The Threat Against the Web

Last week, Marco Arment wrote a small piece about Firefox’s uncertain future, a result of Google ostensibly reconsidering their partnership terms that provide roughly 84% of Mozilla’s income; then MG Siegler chimed in and offered the wild idea of Mozilla doing a Firefox phone, solely to secure its place on a mobile platform.

I first made a one-tweet response to MG Siegler’s wild idea, but my response warrants elaboration. Here’s what I said:

You know what would be wild? Separating the browser from the browser engine. Web standards beyond just HTML, CSS and JS.

What this would look like is only clear to people who are intimately familiar with the way browsers work. A brief overview: Chrome, Safari and Firefox may be three different browsers, but they are only two different browser engines: Webkit and Gecko, with the former being the engine powering both Chrome and Safari, as well as the mobile browsers on the Android and iOS platforms. All five major browsers (powered by four different engines) do their best to interpret HTML, CSS and JavaScript as best and as fast as possible, while on a largely separate level offering distinguishing features to entice users.

But the community that builds websites and web applications for the rest of the world to use doesn’t care so much about those distinguishing features as they do about the browsers implementing and supporting the latest new web technologies—HTML5 and related, CSS3, ECMAscript 5, and so forth—in a consistent and reliably testable manner. Shortly after I first launched Modernizr I wrote about the discoveries made during its development—notably about how browsers lie quite frequently—and although the situation is a little bit better now, it is far from where it ought to be. Browsers still frequently implement features in inconsistent or unverifiable manners.

It should be noted that the idea I tweeted is not a particularly realistic one; it involves all browser vendors to replace their internal engine with one that is owned and developed by contributors from the W3C as well as their competitors, all the while building their own browser product on top of this centralized engine. In case this isn’t clear enough, right now that would almost certainly mean adopting WebKit as the engine for all browsers: IE, Firefox and Opera. This will not happen, as each vendor believes (rightly or wrongly) that their engine is unique and compelling enough to compete with the others. Also, it would significantly set back all but Apple and Google, and thus be a rather unfair step to take.

Which brings us to the question: why do they compete in this realm? For Microsoft and Google it is simple: market share means driving traffic to their search engine, which brings in revenue, and thus market share is a closely-associated proxy to money. For Apple, it is about having control over the full stack, the end-to-end experience of the user, and that means having a best-of-breed browser on their platforms. Again, money, but by offering the best possible experience for the user and selling products on that promise. For Opera, its approach is to be universal and fast, with a notable dedication to older or simpler devices—including very basic feature phones. They don’t have a strong correlation between revenue and (desktop, in particular) market share as the bulk of their revenues are derived from partnerships with various vendors.

That leaves Firefox, the browser once heralded as the savior of the open web as we know it. For Firefox, market share gain used to mean “less market share dominance for IE”, which strongly encouraged web standards adoption amongst developers as well as Microsoft.

However, Firefox, to me, was as much about counter-culture as it was about standards. “Providing a better user experience” was understood, by Mozilla, to mean a standards-compliant browser. But that’s also where it ended, and as soon as other major players entered the field with standards-compliant browsers of their own, Firefox lost its defining edge. Its core value, the thing it stood for, was not “a better user experience”; it was “a standards-compliant experience”. It just happened to be the case that back when the alternatives didn’t offer something as fundamentally baseline as that, a standards-compliant experience was a better user experience. But now all the major browsers are pretty standards-compliant, and Firefox is losing momentum almost as fast as IE is losing market share.

Part of this is a shame, because if Firefox starts falling behind Chrome, the two dominant browsers on the web will be owned by vendors who, in their own way, would love nothing more than to “own” the web platform: Google and Microsoft. It should be noted that Microsoft has had a pretty worthwhile about-face in recent years, and are now committing strongly to open standards. Google, on the other hand, is behaving more and more like the Microsoft of the late ’90s, especially with its introductions of semi-proprietary extensions like Dart. ChromeOS, in this regard, can be seen as equal parts Google showing an encouraging belief that the web will be the platform of the future, as well as Google simply trying to carve out a portion of the web platform that they can then own to themselves.

This may seem innocuous, a common scenario of capitalism and markets. But the web is different; it isn’t a platform or ecosystem that any one party can cultivate on their own. In fact, it is more like the opposite of that. The web will only thrive as long as the web is not owned by any one entity; not owned, not controlled, and not defined.

So when one company uses its market share, ecosystem or whatever leverage it has, to try and “own” the web, I get a little worried. For years, Microsoft almost owned the web, and it nearly killed progress on the web for that time. Mozilla played an integral part in making sure it wasn’t going to be that way, and we are all grateful to them for that. But Webkit is now the new Firefox, and with every iteration in this cycle, we learn from past experiences—our own and others’—and we get smarter in our approach. Google is being smarter with Chrome than Mozilla was with Firefox. They are also less idealistic than Mozilla, what with being a corporate behemoth versus the quirky, open-source “browser of the people”.

Now Google is in a position where they could significantly threaten or debilitate Mozilla, some legal antitrust concerns notwithstanding. Microsoft is no longer trying to own the web—perhaps because they’re no longer in a position where that is even remotely feasible—but their influence is dwindling the more IE’s market share keeps dropping. If Mozilla becomes a sideline player, much like Opera—whom I greatly respect, but let’s be honest here—then there is only one strong player standing in the way between Google and dominance over the web.


Now, I know that many people will disagree with me on this, but I sincerely believe that Apple is the only dominant player in this game who has enough confidence in their own software, platforms and ecosystem, to truly have no interest in “owning” the web one way or another. Rather, I believe Apple would love nothing more than to see the web continue to thrive as long as no one gets to own it—including themselves. And, lastly, with Apple being somewhat in control of WebKit, the same engine that powers Google’s Chrome browser, it may very well be in the perfect position to safeguard that open, democratic future of the web that has made it become the world’s most interesting, exciting and powerful communications platform.

Just like Tim Berners-Lee envisioned it to be.

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