Imagine if the web never got CSS. Never got a way to style content in sophisticated ways. It’s hard to imagine its rise to prominence in the early 2000s. I’d not be alone in arguing a similar lack of access to the sort of features inherent to the mobile experience that WebKit and the folks at Mozilla have expressed concern about would (not might) largely consign the Web to an increasingly marginal role.
Jay quotes from a 1992 email by Tim Berners-Lee when there was real concern about having too many different browsers. But as history played out, the concern shifted to having too few different browsers.
I wrote about this—back when Edge switched to using Chromium—in a post called Unity where I compared it to political parties:
If you have hundreds of different political parties, that’s not ideal. But if you only have one political party, that’s very bad indeed!
In the discussion we dive deeper into the naunces of browser engine diversity; how it’s not the numbers that matter, but representation. The danger with one dominant rendering engine is that it would reflect one dominant set of priorities.
I think we’re starting to see this kind of battle between different sets of priorities playing out in the browser rendering engine landscape.
I think it’s safe to say that every implementor wants to ship powerful APIs and ensure security and privacy. The issue is with which gets priority. Using the language of principles and priorities, you could crudely encapsulate Apple and Mozilla’s position as:
Privacy, even over capability.
That design principle would pass the reversibility test. In fact, Google’s position might be represented as:
Capability, even over privacy.
I’m not saying Apple and Mozilla don’t value powerful APIs. I’m not saying Google doesn’t value privacy. I’m saying that Google’s priorities are different to Apple’s and Mozilla’s.
I use Firefox. You should too. It’s fast, secure, and more privacy-focused than the leading browser from the big G.
Yesterday, I got the Calibre newsletter, which always has handy performance-related links from Karolina. She pointed to a Lighthouse extension for Firefox. “Excellent!”, I thought, and I immediately installed it. But I had some qualms about installing a plug-in from Google into a browser from Mozilla, particularly as the plug-in page says:
This is not a Recommended Extension. Make sure you trust it before installing
Well, I gave it a go. It turns out that all it actually does is redirect to the online version of Lighthouse. “Hang on”, I thought. “This could just be a bookmarklet!”
So I immediately uninstalled the browser extension and made this bookmarklet:
Last month I wrote some musings on default browser behaviours. When it comes to all the tasks that browsers do for us, the most fundamental is taking a URL, fetching its contents and giving us the results. As part of that process, browsers also show us the URL of the page currently loaded in a tab or window.
But even at this fundamental level, there are some differences from browser to browser.
Safari only shows you the domain name—and any subdomain names—by default. It looks like nice and tidy, but it obfuscates what page you’re on (until you click on the domain name). This is bad.
Chrome shows you the full URL, nice and straightforward. This is neutral.
Firefox, like Chrome, shows you the full URL, but with a subtle difference. The important part of the URL—usually the domain name—is subtly highlighted in a darker shade of grey. This is good.
The reason I say that what it highlights is usually the domain name is because what it actually highlights is eTLD+1.
The what now?
Well, if you’re looking at a page on adactio.com, that’s the important bit. But what if you’re looking at a page on adactio.github.io? The domain name is important, but so is the subdomain.
It turns out there’s a list out there of which sites and top level domains allow registrations like this. This is the list that Firefox is using for its shading behaviour in displaying URLs.
Safari, by the way, does not use this list. These URLs are displayed identically in Safari, the phisherman’s friend:
Jake acknowledges that what Apple is doing is shi… , what Firefox is doing is good, and then puts forward an idea for what Chrome could do. (But please note that this is Jake’s personal opinion; not an official proposal from the Chrome team.)
There’s some prior art here. It used to be that, if your SSL certificate included extended validation, the name would be shown in green next to the padlock symbol. So while my website—which uses regular SSL from Let’s Encrypt—would just have a padlock, Medium—which uses EV SSL—would have a padlock and the text “A Medium Corporation”.
Extended validation wasn’t quite the bulletproof verification it was cracked up to be. So browsers don’t use that interface pattern any more.
Jake suggests repurposing this pattern for all URLs. Pull out the important bit—eTLD+1—and show it next to the padlock.
I like this. The full URL is still displayed. This proposal is more of an incremental change. An enhancement that is applied progressively, if you will.
I also like that it builds on existing interface patterns—Firefox’s URL treatment and the deprecated treatment of EV certs. In fact, I think the first step for Chrome should be to match Firefox’s current behaviour, and then go further with something like Jake’s proposal.
But I was chatting to Amber the other day, and I mentioned how I can see the theoretical justification for Microsoft’s decision …even if I don’t quite buy it myself.
Picture, if you will, something I’ll call the bar of unity. It’s a measurement of how much collaboration is happening between browser makers.
There wasn’t enough collaboration. Our collective anger at this situation led directly to the creation of The Web Standards Project.
Eventually, those companies did start collaborating on standards at the W3C. The bar of unity was raised.
This has been the situation for most of the web’s history. Different browser makers agreed on standards, but went their own separate ways on implementation. That’s where they drew the line.
Now that line is being redrawn. The bar of unity is being raised. Now, a number of separate browser makers—Google, Samsung, Microsoft—not only collaborate on standards but also on implementation, sharing a codebase.
The bar of unity isn’t right at the top. Browsers can still differentiate in their user interfaces. Edge, for example, can—and does—offer very sensible defaults for blocking trackers. That’s much harder for Chrome to do, given that Google are amongst the worst offenders.
So these browsers are still competing, but the competition is no longer happening at the level of the rendering engine.
I can see how this looks like a positive development. In fact, from this point of view, Mozilla are getting in the way of progress by having a separate codebase (yes, this is a genuinely-held opinion by some people).
On the face of it, more unity sounds good. It sounds like more collaboration. More cooperation.
But then I think of situations where complete unity isn’t necessarily a good thing. Take political systems, for example. If you have hundreds of different political parties, that’s not ideal. But if you only have one political party, that’s very bad indeed!
There’s a sweet spot somewhere in between where there’s a base of level of agreement and cooperation, but there’s also plenty of room for disagreement and opposition. Right now, the browser landscape is just about still in that sweet spot. It’s like a two-party system where one party has a crushing majority. Checks and balances exist, but they’re in peril.
Firefox is one of the last remaining representatives offering an alternative. The least we can do is support it.
I really like this latest addition in Firefox to show how many tracking scripts are being blocked. I think it’s always good to make the invisible visible (one of the reasons why I like RequestMap so much).
Oh, and Firefox is shipping support for some CSS properties that really help with print style sheets, so I’m disproportionately pleased about that.
In Safari’s changes, I’m pleased to see that the datalist element is finally getting implemented. I’ve been a fan of that element for many years now. (Am I a dork for having favourite HTML elements? Or am I a dork for even having to ask that question?)
And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Safari release without a new made up meta tag. From the people who brought you such hits as viewport and apple-mobile-web-app-capable, comes …supported-color-schemes (Apple likes to make up meta tags almost as much as Google likes to make up rel values).
There’ll be a whole bunch of improvements in how progressive web apps will behave once they’ve been added to the home screen. We’ll finally get some state persistence if you navigate away from the window!
Updated the behavior of websites saved to the home screen on iOS to pause in the background instead of relaunching each time.
Chrome 72 for Android shipped the long-awaited Trusted Web Activity feature, which means we can now distribute PWAs in the Google Play Store!
Very interesting indeed! I’m not sure if I’m ready to face the Kafkaesque process of trying to add something to the Google Play Store just yet, but it’s great to know that I can. Combined with the improvements coming in iOS 12.2, these are exciting times for progressive web apps!
Microsoft’s Edge browser is going to switch its rendering engine over to Chromium.
I am deflated and disappointed.
There’s just no sugar-coating this. I’m sure the decision makes sound business sense for Microsoft, but it’s not good for the health of the web.
Very soon, the vast majority of browsers will have an engine that’s either Blink or its cousin, WebKit. That may seem like good news for developers when it comes to testing, but trust me, it’s a sucky situation of innovation and agreement. Instead of a diverse browser ecosystem, we’re going to end up with incest and inbreeding.
There’s one shining exception though. Firefox. That browser was originally created to combat the seemingly unstoppable monopolistic power of Internet Explorer. Now that Microsoft are no longer in the rendering engine game, Firefox is once again the only thing standing in the way of a complete monopoly.
I’ve been using Firefox as my main browser for a while now, and I can heartily recommend it. You should try it (and maybe talk to your relatives about it at Christmas). At this point, which browser you use no longer feels like it’s just about personal choice—it feels part of something bigger; it’s about the shape of the web we want.
I’ll say it bluntly: we must support Firefox. We can’t, as a community allow this browser engine monopoly. We must use Firefox as our main dev browsers; we must encourage our friends and families to use it, too.
Yes, it’s not perfect, nor are Mozilla, but we can help them to develop and grow by using Firefox and reporting issues that we find. If we just use and build for Chromium, which is looking likely (cough Internet Explorer monopoly cough), then Firefox will fall away and we will then have just one major engine left. I don’t ever want to see that.
If the idea of a Google-driven Web is of concern to you, then I’d encourage you to use Firefox. And don’t be a passive consumer; blog, tweet, and speak about its killer features. I’ll start: Firefox’s CSS Grid, Flexbox, and Variable Font tools are the best in the business.
Losing engines is like losing languages. People may wish that everyone spoke the same language, they may claim it leads to easier understanding, but what people fail to consider is that this leads to losing all the culture and way of thought that that language produced. If you are a Web developer smiling and happy that Microsoft might be adopting Chrome, and this will make your work easier because it will be one less browser to test, don’t be! You’re trading convenience for diversity.
I like that analogy with language death. If you prefer biological analogies, it’s worth revisiting this fantastic post by Rachel back in August—before any of us knew about Microsoft’s decision—all about the ecological impact of browser diversity:
Let me be clear: an Internet that runs only on Chrome’s engine, Blink, and its offspring, is not the paradise we like to imagine it to be.
That post is a great history lesson, documenting how things can change, and how decisions can have far-reaching unintended consequences.
So these are the three browser engines we have: WebKit/Blink, Gecko, and EdgeHTML. We are unlikely to get any brand new bloodlines in the foreseeable future. This is it.
If we lose one of those browser engines, we lose its lineage, every permutation of that engine that would follow, and the unique takes on the Web it could allow for.