Reasons not to worry (part 2)

About a month ago I wrote about the negative reaction Firefox often gets on sites like Slashdot, Reddit and Metafilter, and how I found this reaction dispiriting.

The post received lots of interesting comments.  Interestingly, there was a huge variety of reactions:  suggestions for improving Firefox, explanations for how Firefox had gone wrong, etc, but there was certainly nothing like a consensus of opinion.

This got me thinking about why people would use each of the main five browsers.  My overly short, tongue-in-cheek list looked like this:

  • Firefox: add-ons!
  • Chrome: speed! (and, for the moment, new shiny!)
  • IE: I’m a Windows user and I don’t know how to change my browser.
  • Safari: I’m a Mac user and I don’t know how to change my browser.
  • Opera: Hey, look how quirky I am!

More seriously, on a technical level the five main browsers are converging.  When one of them implements a new compelling feature, the others will get something similar eventually.  Firefox introduced the awesome bar, and now all the browsers track history in a sophisticated way in the address bar.  Chrome pushed the envelope on JS speed, but once Firefox 4.0 and IE9 are released the gap will have mostly closed.  And so on.

(An aside:  Firefox 1.5 and 2.0 had bad memory behaviour, ie. lots of leaks.  That was mostly fixed by Firefox 3.0, but the reputation has stuck, primarily through the word “bloat”.  But “bloat” has various meanings, so any time a new feature is added to Firefox that someone thinks isn’t useful, they’ll cry “bloat!” even though that feature may not affect memory footprint at all.  Cue Twain’s quote: “Give a man a reputation as an early riser, and he can sleep until noon.”)

So if you assume technical convergence (which isn’t entirely true, but it’s not so far off) then Firefox really is special, because it’s the only browser made by a non-profit organisation whose desire to create good software isn’t sullied by commercial interests.  As a single example, consider Firefox Sync, which allows you to synchronize browser history, passwords, etc., between different machines.  The Sync protocol is encrypted, so Mozilla can’t read it.  Furthermore, if you don’t believe that, you can run your own Sync server.  I don’t see Google implementing that in Chrome.  (Indeed, although I have Chrome installed on my laptop I’ve barely used it because I’m uncomfortable wondering exactly what information it’s sending back to Google HQ.  I already have a gmail account, they’ve got enough on me already without knowing my browsing history, thanks very much.)

In other words:  It’s the mission, stupid!

I was reminded of this with my favourite comment on my earlier post, from Ryan:

The add-ons are nice, sure. But to me, Mozilla is about hard working, smart web-wonks undeterred by hairballs of code from netscape, miniscule market share vs. Microsoft or really, reality in general. That’s awesome – and worth celebrating.

In a similar vein, Phil Ringnalda on IRC pointed me at a blog post that ended with this quote:

I believe in keeping the web free and open. I believe in building a better Internet, and helping people take control. These ideas align with those of Mozilla, btw… and it’s one more reason I’m sticking with Firefox as my browser (and Mozilla) instead of abandoning it for Chrome or Safari, or another browser created by a for-profit company interested in controlling my browsing experience. Mozilla was there for us, they saved us from the big bad IE Monster, and helped keep the web open and free, and they’re still doing that.

Words to live by!

17 Responses to Reasons not to worry (part 2)

  1. Interesting you mention FirefoxSync, non-commercial and ‘bloat’. I don’t want FirefoxSync, I have no intention of using it—ever—yet it can’t be removed. it just sits there like a wart, silently reminding me that all extensions are equal, but Mozilla’s extensions are more equal.

    Read this thread: http://www.osnews.com/thread?438188

    “Obviously, we aren’t forced to use it. The problem is that we’re forced to install it.”

    This is my complaint. This is no better than Microsoft’s “Suggested Sites” feature in IE8 that, even when you turn it off, appears in the bookmarks bar and in the bottom of the favourites panel.

    FirefoxSync should be an add on and you are being very disrespectful of a large majority of users by placing more importance on your brand than your users. (Why is it called ‘Firefox’ Sync if it’s supposed to be open and browser-agnostic?)

    This is what pushes developers and avid users like me to Chrome—and the people who we support and recommend browsers to. I don’t want this in my browser, period; especially if I can’t get rid of it. I’m angered by this behaviour every day in dealing with laptops that ship with so much crap they’re unusable, when craplets install themselves on users computers without them being aware of it. This forcing of features on users is a constant thorn in my side and the last place I want to see it is in Firefox.

    • Nicholas Nethercote

      Kroc: new releases of software will always have new features. What criteria do you use to decide if a new feature is “bloat”?

      Also, why do you think that Firefox Sync is supposed to be browser-agnostic?

  2. Kroc … The sync feature is in Chrome too … duh.

  3. The most compelling reason for which I still use Firefox is that the web browser is the only piece of software that I completely object to it being proprietary. I am a Windows user and occasionally dabble with Ubuntu Linux but I don’t care about the OS in particular. I can always shift my work and files around but I can’t shift the internet. Here the browser is literally the window to many aspects of the internet and if that was proprietary we will be stuck in the pre-Mozilla days when the internet was suffering from Internet Explorer 6 stagnation and any innovation was not accepted into the most open of networks because one single software vendor didn’t have that a priority.

    @Kroc Camen

    It is Mozilla’s tradition to first experiment with a feature using add-ons and then once the feature is mature it gets pushed into the mainstream browser code. Sometimes non-Mozilla add-ons are incorporated if they are good; an example is the Hide Menubar extension which does what the name suggests. Sync is not the exception. I can think of Personas and in the future JetPack will be part of Firefox as a replacement to the existing extensions framework.

    Now back to your issue with Firefox and why you switched to Chrome. I find that very odd that you complained about Sync even though Google goes one step further by giving you the ability to sync your Google account with Chrome in the Options under the Personal Stuff tab. This is an identical feature imposed on users and is so closed and limited to Google’s marketing ambitions while Firefox Sync gives you the choice of what info to store and where.

  4. Oh, come on. More of the same feel-good, toot-your-own-horn altruism propaganda, coupled with the obligatory Big Brother reference to Google?

    I never fail to find it amusing how Mozillians in general constantly resort to such rhetoric to distinguish Firefox from Chrome, all while continuing to copy Chrome’s design features, and push Google as the default search engine in Firefox in return for $$$.

  5. “The Sync protocol is encrypted, so Mozilla can’t read it. Furthermore, if you don’t believe that, you can run your own Sync server. I don’t see Google implementing that in Chrome. (Indeed, although I have Chrome installed on my laptop I’ve barely used it because I’m uncomfortable wondering exactly what information it’s sending back to Google HQ. I already have a gmail account, they’ve got enough on me already without knowing my browsing history, thanks very much.)”

    We didn’t make Chrome as some sort of stealth info-collection vehicle. Google doesn’t see categorically different data from Chrome users compared to other browser users. We’ve also been careful to put in switches to control any behavior that sends data to a server so that you can use different providers or no provider at all at your choice.

    For sync, we’re working on things like client-side encryption and possibly syncing with Weave servers or similar (the biggest issues are the UI for such things, not the will to implement). We don’t read users’ data, but that’s easier to assure people of if they don’t have to take our word.

    People should use the browser they want. But please try not to cast aspersions on your competitors when they’re unfounded.

  6. @Peter: There’s no aspersions being cast. The goal of Mozilla is no more and no less than the goal of its users: to have a web that’s as awesome as possible. This is only possible because Mozilla is non-profit — otherwise profit is an additional goal! And it’s possible for those two goals to conflict. (Especially when a virtual monopoly is achieved.)

    Individual developers such as yourself may only be interested in making the web great and nothing else. Fantastic! That’s part of why (e.g.) Chrome is so great. But the people who make final decisions about the product have more on their mind than the health of the web, which they are legally required to do given all the companies in question are publicly traded companies.

    This isn’t casting aspersions. It’s honesty.

  7. I don’t use Chrome, at least not yet. When it comes to sync in the browser, the difference is that I *don’t have to look at it* all the time. Mozilla are trying to remove unnecessary UI, and then go and put this extra icon there that’s unnecessary for most people.

  8. @ voracity,

    There are some problems with your argument.

    First of all, while the Mozilla Foundation is a non-profit organization, Mozilla Corp and Mozilla Messaging Inc are taxable entities, which means that revenue and profits are a goal for Mozilla, just like everyone else.

    Secondly, just because Google needs to turn a profit, doesn’t mean Chrome is stealing user data for nefarious purposes, which the original blog post was trying to imply. That is not honesty; that is insinuation and unfounded extrapolation. But of course, it goes without saying that if you actually have any factual evidence to back up your “honest” claims, we’d be more than happy to see them.

    Third, even if we assume for the sake of argument that Google is evil and Mozilla are the underdog good guys doing their best to stick it to The Man, that apparently doesn’t matter enough to Mozilla to make it not receive more than 90% of its revenue from Google. Dirty money, so to speak; a share of the profits from Google’s villainous tactics. But wait, I thought Mozilla were supposed to be the good guys who aren’t out to make $$$?

    Mozilla, please just focus your efforts on your primary business of making a better browser (or improving the Web), not on trying to show how desperate you are by engaging in rhetoric and intellectual dishonesty.

    • Nicholas Nethercote

      The original post said “I’m uncomfortable wondering exactly what information it’s sending back to Google HQ.” I didn’t say “it’s definitely stealing data for nefarious purposes”, nor did I use words like “evil”, “villainous”. Please don’t put words in my mouth.

      As for why I wonder that, let’s face it: Google’s entire modus operandi is to collect as much information it can in order to provide targeted advertising, and a user’s browsing history is a great source of such information. So I naturally assume they will collect the user’s browsing history if they can. Maybe I’m wrong about this. If Google’s sync equivalent is encrypted by default I’ll be surprised but impressed.

      As for the question of dirty money, it’s something I’ve pondered before: if you take dirty money and do good things with it, is that ok? The answer isn’t clear to me, although the dirtier the money source is, the clearer it becomes. Fortunately I didn’t start by assuming that “Google is evil”, but rather “Google has enough of my personal information already”, so that doesn’t end up as much of an issue.

      Finally, I’m just one Mozilla contractor. If you don’t like my post, it’s fine to criticize me. But please don’t assume that I’m speaking for the entire project.

  9. I would like to disagree with the poster. I have been using Firefox form the start. I have tried every beta of Firefox 4 thus far and every time uninstalled it.

    Firefox 4 for me personally, is a fail. I want a Firefox that can read the web 100% doing it while stable. Not frustrating me with tabs frozen or slow downs while loading or shutting down.

    We are seeing this landslide of new “features” and I have to wonder why? The browser is not faster or less buggy. The only feature in Firefox 4 that I really care about is Direct2d. To me, that is the only feature that will enhance my experience and my web.

    We have wonderful tabCandy, that for the life of me I don’t understand. The UI is ridiculous. Seriously, you need to press a keyboard key to get out of it? WTF? The Firefox bottom, why is it not like Windows Start bar, where the additional list items pop up, why “separate” buttons?

    Why is the dictionary not change based on the version you download? Why must I always first add it or be stuck with US english?

    Why is such a fuss made over the addons manager being a tab, while everything else in Firefox is still popup windows? Now we ended up with this hybird mess…

    A big deal was made over the “tabs on top” feature as being the most “friendly and fastest layout. Explain to me how the same can be true for moving bookmarks to the most right part of the screen, where there is no room on the screen left for expansion, as opposed to almost to the left with the current menu system, with lots of room to expand?

  10. Thanks for the mention of my blog post, and thanks to all who contribute to Mozilla. The importance of keeping the web free and open shouldn’t be forgotten. Keep up the good work!

  11. @ Nicholas Nethercote,

    The “About” page of this blog states that you’re a programmer. Given as such, surely you’re knowledgeable enough to at least fire up a packet sniffer to check what data Chrome is sending back to Google HQ. Why would you want to live with the doubt of not knowing how Chrome is spying on you? For that matter, why did you install a program that you don’t trust on your computer, and then spread unsubstantiated insinuations about it in a blog post about how wonderful and do-good-ey Mozilla is?

    As for the question of dirty money, I can only suspect that the answer isn’t clear to you simply because it’s Mozilla who’s receiving the tens of millions of dollars. To say the least, it’s rather disingenuous to preach about how altruistic and benevolent you and your corporation supposedly are, yet behind the scenes quietly and willingly receive tons of cash earned by very the one you label as Big Brother using the exact same methods you claim to disapprove of.

    I have no problems with Mozilla trying to advertise its efforts in promoting a better Internet. By itself, that’s undoubtedly a good thing. It just becomes an embarrassing fiasco, however, when you try to subtly smear the competition in the process, or even suggest that this ideology is why Firefox is special. Please promote Firefox based on technical merits instead, and in another blog post; Mozilla’s lofty philosophy deserves its own separate topic instead of being sullied by getting associated with self one-uppance and putting down the competition.

  12. I’d like to clarify that I didn’t intend to imply anything as strong as what solcroft has said. I don’t think the original post claimed that Google was an evil company that was definitely spying on you. I do think the area of what information Chrome sends to Google has been covered and explained ad nauseum, so there’s no reason for anyone to “wonder”.

    I disagree that “Google’s entire modus operandi is to collect as much information as it can”; if that were true we’d be collecting a LOT more info with a lot of products. Chrome defaults statistic collection to off and even when on purposefully avoids collecting things like what URLs you visit, because we believe the user has a right to their privacy. AFAIK many other products like gmail are siloed so that the information in them cannot be viewed by any other teams.

    A correct statement would be that Google’s modus operandi is to make the web great and make it possible to do anything on the web. Google believes that as more people use the web it will inherently result in more searches and ad views. Chrome, like a lot of other products, is not an information collector; it’s a bid to build a great browser so people can do more with the web. Upper management has stated that in public more than once.

    My only hope is that in achieving its mission of preserving the open web Mozilla doesn’t lose sight of the need to accomplish that by making a kick-ass browser that is (at least for some users) superior to all competitors. Without that product, the company has no leverage.

  13. Nicholas Nethercote

    Peter Kasting: thanks for your reasonable comments. It’s interesting to hear about the siloing of gmail; let’s hope that continues, though there’s no way to know for sure. And you’re dead right that Mozilla has to keep making a great browser, we’re certainly doing our best.

  14. Dear Nic,

    I agree with Kroc in regards to Firefox Sync. Not everyone will be using the feature as some, myself included are already using other services like Xmarks to manage our bookmarks and so on, and have grown to become very comfortable with them.

    I do understand the difference the service and the advantage and disadvantages of choosing one over the other but it is highly unlikely for me to use it or us it along with Xmarks because the Fx Sync credentials show up in saved passwords.

    I am using OS X, and I do realize that there is a Keychain Services Extension but for some reason using it imports my iCal Google Calendar password and deleting it from Fx means I have to reinput the credentials each time I start iCal and so it loops.

    So I am really hoping to see built in Keychain Integration in Fx sometime down road.

    I have Chrome on my laptop too and I don’t use it for the same reasons you have highlighted among other things.

  15. @Kroc you don’t have to look at Firefox Sync all the time either…