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!