the regular ~/Downloads folder by default; and custom themes, icon themes, UI colours, and fonts don’t always apply correctly.

Finally, on a more trivial note, I hope Mozilla is as attentive to Firefox Snap Store listing page as it is the code. It currently uses out of date screenshots and a description that refers to Firefox ‘Quantum’ – released way back in 2017! Update: now fixed!

So what do you think? Good move? Bad move? TBD move? Let me know in the comments.

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