Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Firefox extension development

Uhoh. Now that Firefix 3 is out, it looks like I have to update my extension Firegoose to work. The trick here is that Firegoose uses Java.
Briefly, Firegoose is a Firefox extension that integrates several bioinformatics web resources into the Gaggle integration framework. The Gaggle is based on passing messages of a few fundamental data types in the bioinformatics domain, including lists, matrices, and networks. The transport protocol used in Gaggle is (for better or worse) Java RMI, and that, of course, requires Java. Hence, the Firegoose's reliance on being able to crank up a working (and unrestricted) JVM from inside Firefox.
That was done in for Firefox 1.x and 2.x using an arcane and dirty trick from the fine folks at Simile project at MIT called javaFirefoxExtension. And the sad thing for me is that the trick is apparently broken in FireFox 3. [Note: this turns out not to be the case.]
Silent failure is the curse of the Firefox extension developer. Debugging in Firefox is painful, at best, and even more so when using the bridge between Java and javascript (aka LiveConnect).
In order to do anything useful with Java in a Firefox Extension, there are at least 2 nasty bits to overcome. First, you have to load classes from inside an XPI file. This is essentially a variant of the classpath problem. Second, you probably have to give yourself full permissions (by manipulating
As mentioned above, an arcane solution to these problems has been worked out by folks at the SIMILE lab at MIT. Their PiggyBank extension is the prototype for use of Java for heavy lifting inside a Firefox extension. They actually run a full app server inside the browser. Another really cool extension that uses the same technique is xquseme, which embeds the Saxon XQuery processor. You can then perform arbitrary XQueries against any document you can browse to. Using Java in an extension gives you the power to combine the wealth of libraries available in the Java universe with a fully featured browser. So how do we go about doing it?
Loading classes from your XPI file is possible using Firefox's capability to resolve chrome URLs to paths in the filesystem. The mapping between chrome URLs and files is defined in the chrome.manifest file in your XPI. Once we have paths (as file:/ URLs), we create our own Calling the constructor[] urls) requires a trick, because the Java bridge seems not to do a very good job of coercing javascript types to java types. To further muddy the waters, the way js-to-Java type coersion is handled in LiveConnect changed in Firefox 3. You'd expect that passing a javascript Array containing objects to work. But, try that and you'll get an error like this:
InternalError: Unable to convert JavaScript value [...blah blah...] to Java value of type[]
Code gleaned from the SIMILE lab (thanks!) solves this particular pain in the ass:
// from
_toJavaUrlArray: function(a) {
 var urlArray = java.lang.reflect.Array.newInstance(, a.length);
 for (var i = 0; i < a.length; i++) {
  var url = a[i];
   (typeof url == "string") ? new : url
 return urlArray;
Truth and soul
Actually, problems with js-to-Java type conversion aren't limited to constructing classLoaders, but seem to be pervasive in FF3. Apparently, whenever you try to convert a js array to Java, LiveConnect screws it up. For example, passing a js array of strings, I get an array full of "true". Yes, it's true. There was an object there. Thanks a lot for that! (Happens on both Mac OS X and Windows, btw.)