The Open-Source Waterfox Browser Delivers a Balance of Privacy and Usability for Power Users Such as Developers and Server Admins

Waterfox Achieves Browser Balance

TL; DR: Waterfox, a 64-bit browser based on Firefox, was built in 2011 to expand upon Mozilla’s free and open-source web platform. As one of the first 64-bit browsers available, the speedy, open-source browser quickly gained a devoted following. Alex Kontos, the developer behind the project, told us that today, Waterfox is focused on providing power users the choice to run whichever extensions they want, including add-ons that transform the functionality of the browser. In the future, Alex hopes to create a central repository for developers to upload their custom Waterfox extensions, allowing them to leverage even more ways to make Waterfox their own.

Mozilla Firefox was a popular open-source browser in 2011 when Alex Kontos, then a 16-year-old student in Cyprus, began channeling his father’s fascination with internet technology.

Alex was particularly intrigued by Mozilla’s free and open ideals. But at the time, despite an industrywide transition between 32-bit and 64-bit computing, the Firefox browser was only available in a 32-bit version.

Alex Kontos and Waterfox logo

Alex Kontos gave us the scoop on his plans for Waterfox.

Since 64-bit web browsers were faster and more secure, Alex took it upon himself to create Waterfox, a 64-bit browser based on Mozilla’s free platform.

“I was really getting into the concept of pushing computer components via overclocking, and I was reading about people creating forks of Firefox, recompiling the code themselves to make it faster,” Alex told us. “But no one was doing a 64-bit version. I thought I would brush up on my skills and create one myself.”

Alex gathered Mozilla’s developer documents, created a working solution, and posted it on Overclock.net, a popular community of computer performance enthusiasts. Within a week, 50,000 people had downloaded the browser. A feature in PCWorld further helped attract users.

Waterfox soon became one of the first widely distributed 64-bit browsers on the internet (Firefox did not release a 64-bit version of its web browser until December 2015).

Since its initial release, Alex has evolved Waterfox into a browser not only focused on speed, but also user-friendliness, customization, and security consciousness. Today, the web browser remains a free and open option for power users — developers and server admins included — who want to surf the web their way.

From a Hobby to a University Project and Beyond

Alex continued to grow Waterfox as he pursued university studies in electronic engineering at the University of York.

“What I learned there helped me evolve Waterfox,” he said. “As my studies were coming to an end, I approached the careers department at the university and said, ‘I have this program with loads of users around the world — is there anything we can do with this?’”

The department was happy to get involved. In May 2014, Alex met with the Duke of York, who granted him the Duke of York Young Entrepreneur Award. The annual award is presented to students who have created business or social enterprises that demonstrate social or commercial impact and show clear growth potential.

Add ons

Add-ons can transform Waterfox into a completely customized browser for power users like developers and server admins.

The university also helped connect Alex with investors to set up a company around a privacy-focused browser and search engine.

“At the time, I was really getting into the privacy aspect of things, even though back then — before Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations — privacy wasn’t as en vogue as it is today,” Alex said. “I started a company with a couple of investors, but there was no way to grow a privacy product. It was really uncharted territory.”

Investments in the privacy-focused browser and search engine didn’t ultimately pan out, as it was nearly impossible to monetize the products without infringing upon user privacy. But the exercise did help Alex plan a path forward for Waterfox.

A Middle Ground Between Firefox and the Tor Browser

Alex ultimately found ways to monetize Waterfox through strategic search partnerships. From May to November 2015, Waterfox relied on Storm, a charity-based search engine, before briefly switching to Ecosia. Waterfox now defaults to Bing.

“Microsoft’s Bing is a privacy-friendly search engine, though I wouldn’t say it’s a privacy product in the same manner as Startpage or DuckDuckGo. Bing features a digestible privacy policy that has nothing too egregious in it — just what you’d expect for a search engine to return useful results. That’s why Mozilla had a partnership with them for many years as well,” he said. “Google is great, but Microsoft actually cared about launching a privacy-oriented search engine as one of its focuses.”

Today, Alex describes Waterfox as striking the ideal balance between privacy and usability. He said users looking for the ultimate in protection against network surveillance or traffic analysis should turn to the Tor Browser.

The free solution features multilayer encryption, automatically blocks third-party trackers and ads, prevents people from monitoring your browsing habits, and makes it difficult for users to be fingerprinted based on device and browser information.

Themes

Themes allow users of all skill levels to add a personal touch to their browsers.

“If you want the be-all, end-all of privacy, go with the Tor Browser,” he said. “But sometimes, if you go too private, you’ll find that the web sort of breaks and the user experience is negatively affected. Waterfox is there to serve as the middle ground where it’s privacy-conscious, but not a privacy tool. The goal is balance.”

Waterfox’s balancing act features telemetry removal, plugin compatibility, customization capabilities, and limited data collection. (The only data that Waterfox collects is the user’s operating system and browser version so it can check for updates to various components). When combined, these features are intended to create a browser that’s efficient and respectful of users.

“I built it in the way that I’d want my web browser to be,” Alex said. “It’s the one I use, of course. It’s more about being able to browse the modern web without constantly worrying about being tracked, but still being within limits of what makes the web usable for most people.”

Alex released the third generation of the browser, Waterfox G3.0.2, in December 2020. This newest version includes added support for the Unity/Global menu on Linux, a simplified page print checkbox, and an upgrade to Gecko 78.6, among other features and fixes.

A Place for Developers to Distribute Extensions

On March 27, 2021, Waterfox will celebrate its official 10-year anniversary. Moving forward, Alex’s goal is to keep Waterfox as secure and privacy-centric as possible while maintaining usability. The project’s Subreddit is mostly used for resolving issues, but Alex said he’s always keen to discuss the product with real users to inspire continuous improvement.

And while Waterfox is already highly customizable via extensions, Alex is aiming to create a space where developers can distribute those extensions — particularly the ones that help modify the browser drastically.

“You can do crazy things with the browser currently, but I want to improve the user experience so developers can upload their extensions to a central repository for others to check out with a quick installation,” he said. “I want it to be highly accessible for users. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but I’m slowly making progress.”

Stay tuned to the Waterfox blog for more information. Alex said there have been big changes in recent months regarding new infrastructure and team members. These changes will ultimately help the browser and its community of power users — from developers to server admins — expand and grow.