Successive Approximations

The World We Were Promised, Part 1

The World We Were Promised, Part 1

Mozilla Corporation, the commercial arm of the non-profit Mozilla Foundation, announced this week that they are laying off 250 people, which is a quarter of the company. The official press release on the Mozilla blog is very upbeat, including bits about "acting more quickly and nimbly" and that they will "experiment more."

Piecing together reports from Twitter and elsewhere, however, it looks like the entire team of the Servo browser, an R&D project has been cut. (I guess that's not the kind of experiments they meant?) Perhaps more immediately impactful, two other teams appear to be cut in whole.

One was the team for developing the Firefox developer tools, which allow someone building or debugging a web app (which is most software these days) to do that in Firefox instead of Chrome. In a world where it is increasingly difficult to escape Google's software ecosystem, being able to switch to Firefox as a browser full time has been a positive step toward a more open internet.

The second team of immediate concern is the Mozilla Developer Network team, who maintain the de-facto official documentation of the Javascript language. MDN is the digital desk reference for anyone using JS day to day. There have been fragmentary statements about plans to move to some kind of community maintenance model for these docs. I hope that works.

This layoff announcement has sent a bit of a shockwave through the developer community. Mozilla has long been seen as the odd duck in a crowded tech space. A big-name player who has been around for a long time who isn't interesting in locking you into their ecosystem and slurping out as much of your data as you'll give them.

One revelation that's come out in the many posts reacting to this announcement is the fact that almost all of Mozilla Corporation's funding comes from search providers paying to be the default search engine in a given region.

As of today, as someone who conscientiously believes the internet needs to stay free, there is no way for me to pay a small monthly contribution in thanks for the value I get out of my use of Firefox as a first-class browser on the internet.

I regularly contribute to YouTube channels and podcasts that I value via Patreon. I gladly pay for JetBrains' quality development tools that I use every day at work. I even have a monthly recurring payment to the guy who runs a website creating to the best, most customizable background noise on the internet, because it really does help me focus and get more done. Yet I don't have the same option for the browser I use as my portal to the internet.

As time goes on, options get narrower. Four US cellular carriers collapses into three. Four browser rendering engines (Edge, Firefox, Safari, Chrome) becomes three when Edge switches to Chrome. The promise of the internet was equal access, an open platform. But the incentives seem to keep driving toward more consolidation.

Technologically, this is my "We were promised flying cars" moment. Growing up, it seemed like every day brought new options, new websites, new ways of making computers do new and interesting things. It seemed like it would go on forever. There would always be some new reddit or Facebook or Uber being built and just waiting to come to prominence. But it doesn't seem like that's how it's shaking out.

Ben Berry

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