Building Firefox Quantum (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Sun, 03 Jun 2018

Building Firefox Quantum

With Firefox Quantum, Mozilla has moved away from letting users configure the browser they way they like. If I was going to switch to Quantum as my everyday browser, there were several problems I needed to fix first -- and they all now require modifying the source code, then building the whole browser from scratch.

I'll write separately about fixing the specific problems; but first I had to build Firefox. Although I was a Firefox developer way back in the day, the development environment has changed completely since then, so I might as well have been starting from scratch.

Setting up a Firefox build

I started with Mozilla's Linux build preparation page. There's a script called that's amazingly comprehensive. It will check what's installed on your machine and install what's needed for a Firefox build -- and believe me, there are a lot of dependencies. Don't take the "quick" part of the "quick and easy" comment at the beginning of the script too seriously; I think on my machine, which already has a fairly full set of build tools, the script was downloading additional dependencies for 45 minutes or so. But it was indeed fairly easy: the script asks lots of questions about optional dependencies, and usually has suggestions, which I mostly followed.

Eventually finishes loading the dependencies and gets to the point of wanting to check out the mozilla-unified repository, and that's where I got into trouble.

The script wants to check out the bleeding edge tip of Mozilla development. That's what you want if you're a developer checking in to the project. What I wanted was a copy of the currently released Firefox, but with a chance to make my own customizations. And that turns out to be difficult.

Getting a copy of the release tree

In theory, once you've checked out mozilla-unified with Mercurial, assuming you let enable the recommended "firefoxtree" hg extension (which I did), you can switch to the release branch with:

hg pull release
hg up -c release

That didn't work for me: I tried it numerous times over the course of the day, and every time it died with "abort: HTTP request error (incomplete response; expected 5328 bytes got 2672)" after "adding manifests" when it started "adding file changes".

That sent me on a long quest aided by someone in Mozilla's helpful #introduction channel, where they help people with build issues. You might think it would be a common thing to want to build a copy of the released version of Firefox, and update it when a new release comes out. But apparently not; although #introduction is a friendly and helpful channel, everyone seemed baffled as to why hg up didn't work and what the possible alternatives might be.

Bundles and Artifacts

Eventually someone pointed me to the long list of "bundle" tarballs and advised me on how to get a release tarball there. I actually did that, and (skipping ahead briefly) it built and ran; but I later discovered that "bundles" aren't actually hg repositories and can't be updated. So once you've downloaded your 3 gigabytes or so of Mozilla stuff and built it, it's only good for a week or two until the next Mozilla release, when you're now hopelessly out of date and have to download a whole nuther bundle. Bundles definitely aren't the answer, and they aren't well supported or documented either. I recommend staying away from them.

I should also mention "artifact builds". These sound like a great idea: a lot of the source is already built for you, so you just build a little bit of it. However, artifact builds are only available for a few platforms and branches. If your OS differs in any way from whoever made the artifact build, or if you're requesting a branch, you're likely to waste a lot of time (like I did) downloading stuff only to get mysterious error messages. And even if it works, you won't be able to update it to keep on top of security fixes. Doesn't seem like a good bet.

GitHub to the rescue

Okay, so Mercurial's branch switching doesn't work. But it turns out you don't have to use Mercurial. There's a GitHub mirror for Firefox called gecko-dev, and after cloning it you can use normal git commands to switch branches:

git clone
cd gecko-dev/
git checkout -t origin/release

You can verify you're on the right branch with git branch -vv, or if you want to list all branches and their remotes, git branch -avv.

Finally: a Firefox release branch that you can actually update!

Building Firefox

Once you have a source tree, you can use the all-powerful mach script to build the current release of Firefox:

./mach build

Of course that takes forever -- hours and hours, depending on how fast your machine is.

Running your New Firefox

The build, after it finishes, helpfully tells you to test it with ./mach run, which runs your newly-built firefox with a special profile, so it doesn't interfere with your running build. It also prints:

For more information on what to do now, see

Great! Except there's no information there on how to package or run your build -- it's just a placeholder page asking people to contribute to the page.

It turns out that obj-whatever/dist/bin is the directory that corresponds to the tarball you download from Mozilla, and you can run /path/to/mozilla-release/obj-whatever/dist/bin/firefox from anywhere.

I tried filing a bug request to have a sub-page created explaining how to run a newly built Firefox, but it hasn't gotten any response. Maybe I'll just edit the "So You Just Built" page.

Incidentally, my gecko-dev build takes 16G of disk space, of which 9.3G is things it built, which are helpfully segregated in obj-x86_64-pc-linux-gnu.

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[ 15:55 Jun 03, 2018    More tech/web | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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