Debate: Does Mozilla have more influence as a Chrome rival or ally?
“Thought: It’s time for @mozilla to get down from their philosophical ivory tower. The web is dominated by Chromium, if they really *cared* about the web they would be contributing instead of building a parallel universe that’s used by less than 5%?” He made it clear the viewpoint was his personal opinion, not Microsoft’s position.
Mozilla is indeed in a sticky situation, trying to improve the web when it comes to things like openness, privacy and new standards. That mission is harder with declining influence, though, and Firefox now accounts for 5 percent of web usage, according to analytics firm StatCounter. But without independent efforts like Firefox, and to an extent Apple’s Safari, the web will stop being an independent software foundation and become whatever Google says it is.
And plenty of people don’t like that one bit. Indeed, Mozilla defenders see the nonprofit’s mission as even more important with Chrome’s dominance.
“I couldn’t disagree with you more. It precisely *because* Chromium has such a large marketshare that is vital for Mozilla (or anyone else) to battle for diversity,” tweeted web developer Jeremy Keith in a response. “‘Building a parallel universe’? That *is* the contribution.”
If you’re reading this post via my blog and using a desktop computer, try opening your browser’s debug console (don’t worry; I’ll wait). If you don’t know how, here’s instructions for Firefox and instructions for Chrome. Other browsers may vary. You ought to see something like this in your debugger:
What sorcery is this?
Principally, though, the console is designed for textual content and nothing else. That said, both Firefox and Chrome’s consoles permit the use of CSS to style blocks of debug output by using the %c escape sequence. For example, I could style some of a message with italic text:
>> console.log('I have some %citalic %ctext', 'font-style: italic;', ''); I have some italic text
Using CSS directives like background, then, it’s easy to see how one could embed an image into the console, and that’s been done before. Instead, though, I wanted to use the lessons I’d learned developing PicInHTML 8¾ years ago to use text and CSS (only) to render a colour picture to the console. First, I created my template image – a hackergotchi of me and an accompanying speech bubble, shrunk to a tiny size and posterised to reduce the number of colours used and saved as a PNG.
We need a movement of developers and enthusiasts who loudly, proudly, use @mozilla@firefox as their primary browser. On our desktops and our laptops. We test in it, extend it, contribute to it. But we never, ever, take it for granted.
I’ve been using Firefox as my main browser for a while now, and I can heartily recommend it. You should try it (and maybe talk to your relatives about it at Christmas). At this point, which browser you use no longer feels like it’s just about personal choice—it feels part of something bigger; it’s about the shape of the web we want.
We need a new movement: a movement of developers, influencers, and tech enthusiasts who loudly, proudly, use Firefox as their primary web browser. We use it on our desktops. We use it on our laptops. We use it on our phones. All of us test sites in it. Some of us write plugins for it. The bravest of us write code for it. But none of us, not one, takes it for granted.
Microsoft is officially giving up on an independent shared platform for the internet. By adopting Chromium, Microsoft hands over control of even more of online life to Google.
This may sound melodramatic, but it’s not. The “browser engines” — Chromium from Google and Gecko Quantum from Mozilla — are “inside baseball” pieces of software that actually determine a great deal of what each of us can do online. They determine core capabilities such as which content we as consumers can see, how secure we are when we watch content, and how much control we have over what websites and services can do to us. Microsoft’s decision gives Google more ability to single-handedly decide what possibilities are available to each one of us.
From a business point of view Microsoft’s decision may well make sense. Google is so close to almost complete control of the infrastructure of our online lives that it may not be profitable to continue to fight this. The interests of Microsoft’s shareholders may well be served by giving up on the freedom and choice that the internet once offered us. Google is a fierce competitor with highly talented employees and a monopolistic hold on unique assets. Google’s dominance across search, advertising, smartphones, and data capture creates a vastly tilted playing field that works against the rest of us.
From a social, civic and individual empowerment perspective ceding control of fundamental online infrastructure to a single company is terrible. This is why Mozilla exists. We compete with Google not because it’s a good business opportunity. We compete with Google because the health of the internet and online life depend on competition and choice. They depend on consumers being able to decide we want something better and to take action.
Will Microsoft’s decision make it harder for Firefox to prosper? It could. Making Google more powerful is risky on many fronts. And a big part of the answer depends on what the web developers and businesses who create services and websites do. If one product like Chromium has enough market share, then it becomes easier for web developers and businesses to decide not to worry if their services and sites work with anything other than Chromium. That’s what happened when Microsoft had a monopoly on browsers in the early 2000s before Firefox was released. And it could happen again.
If you care about what’s happening with online life today, take another look at Firefox. It’s radically better than it was 18 months ago — Firefox once again holds its own when it comes to speed and performance. Try Firefox as your default browser for a week and then decide. Making Firefox stronger won’t solve all the problems of online life — browsers are only one part of the equation. But if you find Firefox is a good product for you, then your use makes Firefox stronger. Your use helps web developers and businesses think beyond Chrome. And this helps Firefox and Mozilla make overall life on the internet better — more choice, more security options, more competition.
Scathing but well-deserved dig at Microsoft by Mozilla, following on from the Edge-switch-to-Chromium I’ve been going on about. Chris is right: more people should try Firefox (it’s been my general-purpose browser on desktop and mobile ever since Opera threw in the towel and joined the Chromium hivemind in 2013, and on-and-off plenty before then) – not just because it’s a great browser (and it is!) but also now because it’s important for the diversity and health of the Web.
We used to have much more diversity in terms of browser engines years ago than we do today. This is easy to understand as the Web in 2018 is far more complex than it was in the early noughties. It is very costly to develop and maintain a Web engine and few companies have the necessary talent and cash to do it. Microsoft is one of those companies but the fact that it might be throwing in the towel on its engine signals a bad development for all of us.
Further evaluation of the dangers of the disappearing diversity on the Web, following in the theme of my thoughts the other day about Microsoft’s adoption of Chromium instead of EdgeHTML in its browser.
Andre raises a real point: how will we fight for a private and decentralised Web when it becomes “the Google Web”?
I don’t think Microsoft using Chromium is the end of the world, but it is another step down a slippery slope. It’s one more way of bolstering the influence Google currently has on the web.
We need Google to keep pushing the web forward. But it’s critical that we have other voices, with different viewpoints, to maintain some sense of balance. Monocultures don’t benefit anyone.
This essay follows-up nicely on my concerns about Microsoft’s move from EdgeHTML to Chromium in Edge, but goes further to discuss some of the bigger problems of a homogeneous web, especially one under Google’s influence.
The younger generation of web developers are likely to hail this as good news: one fewer engine to develop for and test in, they’re all already using Chrome or something similar (and certainly not Edge) for development and debugging anyway, etc. The problem comes perhaps because they’re too young to remember the First Browser War and its aftermath. Let me summarise:
Once upon a time – let’s call it the mid-1990s – there were several web browsers: Netscape Navigator, Internet Explorer, Opera, etc. They all used different rendering engines and so development was sometimes a bit of a pain, but only if you wanted to use the latest most cutting-edge features: if you were happy with the standard, established features of the Web then your site would work anywhere, as has always been the case.
Then, everybody starting using just one browser: following some shady dealings and monopoly abuse, 90%+ of Web users started using just one web browser, Internet Explorer. By the time anybody took notice, their rivals had been economically crippled beyond any reasonable chance of recovery, but the worst had yet to come…
Developers started targeting only that one browser: instead of making websites, developers started making “Internet Explorer sites” which were only tested in that one browser or, worse yet, only worked at all in that browser, actively undermining the Web’s position as an open platform. As the grip of the monopoly grew tighter, technological innovation was centred around this single platform, leading to decade-long knock-on effects.
The Web ceased to grow new features: from the release of Internet Explorer 6 there were no significant developments in the technology of the Web for many years. The lack of competition pushed us into a period of stagnation. A decade and a half later, we’re only just (finally) finishing shaking off this unpleasant bit of our history.
History looks set to repeat itself. Substitute Chrome in place of Internet Explorer and update the references to other web browsers and the steps above could be our future history, too. Right now, we’re somewhere in or around step #2 – Chrome is the dominant browser – and we’re starting to see the beginnings of step #3: more and more “Chrome only” sites. More-alarmingly this time around, Google’s position in providing many major Web services allows them to “push” even harder for this kind of change, even just subtly: if you make the switch from Chrome to e.g. Firefox (and you absolutely should) you might find that YouTube runs slower for you because YouTube’s (Google) engineers favour Google’s web browser.
So these are the three browser engines we have: WebKit/Blink, Gecko, and EdgeHTML. We are unlikely to get any brand new bloodlines in the foreseeable future. This is it.
If we lose one of those browser engines, we lose its lineage, every permutation of that engine that would follow, and the unique takes on the Web it could allow for.
And it’s not likely to be replaced.
Imagine a planet populated only by hummingbirds, dolphins, and horses. Say all the dolphins died out. In the far, far future, hummingbirds or horses could evolve into something that could swim in the ocean like a dolphin. Indeed, ichthyosaurs in the era of dinosaurs looked much like dolphins. But that creature would be very different from a true dolphin: even ichthyosaurs never developed echolocation. We would wait a very long time (possibly forever) for a bloodline to evolve the traits we already have present in other bloodlines today. So, why is it ok to stand by or even encourage the extinction of one of these valuable, unique lineages?
We have already lost one.
We used to have four major rendering engines, but Opera halted development of its own rendering engine Presto before adopting Blink.
Three left. Spend them wisely.
As much as I don’t like having to work-around the quirks in all of the different browsers I test in, daily, it’s way preferable to a return to the dark days of the Web circa most of the first decade of this century. Please help keep browsers diverse: nobody wants to start seeing this shit –
I’ve generally been pretty defensive of Microsoft Edge, the default web browser in Windows 10. Unlike its much-mocked predecessor Internet Explorer, Edge is fast, clean, modern, and boasts good standards-compliance: all of the things that Internet Explorer infamously failed at! I was genuinely surprised to see Edge fail to gain a significant market share in its first few years: it seemed to me that everyday Windows users installed other browsers (mostly Chrome, which is causing its own problems) specifically because Internet Explorer was so terrible, and that once their default browser was replaced with something moderately-good this would no longer be the case. But that’s not what’s happened. Maybe it’s because Edge’s branding is too-remiscient of its terrible predecessor or maybe just because Windows users have grown culturally-used to the idea that the first thing they should do on a new PC is download a different browser, but whatever the reason, Edge is neglected. And for the most part, I’ve argued, that’s a shame.
But I’ve changed my tune this week after doing some research that demonstrates that a long-standing security issue of Internet Explorer is alive and well in Edge. This particular issue, billed as a “feature” by Microsoft, is deliberately absent from virtually every other web browser.
About 5 years ago, Steve Gibson observed a special feature of EV (Extended Validation) SSL certificates used on HTTPS websites: that their extra-special “green bar”/company name feature only appears if the root CA (certificate authority) is among the browser’s default trust store for EV certificate signing. That’s a pretty-cool feature! It means that if you’re on a website where you’d expect to see a “green bar”, like Three Rings, PayPal, or HSBC, then if you don’t see the green bar one day it most-likely means that your connection is being intercepted in the kind of way I described earlier this year, and everything you see or send including passwords and credit card numbers could be at risk. This could be malicious software (or nonmalicious software: some antivirus software breaks EV certificates!) or it could be your friendly local network admin’s middlebox (you trust your IT team, right?), but either way: at least you have a chance of noticing, right?
Browsers requiring that the EV certificate be signed by a one of a trusted list of CAs and not allowing that list to be manipulated (short of recompiling the browser from scratch) is a great feature that – were it properly publicised and supported by good user interface design, which it isn’t – would go a long way to protecting web users from unwanted surveillance by network administrators working for their employers, Internet service providers, and governments. Great! Except Internet Explorer went and fucked it up. As Gibson reported, not only does Internet Explorer ignore the rule of not allowing administrators to override the contents of the trusted list but Microsoft even provides a tool to help them do it!
I decided to replicate Gibson’s experiment to confirm his results with today’s browsers: I was also interested to see whether Edge had resolved this problem in Internet Explorer. My full code and configuration can be found here. As is doubtless clear from the title of this post and the screenshot above, Edge failed the test: it exhibits exactly the same troubling behaviour as Internet Explorer.
I shan’t for a moment pretend that our current certification model isn’t without it’s problems – it’s deeply flawed; more on that in a future post – but that doesn’t give anybody an excuse to get away with making it worse. When it became apparent that Internet Explorer was affected by the “feature” described above, we all collectively rolled our eyes because we didn’t expect better of everybody’s least-favourite web browser. But for Edge to inherit this deliberate-fault, despite every other browser (even those that share its certificate store) going in the opposite direction, is just insulting.
I’m looking for an extension that will automatically redirect-to-HTTPS for particular domains, e.g. to ensure that I’m using the secure version of Wikipedia, etc., whenever I go there. The HTTPS Everywhere plugin from the EFF does this for Firefox and Chrome; what can I do to make this work in Opera?