It's your browser: Choose Wisely!
Which web browser are you using right now? It’s okay if you’re not sure. Actually, that would be a good sign. If you said, “I’m using Chrome 68 because that’s the only way I can pay my bills,” then that wouldn’t make the web (or your banking website) seem like such a friendly place. If your answer was more like, “I’m using whatever my niece installed because it works fine,” then as a web developer, I’m glad you don’t have to worry about it.
That said, it’s important to know that you have a choice, and it’s important for all of us to make it intentionally.
Why it matters
Let’s start by considering other platforms which don’t offer choice. What’s a “platform”? Think of it as any place where you use apps. Familiar examples might be Windows, iOS, and Android. Those systems are strongly tied to the companies that maintain them. As a result, folks using them don’t fully control what they can say, what they can build, or who knows their secrets.
Compare this with the web platform, where your interaction with apps (i.e. websites) is mediated by one of a number of browsers. No single company gets to decide how you participate. This is one reason people call it the “open” web platform. If you don’t like how your browser is working, you can switch to another. To some extent, your ability to choose helps keep those browser makers honest.
Of course, consumers can “vote with their feet” in any healthy market, but there’s often a cost to switching that makes it easier to stay put. Imagine that your bank starts sending you a ton of junk mail. You might be tempted to take your money elsewhere until you remember how much time you spent setting up automatic check-writing for all your bills. Since you’d rather sort through the extra junk mail than configure a new bank’s bill-paying service, you stick with what you have.
So what about web browser lock in? How can I say that browser choice is a good thing without apologizing for some analogous junk mail problem? Well, the web has a special property that guards against lock in: the standards process. Industry-recognized organizations like the W3C and the WhatWG have members from all sorts of companies (including the browser makers) and all sorts of backgrounds. Together, they determine what everyone needs from the web and design the platform in a way that supports them all. Miraculously, each browser makes this design real by implementing it.
This cooperation is what makes switching browsers viable. If the finance industry had anything like this, then you would be able to tell that annoying bank, “please forward my entire bill paying set up to my new bank.” Too bad there’s nothing nearly so organized in that industry. I guess you’re stuck with the junk mail.
Why it’s threatened
In 2013, the Opera browser was rebuilt to use the same technology as Apple Safari and Google Chrome. You may not have been using Opera (most people weren’t), but web developers are sensitive to their platform becoming more like those others. Across the industry, folks worried about a “browser monoculture.” This was a popular shorthand for the risks we’d face in a single-browser world.
Only a couple months after Opera’s departure, we celebrated when Google began to manage Chrome as an independent browser. Technically speaking, a codebase which is derived from another isn’t as strong as a completely distinct piece of code. It’s kind of like having an apple orchard with two kinds of apples: slightly more resilient than having just one apple, but what you really want is to get some tomatoes in there. From the perspective of the standards process, though, distinct governance is more important than distinct code. This announcement expanded the leadership (and thus the collaboration) by elevating Google to the same role as Apple and the other browser makers.
Things are starting to look dicey again, though. Microsoft’s Edge browser has been rebuilt to use the same technology as Google Chrome.
We’ll soon have just three distinct browsers to choose from: Chrome, Firefox, and Safari. Web developers are once again nervously wondering how long before another one bites the dust.
What we can do about it
The most important thing we can all do happens to be the same thing that’s in our own self-interest. Choose a browser based on your needs. Don’t settle for “whatever my niece installed.” Try out the alternatives and get a feel for what’s different. The software is changing constantly, so do that once or twice a year.
Keep an eye out for news of contentious decisions. Generally, any time a tech critic titles an article with a browser name and version number, they have something juicy to share, e.g. “Firefox 73 adds [outrageous new feature here]“. You might be surprised by the kind of features these projects are experimenting with. Here are a few examples from recent memory:
- Firefox is figuring out how to learn from crashes without invading your privacy
- Chrome is trying to simplify the URL bar
If this post has somehow inspired you beyond that, you could take a more active role. For instance, you might choose a browser specifically to combat trends. Or you might write blog posts of your own, advocating for your personal favorite. If your employer mandates a certain browser for work, you could push on them a bit. It’s really expensive to build a browser, so folks that do it pay close attention to the size of their user base.
By being a more thoughtful advocate for yourself, you’ll be encouraging competition and helping the web stay “open.”