Firefox and web browsers for Linux

August 17, 2020

The (web) news of the time interval is that Mozilla is laying off a significant number of people, including people working on Firefox's web developer tools and MDN. Naturally this has led to people worrying about the future of Firefox (well, more than usual, since it's had declining web browser share for some time). As a user of Firefox on Linux I have some extra worries, because Firefox is kind of special on Linux.

People on Windows, Mac OS, iOS, and Android can be confident that there will pretty much always be a competent browser on their platform. Each of these platforms is backed by a big company and having a competent browser is too important to their success for the company to neglect it. Linux (or Unix in general) is the odd platform out, since there's no large company behind it to fund browser development. Competent Unix web browsers are kind of a side effect of browser development for other platforms.

Out of the main browsers remaining, only Mozilla has felt genuinely committed to keeping their browser going on Unix. Apple and Microsoft are obviously indifferent, and Google's corporate goals for Chrome only require it to work on major platforms such as Windows and Android (Android is not Unix here, because Android doesn't use X11 or Wayland and has increasingly divergent APIs and capabilities). It's fairly easy to imagine a future where Firefox fading out leaves Unix people with essentially no modern browsers and a growing set of sites that we couldn't really use.

(I believe that the Chrome developers generally care about Chrome working on Unix, but they're at the mercy of what Google is willing to spend money on. If the spur of competition from Firefox goes away, Google might decide that Unix no longer qualifies. They might even decide that supporting Chromium on Unix is getting in the way of internal changes that make it better on Android and Windows.)

This might sound theoretical, but in a way Unix users have been here before. Back in the days before Netscape open-sourced its browser to create Mozilla, Netscape's browser was pretty much the only good option for Unix users, and Netscape had a solid period of relative stagnation in the late 90s and early 00s. I used Netscape back then and it was not really a great experience. I'm not looking forward to the possibility of a rerun of that.

(In the pre-Mozilla days, Unix users were also at the mercy of what Unixes Netscape bothered to provide browser binaries for. I'm pretty sure that there were some Unix workstation users who lost out due to that, which didn't help the fortunes of their Unix vendors in an era where the web was becoming more and more important.)

PS: It's possible that Canonical, Red Hat, and perhaps SuSE would get together to fund enough ongoing Firefox development to keep things viable on Linux (and hopefully other Unixes). Perhaps there are even people in these organizations considering this issue right now.

Written on 17 August 2020.
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Last modified: Mon Aug 17 22:34:05 2020
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