On Web Browsers 2020-12-12

In the current day and age, there are only two main browsers that you will find on the desktop: Chromium and Firefox. We’ll ignore Safari because nobody cares about Apple. According to StatCounter as of November 2020, Chrome has nearly 70% of the web browser market share on desktop. Add in Edge’s 8% and Opera’s 2% and you can say that about 80% of desktop web browsers are Chromium-based.

On that note, it seems like few people these days are aware that Chrome is a proprietary fork of the open-source Chromium browser. I mean, if you seriously have to use Chrome, at least switch to Chromium, or better, one of it’s decent free and open-source forks: ‘ungoogled-chromium’, Brave, Bromite, Iridium, etc. Nevertheless, that’s a whole other topic.

What I actually wanted to discuss here is the lack of choice in web browsers we have right now. If you’re not using a Chromium-based browser, you’re most likely going to be using Mozilla’s Firefox. (Yes, I know there are small free and open-source alternatives, like suckless’s ‘surf’ browser, ‘qutebrowser’, etc., but these are mostly used by and intended for power users/nerds running Unix-like operating systems, rather than average users).

The thing is, Firefox is slowly turning to shit. I’ve been using it for a few years now and was initially reasonably happy with it. I mean, it took some configuring to get it to behave how I wanted (no history, delete cookies, and some other “hardening”). Nevertheless, I’ve noticed that as the years go by, Firefox just seems to get worse and worse. I really don’t know what the hell is going on over there at Mozilla, but adding useless features that nobody uses, like Pocket, and forcing a stupid expanding URL bar that nobody asked for is just a few of the many things that are slowly turning our browser into rubbish. You’ll find many people complaining online about how a feature they liked was removed, or how they can’t stand a new feature. These people will either get told to “deal with it”, or perform some ridiculous workaround that wouldn’t be necessary if Mozilla had focused their effort on actually making the browser better.

And the funniest part is simply that Firefox is a free and open-source browser. One of the few criterion for a piece of software to be free and open-source is the ability for anyone to come along and modify its source code. There’s almost a joke online regarding FOSS projects—when someone says they don’t like a particular feature in a piece of open-source software, they’ll get told, “fork it”.

Now here is the problem, and it’s a big one; 99% of the people who look at the source code of a large web browser will be unable to modify it, to fix the problems in the browser. There’s only so many people who are willing to put the work and dedication into understanding any of a huge web browser’s source code. You’re not going to have many hobbyists coming along and fixing the problems with Firefox just out of goodwill in their free time.

I should add; I am aware of Alex Kontos (a.k.a. MrAlex94) and his browser Waterfox, and I actually used Waterfox for most of this year. Sure, he’s done some excellent work removing Pocket (thank god), telemetry, and bringing back the old plugin system, but apart from that, I feel like the browser is still too similar to Firefox. I wish that the browser would go off more on it’s own path and do it’s own thing. But of course, I can’t blame the dude, for reasons that I’m going to get to. I’d imagine that him being mostly a one-man-army would make it incredibly difficult to do something like that too.

And so, the only two big browsers that are still alive today on the desktop, Chromium and Firefox, simply managed to survive today because they have companies backing them paying people to work on them. These browsers are continually getting bigger, bigger, and bigger, and it has just about gotten to the point where writing a new web browser from scratch which can compete with Chromium and Firefox would demand an insane amount of resources.

So you might be asking yourself. Well, what do we do? Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to that. But I can tell you why we’re in this ridiculous situation:

The web itself has become an absolute mess.

Think about it. The reason why our browsers are so gigantic, is because of the current state of the web. We need a massive CSS engine to let developers make sites look pretty. We need an equally massive JavaScript engine to implement the entire JavaScript standard. We need to support all these WebSockets, other APIs, and so on. In the end, after 10-20 years of all of this crap being thrown into web browsers, you get the big, bloated, web browsers we have today that hog 8+ processes, and a few gigs of RAM.

The problem is that we’ve made too much possible for web developers. There’s a bit of a continuum actually, either:

So again; you’re probably asking, “What do we do? We already let the web get as complicated as it is,” and you’d be right. I really can’t answer the question of what we are supposed to do to fix this. However I’ll mention that there has actually been some effort to address these issues. One such project I came across recently is Project Gemini which honestly while minimal, isn’t that bad. It’s supposed to be heavier than Gopher, less complicated than the web, and not a replacement for either of them. So like I said earlier, having a simple standard inevitably makes it easier to create browsers, which is shown in how there are currently eight Gemini clients listed on this page—impressive considering how small Gemini currently is.

I’m not saying that Gemini is the solution to our problem, because it is very minimal, being mostly text-based, and I personally think it’s impractical for normal users who are coming from the current web. They would feel like they’re getting a downgrade, not being able to view videos or listen to music in their browser, not being able to share images practically with their friends, etc. I personally don’t think that pure text alone is the way to go. Some styling is nice to have to at least make your site look somewhat pleasing to the eye.

I mean, I’m sure there’s some UNIX extremist reading this thinking, “Do one thing and do it well!” and suggesting that we all for example, download videos through our minimal Gemini browsers to view them in some external purpose-built video player software, or that we all only chat with people using software designed for it, like IRC clients or whatever. Again, this is seriously impractical for normal people who aren’t already into all that sort of stuff (i.e. basically people who use Windows or Mac).

Nevertheless. A bit of a rant, but I guess something to think about as our web continues to become more and more bloated as it inevitably will in the years to come.