For many technology is about the endless quest for the novel, but it is an unquenchable desire, because what is new and shiny today will be so much junk tomorrow in a world of insatiable consumerism and planned obsolescence. It is about forever acquiring that latest toy, only to discover that it makes us no happier than the last toy, but we never give up hope that the next shiny gizmo will give us what the last one didn’t. The electronics industry is built upon feeding on our desires, preparing a plethora of gadgets which bombard the marketplace and our minds, endlessly distracting us and tempting us. With ever greater frequency the new products roll out, shoving aside last year’s products, and the cycle starts over again. We can never get enough, but we can always try to make the latest products fulfill our fantasies and our deepest desires.
We have been trained like Pavlov’s dogs to salivate over the latest electronic novelty, but like his dogs why haven’t stopped to ask ourselves why we are salivating. As we eagerly scan the Internet for news and review about the latest crop of gizmos, comparing each new device and its technical wonders, we are distracted from the more profound questions which should preoccupy our thoughts. What do we need this gizmo for? What is the effect of using that technological marvel on our environment, on our society, on our bodies and on ourselves?
I am a technophile, especially if that technology contains electronic circuits and millions of lines of code. I follow tech sites like AnandTech and Linux Weekly News the way that a bookie follows the horse tracks. I can’t keep my eye off the latest race, speculating endlessly about the performance of one product versus the other. Electronic technology is endlessly fascinating and forever absorbing.
Yet, at some point, I started realizing that utter pointlessness of the current human race to build ever better electronic devices. I doubt that I will ever stop being fascinated by what the Silicon Valley dreams up and China mass produces, but I have also come to the disturbing conclusion that there is a futility to all this effort, since it only feed our acquisitive instincts and never make us happy.
Just as importantly, I have started asking what is the goal of certain technologies and what is the impact their use has on us as people. With those questions in mind I pondered the latest round of the browser wars. For the last three decades, the Internet has promised to revolutionize the way we work, communicate, play and create—in short it will change much of what we do as humans. The software which brings us the internet has huge potential to shape human activity. Everyone realizes its importance, which is why the competition between different web browsers have been such a contentious topic.
Currently, the web is being fought over by three major contenders–Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Google’s Chrome, and The Mozilla Foundation’s FireFox–which together hold 92% of the market, plus a few niche browsers such as Apple’s Safari and Opera, which have a dedicated following. Back in September 2008, when Google first released Chrome, FireFox was the innovative browser which enthralled people who wanted novelty. It was better then Internet Explorer by every measure. Today, Chrome/Chromium is significantly faster and more secure. It consumes less memory and sports more extensions than FireFox. Chrome is even implementing HTML 5’s new features faster than FireFox. In short, Chrome beats FireFox by every technical measure (except in the area of configuration options which can be added though extensions).
Five years ago, FireFox was highly recommended for its greater security. Internet Explorer 6 was so riddled with security holes, that security experts publicly called for the switch to FireFox. Today, however, FireFox trails the pack in terms of security. In 2011, two studies financed by Microsoft and Google found both Internet Explorer and Chrome to offer better security than FireFox. While the Microsoft financed study is questionable in my opinion, the Google financed study used public, reproducible methods which are clearly explained in an addendum. The study lists each function which was blocked or allowed on the respective browsers, and FireFox failed to block the vast majority.
A major problem is that FireFox lacks a sandbox, a feature which will be extremely hard to implement, since it will involve a major rewrite. Unlike Chrome, FireFox is a much more complex piece of software, with its own interface language, plugin framework and HTML renderer which is designed to operate in contexts beyond the web. Mozilla’s HTML renderer, Gecko, is used by dozens of FLOSS applications, such as GoldenDict, an electronic dictionary. Mozilla’s interface language is even used by Sugar, the operating system for the One Laptop Per Child. In short, FireFox can’t adapt its codebase nearly as fast as Chrome, because the Mozilla Foundation is creating a whole ecosystem of software and libraries used for a wide range of applications. Furthermore, the Mozilla Foundation has to maintain many of its own libraries, whereas Google can simply grab whatever library best fits its needs and adapt it, as it did with WebKit, the HTML renderer which was originally created by KDE’s KHTML and improved by Apple’s Safari.
Despite Chrome’s clear technical advantages, I refuse to switch to Chrome. I do not choose software just based upon its technical characteristics. For me, the promotion of user freedom, as defined by the Free Software Foundation, is of paramount importance. While Google has a FLOSS version of Chrome, named Chromium, it clearly does not want the vast majority of its users to use it. With this dual proprietary/FLOSS strategy, Google hopes to attract the tiny minority of technical users who need to see the source code and geeks who prefer “open source”. Google knows that distributions of free operating systems such as GNU/Linux, BSD, Haiku and ReactOS will never include its web browser, if it doesn’t release the source code. To capture these critical groups of users who are useful for setting opinions on the net and for developing plugins, Google needs to release the source code. Meanwhile, Google directs the vast majority of users toward its proprietary product.
Google only offers Chromium as source code, so people have to compile it on their own, which is a daunting task beyond the technical capabilities of the vast majority. I might attempt to compile Chromium in a GNU/Linux distro, such as a Debian, which wraps the source code in a nice package which automatically grabs all its dependencies. However, I wouldn’t even think of trying it in Windows. Apparently I am not alone. The last time I installed Chrome in Windows, I did a quick Google search for “Chromium Windows binary” and found no downloadable binary to install in Windows 7.
The actions of Google basically says that releasing the source code is a convenient way to capture the small number of geeks who care about open source/free software and a way to offset the competitive advantage of FLOSS browsers such as FireFox, SeaMonkey, Konqueror, etc. It is not trying to promulgate FLOSS, nor its values, beyond the small circle of users who already use it. This position is fundamentally different from the mission of the Mozilla Foundation whose goal is the promotion of a free and open internet, which guarantees freedom for both users and creators. I want to use software whose developers believe in and promote software freedom and who want to transform their world to make it a better place for everyone.
Actually, Google has done a great deal to promote the goals of the Mozilla Foundation. For instance, Google wants open standards, because it business operates best on an open web, so it promoted HTML 5 and bought On2 and released its V8 video codec as part of WebM. Whereas FireFox embarrassed Microsoft and kept the fight for open standards alive over the last decade, the competitive threat of Google (and Apple to a lesser degree), has forced Microsoft to embrace open standards on the web. Now, Microsoft is busy implementing DOM, HTML 5 and other open standards. While the Mozilla Foundation didn’t have the market share to force web designers to use free and open multimedia codecs, Google’s support has been critical in this fight. Although it doesn’t look like the new <video> tag in HTML will specify a free and open codec, Google’s promotion of the free and open WebM standard with the V8 video codec, ogg.vorbis audio codec in a Matroska media package means that a good proportion of web pages will use free and open codecs in the future.
In many ways, Google is the force which has made Mozilla possible. Roughly 80% of Mozilla’s funding comes from Google and Google just signed a contract to give the Mozilla Foundation 1.3 billion dollars over the next 3 years.
Despite the fact that Google has financed the Mozilla Foundation and promoted open standards and open multimedia codecs, it has undertaken these actions for strategic business reasons, rather than a deep-seated belief in the principals of free software. Those of us who use free software for ethical reasons, rather than because we want the latest and greatest gizmo, should not abandon FireFox, just because a faster and leaner browser has appeared on the scene. We should remember that the Mozilla Foundation is fighting for a free and open internet which respects user freedom, whereas Google only sticks a free software license on their browser for pragmatic reasons, which has nothing to do with creating a better and freer society or guaranteeing our digital rights. FireFox deserves our loyalty and our support.