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The cult of the free must die

Wed, 08/12/2020 - 4:13am

For a terrible half an hour last night I though Firefox was on the brink of disappearing as an independent browser and rendering engine. I was frightened silly by the rumour that Mozilla laid off significant portions of its browser team. The official press release being full of useless corporate open web blah didn’t help — the vaguer the press release, the worse the situation, in my experience.

Fortunately, the news is not quite that bad. Still, it set me thinking.

To my mind, Mozilla’s core problem is the cult of the free. To my mind, we should eradicate the cult of the free from web development, and Mozilla should take a small step in that direction by requesting donations from inside Firefox — on an entirely voluntary basis.

First, though, let’s review the news. From what I’ve been able to cobble together from Twitter, the layoffs have severely affected devtools, the Servo team, MDN, and likely also the events/sponsorships team. The core Gecko team is unaffected, and that’s good. Firefox will continue to exist as an independent browser — for now.

From a money-saving perspective the gutting of the events team is understandable. Frankly, I’ve been wondering for years where Mozilla got the money to run all their events and sponsorships. Now we know the answer, I guess. It will have a minor effect on me as a conference organiser, but it can be survived.

The other three are more serious: although the core Gecko team survives, many supporting teams have been gutted. If this is the last round of layoffs ... ok, we can survive this. But if it isn’t ...

The cult of the free

The gutting of MDN strikes closest to home. Part of the reason I stopped doing browser research is the advent of MDN: it took over my role of documenting web standards (and sometimes browser differences) quite efficiently, so this site was less vitally necessary.

The bigger reason I stopped doing research, however, was that I was tired of doing all of this vital web-supporting work for free. That’s also the main reason I never contributed to MDN; I don’t mind doing it, but I do very much mind doing it for free. I’ve done my duty.

And who is going to give web standard and browser compatibility information now that MDN might go away? For a few minutes I considered returning to my old job, but I refuse to do it for free, and there is no financial support in sight.

Truth, I made some money with my work. In the end Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla granted me sponsorships for a few years. It wasn’t enough, though. And of course Apple never paid up, even though from the release of Safari/Mac to the release of the iPhone they referred to my site for JavaScript compatibility information. For a while I was the Safari documentation team — for free.

This brings us to the core point I’d like to make: the culture of volunteering in web development, and especially within the Mozilla segments of our community. To my mind it’s not only outdated and should be replaced, it should never have been allowed to take root in the first place.

I see the cult of the free as the web’s original sin. To my mind it’s an essentially random historical development that could have gone quite differently, but, once the idea of everything on the web being free took root, became a cultural touch point that is almost impossible to dislodge.

Granted, the cult of the free also has its positive points. But today I’m focusing on the negative ones that, to my mind, outweigh the positivity by a rather large margin. If we continue to give everything away for free, the big companies will win.

Small company gives away software for free. Large companies give away the same software for free, and to them the cost is essentially peanuts, and they own the platforms the sofware runs on. Therefore small company will lose, decreasing diversity in the browser market. Simple as that.

Asking for donations

Isn’t it time to change this? Isn’t it time Mozilla distances itself from the cult of the free? I know it’s deep in their DNA, but that hasn’t prevented it from hitting a very rough spot. Maybe the model is not as viable as we all thought.

So allow me to make a modest proposal: build in a donations function in Firefox itself — for instance by adding a simple “Please support us” message to the update page you get to see whenever you update the browser, and by adding a Donations item to the main menu.

Oh, and don’t bother with perks for paying members. It’s not about perks, it’s about supporting the software you’re using. The software is the perk.

I’m not saying Mozilla should erect a paywall around Firefox. That would far worse than the problem it’s supposed to solve. (The fact that it would be such a terribly bad move is part of the problem, though. If people had just learned to pay for the good stuff ...)

I’m also not saying this will solve Mozilla’s financial problems — in fact, I’m quite certain that it won’t. Still, it would be one step in the direction of a better web where consumers slowly get used to the idea of paying. Also, it might help Mozilla itself veer away from the cult of the free towards a more sustainable model, mostly by putting psychological pressure on the organisation as a whole.

We need a break with the past. Trying times like these might be the best opportunity to make that break.

The cult of the free must die so that Firefox may live.

Linkbait 45

Tue, 06/23/2020 - 3:18am

Cleaning up my tabs.

  • So a performance.now() sponsor asked if there was any performance-centric publication. I did not know, asked around, and found that just about the only one is the perf email newsletter. So just so you know; it’s supposed to be worth the subscription.
    (BTW: we postponed performance.now() to 2021. This year it’s just not possible to run physical events.)
  • Speaking of events, Benedict Evans wrote an excellent article on the future of events. His experience is more with the huge trade shows than with our focused events, but he makes a few cogent points. Online events are quite different from physical ones (I already figured that out), but nobody yet knows how to do them properly. Instead of doing something truly online, most events just copy physical events while pointing a camera at the speaker and providing. That’s not the way forward. See also the early web that copied print. We slowly learned that it’s something quite different.
    Regardless, Krijn and I are not going to try online events. Instead we’ll wait until we can hold physical ones again; that’s where our strength lies.
    One more excellent point from the article: expensive, or even not-cheap, tickets, as well as organising and paying for your flight and hotel, serves as a selection filter, so that you end up with people who really value physical events.
    There is a lot of pent-up demand for phyiscal events, and that won’t go away, so physical events will return. Still, new forms of online events might also come out of this crisis.
  • A while ago I considered writing an article about the Apple/Google initiative for somewhat-privacy-protecting Covid-tracking, and I gathered some sources. I never wrote the article, but here are the sources anyway:
    • The press release
    • Google’s simple overview
    • Specifications
    • Initial Cnet overview article
    • A rather critical look at the privacy implications. I had the idea the author was too negative, or made some assumption somewhere that was not entirely warranted, but I never actually figured out what sort of problem I felt this article had.
    • A more moderate Wired article that acknowledges possible privacy problems, and gives practical examples, one creepy neighbour and one creepy ad firm, and runs through some other problems as well. As I see it, these problems are inherent to any form of smartphone-based mass surveillance scheme.
    (To be honest, to me contact tracing apps are a sneaky way to avoid the much more expensive contact tracing by actual humans, which I suspect works much better. Also, politicians desperately want to be seen to be tech-literate, so we need an app. Absolutely, positively need an app. I mean, it’s technology, you know ...)
  • A nice line of CSS Grid for you to study. I found out about auto-fill here.
  • Lea takes a look at hybrid positioning (ie. switching from a fixed-like to an absolute-like positioning) in CSS, and as usual I learned a lot here as well. I had this effect on my site since 2004 or so, and I switch from fixed to absolute with JavaScript, because that was the only possibility back then. Meanwhile it turns out you can do this mostly in CSS as well. Also teaches you how to change CSS custom properties in JavaScript.
    I’ve been thinking about it, and I don’t see a way of doing this in pure CSS, because at some point you have to switch from fixed to absolute, and that cannot be done in CSS alone.
  • Speaking of CSS custom properties, Lea’s article and this one taught me that they in fact contain strings that do not have to be valid CSS. It’s only interpreted when it’s actually used in a CSS expression. See also this conversation with Lea and Tab, as well as this article by Jeremy that actually pushed me in to this particular rabbit hole. Thing learned!
  • The Chrome team is preparing to do something about ultra-heavy ads; overview, technical details. Curious what comes of this. Something must be done on the browser side of things to clamp down on online junk; this may be a step in the right direction. Supposed to land somewhere in August.
  • I am probably going to write more about monetization of resources such as this one, or front-end tools, and had a good Twitter conversation (yes! they still exist!) with Scott Wilson in particular. I gathered a few articles, but an incident with my computer made me lose most of them. Here are the two surviving ones:
    • An excellent overview of OSS business models (which I think we should take as a template for web dev monetization)
    • A more critical look at several options. Money quote (pun not intended):

      We should remember that a big part of innovation comes from developers working at organizations adopting open source software [...]. It’s these organizations that should be tasked to sustain open source software [...], especially since they depend on open source software to survive as a business.

  • Very nice online presentation of excerpts from the diaries of captain DaCosta, a 16th century black Portuguese sea captain who ended up in Japan. Contains interesting details. The only thing I’m missing is bibliographical information about the full diary. If it’s translated into a language I can read I might actually pick it up.
  • Have a tip for the next Linkbait? Or a comment on this one? Let me know (or here or here).
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