Current Version plugins

Migrating Popup ALT Attribute from XUL/XPCOM to WebExtensions

Today’s post comes from Piro, the developer of Popup ALT Attribute, in addition to 40 other add-ons. He shares his thoughts about migrating XUL/XPCOM add-ons to WebExtensions, and shows us how he did it with Popup ALT Attribute. You can see the full text of this post on his personal blog.

***

Hello, add-on developers. My name is YUKI Hiroshi aka Piro, a developer of Firefox add-ons. For many years I developed Firefox and Thunderbird add-ons personally and for business, based on XUL and XPCOM.

I recently started to research the APIs are required to migrate my add-ons to WebExtensions, because Mozilla announced that XUL/XPCOM add-ons will be deprecated at the end of 2017. I realized that only some add-ons can be migrated with currently available APIs, and
Popup ALT Attribute is one such add-on.

Here is the story of how I migrated it.

What’s the add-on?

Popup ALT Attribute is an ancient add-on started in 2002, to show what is written in the alt attribute of img HTML elements on web pages. By default, Firefox shows only the title attribute as a tooltip.

Initially, the add-on was implemented to replace an internal function FillInHTMLTooltip() of Firefox itself.

In February 2016, I migrated it to be e10s-compatible. It is worth noting that depending on your add-on, if you can migrate it directly to WebExtensions, it will be e10s-compatible by default.

Re-formatting in the WebExtensions style

I read the tutorial on how to build a new simple WebExtensions-based add-on from scratch before migration, and I realized that bootstrapped extensions are similar to WebExtensions add-ons:

  • They are dynamically installed and uninstalled.
  • They are mainly based on JavaScript code and some static manifest files.

My add-on was easily re-formatted as a WebExtensions add-on, because I already migrated it to bootstrapped.

This is the initial version of the manifest.json I wrote. There were no localization and options UI:

{
  "manifest_version": 2,
  "name": "Popup ALT Attribute",
  "version": "4.0a1",
  "description": "Popups alternate texts of images or others like NetscapeCommunicator(Navigator) 4.x, and show long descriptions in the multi-row tooltip.",
  "icons": { "32": "icons/icon.png" },
  "applications": {
    "gecko": { "id": "{61FD08D8-A2CB-46c0-B36D-3F531AC53C12}",
               "strict_min_version": "48.0a1" }
  },
  "content_scripts": [
    { "all_frames": true,
      "matches": [""],
      "js": ["content_scripts/content.js"],
      "run_at": "document_start" }
  ]
}

I had already separated the main script to a frame script and a loader for it. On the other hand, manifest.json can have some manifest keys to describe how scripts are loaded. It means that I don’t need to put my custom loaders in the package anymore. Actually, a script for any web page can be loaded with the content_scripts rule in the above sample. See the documentation for content_scripts for more details.

So finally only 3 files were left.

Before:

+ install.rdf
+ icon.png
+ [components]
+ [modules]
+ [content]
    + content-utils.js

And after:

+ manifest.json (migrated from install.rdf)
+ [icons]
|   + icon.png (moved)
+ [content_scripts]
    + content.js (moved and migrated from content-utils.js)

And I still had to isolate my frame script from XPCOM.

  • The script touched nsIPrefBranch and some XPCOM components via XPConnect, so they were temporarily commented out.
  • User preferences were not available and only default configurations were there as fixed values.
  • Some constant properties accessed, like Ci.nsIDOMNode.ELEMENT_NODE, had to be replaced as Node.ELEMENT_NODE.
  • The listener for mousemove events from web pages was attached to the global namespace for a frame script, but it was re-attached to the document itself of each web page, because the script was now executed on each web page directly.

Localization

For the old install.rdf I had a localized description. In WebExtensions add-ons I had to do it in different way. See how to localize messages for details. In short I did the following:

Added files to define localized descriptions:

+ manifest.json
+ [icons]
+ [content_scripts]
+ [_locales]
    + [en_US]
    |   + messages.json (added)
    + [ja]
        + messages.json (added)

Note, en_US is different from en-US in install.rdf.

English locale, _locales/en_US/messages.json was:

{
  "name": { "message": "Popup ALT Attribute" },
  "description": { "message": "Popups alternate texts of images or others like NetscapeCommunicator(Navigator) 4.x, and show long descriptions in the multi-row tooltip." }
}

Japanese locale, _locales/ja/messages.json was also included. And, I had to update my manifest.json to embed localized messages:

{
  "manifest_version": 2,
  "name": "__MSG_name__",
  "version": "4.0a1",
  "description": "__MSG_description__",
  "default_locale": "en_US",
  ...

__MSG_****__ in string values are automatically replaced to localized messages. You need to specify the default locale manually via the default_locale key.

Sadly, Firefox 45 does not support the localization feature, so you need to use Nightly 48.0a1 or newer to try localization.

User preferences

Currently, WebExtensions does not provide any feature completely compatible to nsIPrefBranch. Instead, there are simple storage APIs. It can be used like an alternative of nsIPrefBranch to set/get user preferences. This add-on had no configuration UI but had some secret preferences to control its advanced features, so I did it for future migrations of my other add-ons, as a trial.

Then I encountered a large limitation: the storage API is not available in content scripts. I had to create a background script just to access the storage, and communicate with it via the inter-sandboxes messaging system. [Updated 4/27/16: bug 1197346 has been fixed on Nightly 49.0a1, so now you don’t need any hack to access the storage system from content scripts anymore. Now, my library (Configs.js) just provides easy access for configuration values instead of the native storage API.]

Finally, I created a tiny library to do that. I don’t describe how I did it here, but if you hope to know details, please see the source. There are just 177 lines.

I had to update my manifest.json to use the library from both the background page and the content script, like:

  "background": {
    "scripts": [
      "common/Configs.js", /* the library itself */
      "common/common.js"   /* codes to use the library */
    ]
  },
  "content_scripts": [
    { "all_frames": true,
      "matches": [""],
      "js": [
        "common/Configs.js", /* the library itself */
        "common/common.js",  /* codes to use the library */
        "content_scripts/content.js"
      ],
      "run_at": "document_start" }
  ]

Scripts listed in the same section share a namespace for the section. I didn’t have to write any code like require() to load a script from others. Instead, I had to be careful about the listing order of scripts, and wrote a script requiring a library after the library itself, in each list.

One last problem was: how to do something like the about:config or the MCD — general methods to control secret preferences across add-ons.

For my business clients, I usually provide add-ons and use MCD to lock their configurations. (There are some common requirements for business use of Firefox, so combinations of add-ons and MCD are more reasonable than creating private builds of Firefox with different configurations for each client.)

I think I still have to research around this point.

Options UI

WebExtensions provides a feature to create options pages for add-ons. It is also not supported on Firefox 45, so you need to use Nightly 48.0a1 for now. As I previously said, this add-on didn’t have its configuration UI, but I implemented it as a trial.

In XUL/XPCOM add-ons, rich UI elements like , , , and more are available, but these are going away at the end of next year. So I had to implement a custom configuration UI based on pure HTML and JavaScript. (If you need more rich UI elements, some known libraries for web applications will help you.)

On this step I created two libraries:

Conclusion

I’ve successfully migrated my Popup ALT Attribute add-on from XUL/XPCOM to WebExtensions. Now it is just a branch but I’ll release it after Firefox 48 is available.

Here are reasons why I could do it:

  • It was a bootstrapped add-on, so I had already isolated the add-on from all destructive changes.
  • The core implementation of the add-on was similar to a simple user script. Essential actions of the add-on were enclosed inside the content area, and no privilege was required to do that.

However, it is a rare case for me. My other 40+ add-ons require some privilege, and/or they work outside the content area. Most of my cases are such non-typical add-ons.

I have to do triage, plan, and request new APIs not only for me but for other XUL/XPCOM add-on developers also.

Thank you for reading.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Menu Title