Sad Day Indeed

I’ve been using Firefox since before it was Firefox, and having checked up on Wikipedia just now, that would have been around 2002.

ffOver the years, the developers have made some decisions which I disagreed with, although often there were user-developed extensions which restored lost functionality or appearance. Probably the worst faux pas was dropping the universally-familiar search dialog box for the unergonomic bottom bar.

Being paranoid cautious about internet security, I’d installed blocking extensions and rules, so that my Firefox was very tightly tied down. That meant that some sites didn’t work until I fiddled with the rules, or sometimes didn’t work at all. For the latter case, I always had an alternate browser I could run up, rather than waste time debugging a site I probably wouldn’t visit again.

I’m also a fussy old bugger, and I like web sites to look the way I want them, not the way the idiot designers did. For this, uBlock Origin, the ad-blocker, has “cosmetic filtering” where it will suppress display of some elements of the page. I also installed Greasemonkey, which can actually rearrange the page via CSS.

Google’s Chrome browser now has, by far, the largest “market share” in desktop browser software — about a factor of three over Firefox in second place. But Chrome is a notorious snooper, reporting everything you do back to Google. I would never use it.

Chromium, the open-source core of Chrome, is somewhat less intrusive, but still “phones home” with some data. The derivative I have installed as my alternative browser is Iron: Chromium with the spying ripped out.

But I still stuck to Firefox for most browsing. Some stuff is just easier to do, compared to the Chrome family.

That was up until yesterday, when I installed the latest Firefox release, 52.0, and found that it had a problem. The Linux version no longer supports the native Linux sound subsystem. Instead, the developer has decided to route sound from the browser to a third-party sound application called PulseAudio.

Now, a lot of Linux systems come with PulseAudio pre-installed, so it may not be a problem for many users, perhaps the majority. Applications, such as movie players, usually try PulseAudio first, and if it’s not running, fall back to the native sound subsystem, ALSA, and everything works fine. Firefox used to do that too, but although the code is still there, the developer has disabled it. He says it’s “too hard” to maintain.

I don’t have PulseAudio on my systems, for a couple of reasons. One; it’s designed badly: it’s architecturally wrong. And two; it doesn’t do anything useful.

The original concept for PulseAudio was that it would be a totally new sound architecture for Linux, from the user’s software to the hardware. It never happened. When they found out that sound drivers were difficult to write, and that there was a huge diversity of hardware, and that there were hundreds of working ALSA drivers anyway, the decision was made to put PulseAudio “on top of” ALSA, with PulseAudio interfacing to the software, but ALSA driving the hardware.

Supposedly a temporary measure, it’s actually stayed that way for years. To have a working PulseAudio, you have to have a working ALSA subsystem, so in my opinion, you might as well use ALSA directly.

It’s a long time since I even tried to get PulseAudio working, but I’ve heard that some people have had problems, from no sound at all to stuttering, to unacceptable latency. (PulseAudio has a solution for applications which only work with ALSA: they’ve written a translation layer which translates the ALSA API to PulseAudio. Then PulseAudio translates it back to ALSA and sends it to the device drivers. Latency? – there’s your problem.)

As is often the case when people make a stupid decision, the Firefox developers have closed ranks and become stubborn, and it looks as though ALSA support is gone for good. Imagine if they did the same in Firefox for Windows: dropping support for native Windows sound in favour of a third-party product. “Most people have it installed, and if not, they can install it, and if they can’t… well, tough.”

I’m typing this into WordPress via the Vivaldi browser. I’ve only been trying it for about half a day, but it seems all right. I’ve installed uBlock Origin and Tampermonkey and have imported my blocking rules and my scripts from Firefox. And Vivaldi was able to import all my settings from Firefox itself. I think it’s going to be OK.

(My blog titles are often song titles. It’s Leatherface this time.)