Firefox 14 Gets Built-In PDF Reader PDF.js

I sure hope that Firefox’s built-in PDF reader turns out better than Chrome’s built-in PDF reader; in my book, Chrome’s PDF reader leaves a bit to be desired when compared to Adobe Reader.

Browser plugins may soon become a dying form of adding functionality to web browsers. We are already seeing first signs of that, for instance with Chrome’s built-in pdf reader, or the drive towards HTML5 video and media in general. The biggest issue with plugins, besides compatibility, is security, and here the need to keep plugins up to date to avoid attacks that exploit known vulnerabilities that have already been fixed in the latest plugin versions.

While there have been some attempts to inform the user when plugins are not up to date, it is still nothing that prevents users from running outdated plugin versions on their computer.

Mozilla has now started to integrate a native PDF reader into Firefox 14 versions. We have talked about pdf.js before, a script that is rendering PDF with HTML5 and JavaScript. While it may not look that different from Google Chrome’s internal pdf reader, it is not the same thing.

Andreas Gal, one of the authors of pdf.js, highlighted some of the benefits in a blog post in 2011.

Displaying PDFs directly in the browser would definitely improve the user’s experience. There are literally millions (billions?) of PDFs floating around the web, and on many devices loading PDFs switches to a different application (e.g. Preview on OS X and PDF View on Android). Also, external PDF readers and many plugins don’t support important PDF features well, including content links and fetch-as-you-go (HTTP range requests).

The traditional approach to rendering PDFs in a browser is to use a native-code plugin, either Adobe’s own PDF Reader or other commercial renderers, or some open source alternative (e.g. poppler). From a security perspective, this enlarges the trusted code base, and because of that Google’s Chrome browser goes through quite some pain to sandbox the PDF renderer to avoid code injection attacks. An HTML5-based implementation is completely immune to this class of problems.

Firefox 14, which is currently available in the Nightly channel, includes the pdf reader already. It is listed in the extensions menu of the browser, and deactivated by default. Firefox users who’d like to test the reader capabilities need to enable it first, before they disable any plugins in the browser with pdf reading capabilities.

firefox pdf.js reader

The pdf reader opens pdf documents in browse tab. A small toolbar at the top allows you to go to a specific page, change the zoom level, print the document, download it, or bookmark the current location. It is quality-wise not on pair with Adobe Reader’s plugin, but still ok and comparable to Google Chrome’s pdf reader.

Firefox users who would like to try the extension right now can install a stable or nightly version of it from the project site. And yes, it works in all recent versions of the Firefox browser. (via Sören Hentzschel)

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