Firefox, DRM, and reality

May 25, 2014

Today I ran across someone retweeting yet another petition asking Firefox to reject DRM or more specifically to reject EME. As this person doesn't usually seem to be given to supporting quixotic and crazy causes, the whole thing has pushed me over the edge about this issue. Apparently soft honesty is not working on people, so I'm going to try being blunt about the situation.

What I think most people who support this petition don't understand is that by asking Firefox to reject DRM and EME, they are asking Firefox to slit its own throat. At this point the all but certain result of Firefox rejecting EME is Firefox's browser share declining drastically, probably to the small single digits. One consequence of this would be Firefox losing its ability to influence the further evolution of the web (for exactly the same reason that almost no one cares what eg the Konqueror people think about such stuff).

Let's start with a basic fact: to most people, browsers are fungible commodities. Most people don't really care all that much about which specific browser they use provided that it can browse the web well. On the one hand this has been great for enabling alternate browsers like, well, Firefox; if you do the same job but better people can easily switch and will do so (Chrome is an excellent example of this). On the other hand this means that most people will promptly switch to another browser if their current browser stops meeting their needs, especially when good alternatives are widely available.

There are four important browsers today: Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Internet Explorer. Three out of the four of these have embraced EME more or less wholeheartedly and so serious EME-enabled alternatives to Firefox are available on every single major platform it runs on, including Linux (in the form of Chrome). On all platforms except Linux, an EME-enabled alternative is the platform's default browser, making it especially accessible.

A non-EME-enabled browser does not meet many people's needs. Many people care about watching video and listening to music, sometimes rather a lot (enough, sometimes, to pay for it). If their browser stops doing this very few people will decide to stick to it for other reasons such as intellectual purity; most people will shrug and more or less immediately chuck it out in favor of some other browser that actually works.

The inevitable result of Firefox not supporting EME is that it will no longer be a browser that fully meets many people's needs. Almost all of these people will drop Firefox and switch to alternatives, which almost all of them already have conveniently at hand. Firefox's browser share will decrease down to people who don't care about EME'd content, people who don't have an alternative, and people who are willing to endure pain for the sake of either principles or Firefox's other attractions. I do not think that there are very many of these people.

(As a sign of how much people care about these sort of principles in the face of even weak attraction to an arguably better browser, look at how many people moved from Firefox (genuine open source et al) to Chrome (controlled and driven by a large advertising company that is not your friend).)

The EME DRM battle was lost no later than when the other three browsers embraced EME. To demand that Firefox continue fighting it is to demand that Firefox conduct a suicide mission.

You are of course free to ask that Firefox immolate itself in the name of intellectual purity, although I don't think that this is wise or that you're going to be successful (thankfully). But please understand and be honest about what you're actually asking for.

Written on 25 May 2014.
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Last modified: Sun May 25 22:23:15 2014
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