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The monoculture web

If you’d asked me a few years ago who won the browser wars, I would have said open standards: web pages were finally opening and rendering well no matter which browser you chose to use. There was a significant choice between rendering engines, chromes, and parent companies to pick from, and although there were some differences in how quickly new HTML features were picked up or exactly how quickly pages rendered, the web itself continued to work.

This year, I’m finding that websites increasingly break if I’m using Firefox. Sometimes, it’s something small, like a page failing to give me Apple Pay as a way to check out if I’m not using Safari. Increasingly, though, it’s meaningful: navigation doesn’t function or forms don’t submit.

This has to mean that engineers aren’t testing in Firefox anymore, and in turn that businesses aren’t prioritizing it. Because every other major browser is now using Webkit or Blink (itself a Webkit fork), that means web browser rendering has effectively become a monoculture.

That’s a bummer for me, because I’ve been a die-hard Firefox user since its release. But it’s also a real problem for the web. Firefox is the last mass-market open source web browser project: built by volunteers and a non-profit with diverse stakeholders in mind. The alternatives are all run by large corporations with philosophies based on lock-in: Google, Apple, and Microsoft, respectively. And only Google and Apple control the engines.

The saving grace is that only one of those companies - Google - is an advertising firm. Apple has wisely staked its reputation on privacy and security (even if it often doesn’t live up to those ideals). The modern Microsoft is really about creating better work experiences, and Edge correspondingly may have a similar approach to security - but as long as its browser rendering engine is controlled by Google, it’ll be optimized for displaying ads.

Clearly, most browser vendors have decided it’s not financially viable to create their own rendering engine. That’s a shame, and a missed opportunity. The web is nothing more than a set of standards, and there’s leeway for interpretation between implementations. If it weren’t for the Webkit / Blink split in 2013, there would effectively be a monopoly over the web.

At any rate, I’m going to pour one out for Firefox. It was a major force for good on the web, and therefore in the world; I’d love to see it come back faster, slimmer, and with renewed vigor. Until then, I need my web pages to work.