Mozilla and Opera: Signs of Open Source Problems

ZDNet is running a series of much too early obituary articles  for Firefox and Mozilla – and by implication, Opera. Ed Bott sees the money supply running out because  a search sharing deal with Google [80%+ of Mozilla’s revenues] has run out and the negotiations have not produced a new accord. Steven Vaughn-Nichols picks up that idea, adds 3 more reasons  and implies that  Firefox is  Toast :

1)Because the Google deal  represents 80%++ of Firefox revenues and it is likely to decline or be completely gone. Counterpoint: Mozilla has struck up a Bing  search deal with Microsoft worth unknown revenues.
2)Because Firefox is seeing a a small decline in Web browser usage while Google Chrome continues to grow rapidly. The Firefox change varies between 1% gain to 5% loss among the companies that measure browser usage during the period January to November 2011. Counterpoints: Note the wide variation among the measurements of browser usage  – for example the range in Chrome browser gains in usage is 4 to 10%. Also consider that Opera continues to thrive and innovate with only 2% web browser market share over the past 10 years.
3)Because Firefox according to Steven is only mediocre in features. Counterpoint: All reviews of browser features are subject to varying opinion. For example, ye Editor puts more emphasis on extensions, debug support, JavaScript performance and HTML5 adoption where Firefox either leads or is a close second to the leader. This is hardly the stuff of mediocre  features and performance.
4)Business has been offended by Firefox’s rapid update schedule. Counterpoint: The Firefox Enterperise Support team has come up with a very rational plan that schedules Firefox updates for Enterprise [and therefore changes the automatic updates for those users] to every 30 weeks and maintenace for 42 weeks more.
And the question is if Google cuts off Firefox, will Opera which survives on Google funding as well,  will the Oslo firm be on the chopping block too?

Ye Editor keeps all five major browsers on hand for usage and testing with Firefox and Chrome in that order getting the bulk of day to day usage. I will continue to do this because of the devastation that Microsoft and Internet Explorer wreaked upon Web development and usage. First, there was the era late 1990s thru to the early 2000s of major bugs and virus attacks in Microsoft IE browser, IIS server, and other Web software. Second,  after making overtures and promises to the Web community in 1998 to  make complete implementation of W3C Web standards a priority of IE, Redmond not only reneged on this promise but halted all feature enhancements to IE. Microsoft took until the release of IE9 this year to meet that decade old commitment . But Redmond  still   did not eliminate/deprecate not deprecating manyof IE’s proprietary extensions. The freezing of browser features in  IE f from 2000 until Firefox started to gain browser market share  in 2004-2005 were tough times for Web users and developers. So twice bitten, I am not ready to chuck the Open Source browsers. And given the rate of change in computing today, even less inclined to do so.

Rapid  Change in Basic Client-side Computing

The Web has changed client computing in  three phases during  past 20 years. First, there was  the pioneering phase where the Web became an extended global LAN-like client – still inferior to the desktop PC cllient in features, speed and sometimes security. However, the Web  provided cheap  global reach and communication available only to a few, privileged non-Web clients. This phase saw the rapid development of  presence, interacting, and selling on the Web by individuals and organizations. AOL followed by Yahoo, eBay and Amazon were major new Web delivery players. Open Source was a primary software delivery vehicle using HTML, PHP, MySQL, Apache, GIF and JPEG being key open technologies.

The second Web phase, known as Web 2, quickly followed in the early 2000s. Web 2 UIs  and the emergence of  JavaScript followed by AJAX with its targetted object or partial page refreshes enabled dynamic page refreshes with much faster response time then the traditional client-server model borrowed from LAN computing. The resulting performance instituted a second generation of Web applications despite no feature  improvements to the dominant browser of the era, IE6. These technologies brought first a GUI interface as good if not better than that available on the PC desktop. Then Flash [now strangely being abandoned by Adobe] brought vector+bitmap images, audio + animations and the video and sophisticated  interclient communication such that Web apps could now deliver unique Web  games, media, and connected interactions just not available on standalone PCs.

The third Web phase was a hardware and OS revolution. Mobile apps pioneered first by Palm and then by Apple and Android provide 3 things not done by PCs:
1)Multi-touch and gesture simple operations such that operating a computing device does not require menu-madness  r lessons in iconography;
2)light, mobile operation with battery life for at least  a half days operation;
3)availability of unique sensors that define location, orientation, operating conditions. In short, the Web, HTML5, social media   and now the Cloud are land rush territories such that I do not trust any of the major for-profit software vendors to do the right things when it comes to development – either treatment of Open Source or for-profit delivery of software and services.

As telling lesson, look what has happened with Apple. With Steve Jobs belief that he invented this new mobile space primarily at Apple, all the spoils belong to Apple. So Steve has created a closed ecosystem for development on  îOS , rigid control of what Apps are allowed while taking 30% on all sales, and priviledged access to media through the iTunes store. More ominous has been Apples unleashing of a patent war against Android with global lawsuits against HTC, Samsung and other Android suppliers. Nortels patents recently sold for 5 times projections and Google bought Motorola for patent protection as much as having a reference implementation of Android smartphones.

These patent wars are happening precisely because so much is at risk  in computing. Supremacy of client side computing is open for grabs as PCs fade while tablet and smartphones rise with new sensors, mobility, untethered battery-life plus mobile OS having huge app libraries with very cheap prices relative to PC software at their back. And search now has a strong social media+friend component as eyeballs transfer from  browser pages to Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, Tumblr, Stumble On, LinkedIn, etc. Finally, the Cloud is becoming the back-up and sync up  point of greater choice. But the Cloud development is highly proprietary with Major players like Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and others having widely variant services and APIs.

Even for do-no-evil Google, the stakes are so high  the past records  and behavior are forfeit to the new super-competitive environ. So I ask Steven Vaughan Nicholls and Ed Bott  what they will do when:
1)Chrome starts to reserve more browser real estate for ads right smack  in the Chrome browser interface. Is this  the predecessor to a Google App Service “feature” that removes the ads if you use the paid for Google App service?
2)IE is already balking on HTML5 standards and so what to do when Redmond does another IE6 and stays proprietary and outside significant portions of  HTML5  standards. Worse, all the major vendors are splitting on key HTML5 standards particularly multi-touch and gestures, Web workers, Web offline operations, and Web database areas.
3)Apple  no longer supports  an up-to-date desktop versions of  the Safari browser as it pushes toward migration to the iDevice framework[note Mac users still do not have touch screen operations and likely never will as Intel Macs are folded into ARM iDevices like Motorola and then Power PCs were succeeded by Intel Macs].
4)One or more commercial browser providers starts to charge for their “full featured browser” while keeping a less feature enabled browser free.
Ed and Steven, feel free to add to the comments below .

The Fundamental Problem: Open Source’s Great Innovations Produce Few, No Rewards

The broader question that Steven and Ed Bott might  raise -“Is Open Source dying as well”. Major Open Source providers are being bought by proprietary vendors like MySQL  and Java bought by Oracle, QT bought by Nokia,Novell Linux in the Attachmate  camp, and others deals. Look also at the trend where Open Source components are tied together in new systems which are either semi Open[usually the free simple software versus paid-for full featured as in JasperSoft ]or effectively proprietary as in the case of Amazon EC2 cloud software.

Lets look at the legacy of Mozilla and Opera. Mozilla Firefox and Opera saved the Web from IE coercion. TheWeb 2 phenomenon either would not have occurred or would have been long delayed without Google and others having been able to deliver AJax powered apps into favorable browser environs. Consider the record of  Mozilla Firefox and Opera over the past decade.
Mozilla came up with many innnovations that have been copied by the open and proprietary vendorsn alike:
1)XUL GUI interface markup echoed in Adobe MXML and Microsoft’s XAML;
2)Gecko GUI layout engine inspired Webkit from Apple and Google and influenced Microsoft Trident;
3)JavaScript engines SpiderMonkey in C and Rhino in Java were used or imitated by other major software vendors;
4)Debugging services and features like Venkman debugger, DOM Inspector, Bugzilla error reporting, and liaison with FireBug GUI debugger set standards other  browser vendors had to borrow or match;
5)Extensions and add-ons in Firefox have been emulated by all the major browser vendors.

Likewise Opera has had many pioneering browser developments:
1)Pioneered cross OS platform delivery including for mobile devices like PDA and mobile phones;
2)Touch and gesture usage with mouse for interface operations;
3) Tabbed browsing and MDI pioneered among major browser vendors;
4) Zoom by  proportional full scaling from 20 to 1000%;
5)  Integrated search engine field  and popup blocking pioneeered by Opera.
These are just to year 2000 in terms of pioneering Opera developments. See here for the complete list of  Opera innovations.

Now neither Mozilla nor Opera patented these innovations  because this would be contrary to their open delivery systems. Now this is unlike other major software vendors like Apple [ which has taken out thousands of patents like GUI touch and gesture patents despite prior art], IBM [ has one of the largest software patent troves and has lobbied worldwide for software patents] while flip flopping has been the patent state of the art at Microsoft [flip and flop or like bankers “if we are winning  software patents are good, otherwise they are bad”] and Oracle [flip and flop] making Mitt Romney look  like a “steady as she goes” politician.

So the broader question is how do open source vendors a)provide for a steady stream of revenues  and b)defend themselves against the patent troves of proprietary vendors that can be quite hostile against open source vendors without Open Sourcers using patents themselves? This is the real issue percolating through the threats to the survival of  Firefox and Opera. This broader question of patents and support would be much more worthy  of the attention of  Ed Bott and Steven Vaughan-Nicholls rather than the premature speculation on the demise of  Firefox or Opera.  Do we support Open Source only when the monopoly noose is nearly around our necks and much less so in comparative good times – Apple, Google, Microsoft,  Nokia and RIM all contending for client OS leadership through their various desktop, smartphone and tablet offerings? Or when there appears to be a much broader and competitive choice of  OS development frameworks? Open Source is also at a crossroads – whether  and how it survives is at stake.