The Woes of a Firefox Themer

Album Cover: The Black Album

"Young enough to know the right car to buy yet grown enough not to put rims on it."
Jay-Z / 30 Something

Posted on December 01, 2004 10:56 PM in Browsers
Warning: This blog entry was written two or more years ago. Therefore, it may contain broken links, out-dated or misleading content, or information that is just plain wrong. Please read on with caution.

Given the popularity of my port of the GrayModern theme for Firefox, I get quite a few emails from people interested in seeing changes (major and minor) to the theme, requesting a port for Thunderbird, or wondering how they can get started developing their own themes.

If there's one thing I've learned while working on GrayModern, it's that there's sort of an underground culture involved with skinning the Fox, and even though there's a strong community, you really have to be persistent and a little crazy to be a themer.

I started out wanting to become an active (or at least semi-active) Firefox hacker, contributing patches for bugs and doing whatever I could in the form of C++, CSS or XUL development to contribute to the evolution of what I thought was the coolest browser out there, bar none. After wading through outdated documentation and uncovering some of the dissonance between true Mozilla developers and the wannabe hackers that had come before me, I realized that it was too big an endeavor, especially for someone like me who was already fully employed and just looking for ways to help out in my free time.

Unfortunately for those who wish to work on Firefox themes, there is some similarity in how things are handled (or perhaps more appropriately stated, "unhandled") on the user interface side of things. Take, for example, the de facto tutorial that most Firefox themers use as a jumping off point for creating a new theme. It was written way too long ago and isn't even geared toward Firefox. In fact, I'd be surprised if Firefox even existed when the tutorial was written (and if it did, it was probably called Phoenix). The fact that someone hasn't written up an updated version of this tutorial for new themers is unbelievable, and almost inexcusable. But then again, we are talking open source here.

Before I get too lopsided, I should point out that the Theme Development Wiki was a step in the right direction, but little has changed since it first surfaced and the prospect of anything changing anytime soon seems highly unlikely.

While reading what I feel is the best source for wannabe themers (I use "wannabe" as an endearing term, because I most certainly fall into that category...on a good day), the MozillaZine Theme Forums, I came across a thread titled We Need More Themers. While I agree with the original poster's sentiments, I couldn't agree more with one of the responses I read in that very same thread:

The issue is not that we need more themers, but rather, why there are so few themers. You need not travel far to find the answer: the Mozilla theme system (noun) is badly suited for themeing (verb).

May I direct your attention to another theme-capable browser with a highly-cultured name.

Simple, straightforward, easy.

If you want an Opera theme featuring John'sSuperDuperIconSet, all you need to include are John'sSuperDuperIcons. By stark-as-night-and-day contrast, the Mozilla way requires the entire bag of skin to be dragged with you. Opera falls back to the default skin if something isn't included. Mozilla decides to cry if it can't find what it needs and potentially hoses itself. Too much pampering is required.

Putting critical UI files in the skin is just unwise. Silly RDF references are best left in the bowels of the program, not puked up for all to see. Byzantine directory structures should be left for mazes and minotaurs.

Evidence is found in every person who says they don't have the knowlege to dissect a theme. Frogs should be dissected. Not skin. Those that have cut through Mozilla skin know it is messy, requires gloves, and will squirt you in the face if you poke the wrong spot.

Okay, so the dissection metaphors may have gone a little too far, but the message is clear. Firefox is not themer friendly. I learned this the hard way much like several others had before me, and undoubtedly will after me. The quickest glance at Opera's skin setup by anyone who's been through the experience of working with a Firefox theme will doubtless induce a few tears of joy (or frustration, depending on whether you're looking to the future or the past).

While Ben and the gang are coming up with things to do for Firefox 2.0, let's hope someone remembers the wannabes.


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