Unlike most people who may be reading this, when I install a browser, it’s always Firefox. Being a software developer, and working around other tech-literate people, this simple fact seems to draw a fair bit of confusion, as everybody else seems to think of Google Chrome as their go-to option.
I’ve had a great many friends over the years try to convince me to switch to Chrome, usually, I presume, as an instinctive aversion to difference, and once because they wanted to prank me by installing the NCage chrome extension. On that last occasion, I installed it just to see the prank, and then promptly uninstalled it again.
In the past, my reasoning for doing so wasn’t so strong. When I first installed Firefox, it was when I was perhaps in junior high school, and at the time I wasn’t very tech literate. I had basically every browser installed on my old Windows XP system, and any given week I might favor a different one. At one point, I even recall being a staunch Safari for Windows supporter. Perhaps that’s slightly less of a sin than my occasional use of Internet Explorer, though.
It was a few years later, when I was in high school, that I finally made my final decision. I wanted to only use Firefox… because of the cute fox mascot (I am aware that a fire fox is a red panda, but their mascot isn’t, so your point is invalid). No joke, that was the decision that led to where I am today.
Things have changed an awful lot since I made up my mind about my choice of browser, but I have used every major browser there is, and I am still up to date on the technological details and features of most of them. To this day, I feel that I still made the correct choice, albeit for a silly reason at the time.
In the past, I felt happy to be different in my choice, because why not? Everybody else could use whatever they wanted, and so could I. The nature of the internet wasn’t at stake. But now, that has changed. With Microsoft choosing to switch edge to be based off of Chromium, this now means that there are only two remaining players in the browser engine arena: Google’s Chromium, and Mozilla’s Gecko.
Competition Makes Better Browsers
One of the benefits to what may seem like duplicated work is a parallel to one of the main benefits of capitalism in general: competition creates faster innovation. Because every browser team wanted theirs to be the best, they had no choice but to try to innovate faster, create richer features, and do whatever the people wanted as fast as possible, lest they fall out of favor and be replaced by their competitor. No doubt this is, and was, a stressful thing, but that stress undoubtedly yields a superior product from everyone in the game.
If Gecko were to fall, there would be only one browser engine left: Chromium. Do you think they’d need to innovate quickly? Absolutely not. They’d be in no danger of being replaced. Innovation would surely still continue, but not at the rate it has in the past.
Competition Enforces Standards
The web is entirely based on standardization right now. There are several large committees representing hundreds of companies and organizations that govern the standards of the web that we use today. These standards are designed to be written guidelines with very specific rules, which ensure that multiple different implementations produce the same result when given the same web content.
In the past, this has worked very well. Despite the occasional difficulty, browser engines were able to keep up with these standards, and that’s why somebody could create one version of their website for Chrome, Firefox, iOS, Opera, Edge, and so on, and it would work the same everywhere (except Internet Explorer, they could never truly get it right
The question it seems a lot of people might struggle to answer is why every browser cared so much about following standards. Why couldn’t chrome create its own method of drawing on a canvas, or aligning content, for example? Surely doing so would give them the ability to claim that they had a special, extra feature that nobody else did. In a way, it’d be much like Microsoft holding exclusivity on an API like DirectX. Anybody wanting to use that API needed Windows (until Wine happened, of course). The problem, which is on a smaller scale an issue faced by DirectX, is that developers will begin to prefer alternative APIs that support more browsers with the same code, and users of other browsers will begin to see that browser as something of a non-team-player. Every time they go to a website that doesn’t work correctly because of the lack of standardization, they’ll blame both the developer of the site, and the developer of the non-standard browser. Further, if the other browsers are all standardizing, and one isn’t, then they all become the browsers that “Just Work” and the odd one out is… well… the odd one out.
I do believe that the initial adoption of web standards was because browser developers are web developers too, and they likely did it out of a desire to make the web a better place, but years later, standards are no longer optional, and competition is why.
If Gecko dropped out of the competition and left Chromium all alone, would the Chromium team have to follow standards? Absolutely not. I believe they would try, but they’d have all the leverage. If they wrote an API, it’d become a de facto standard, because everybody has it. If they wrote an implementation wrong, it wouldn’t matter, because theirs would be the vast majority of the market share, so the actual standard implementation would actually become “wrong.” This might sound good to some out there, because it would surely streamline the process of the standards, but it puts all of the power in the hands of one project, one team, one company. It’d essentially be giving Google a monopoly on the internet. They wouldn’t necessarily use that for evil, the problem is that they easily could.
Maybe I’m too idealistic, but now that Gecko is the last competitor to Chromium, this has become a real fight to me. I won’t switch to Chrome because I like Firefox more, but also because I believe in the open, competitive web, and that can only change over my cold, dead Gecko-based browser. And I hope some of you will join me in that fight.