On the Mozilla Layoffs and the Future of the Web in General15 Aug 2020
Mozilla, the confusing combo of foundation and company behind the web browser Firefox recently laid off a substantial number of workers, citing economic reasons. As far as I know, the full extent of the damage to the organisation is still unknown, but the layoffs seem to have wiped out virtually every team working on the actual future of Firefox, including as the next-generation web engine Servo, as well as the incident response team, the much-beloved documentation team, and several core Rust developers. It seems clear that these layoffs come on the heels of some rather serious mismanagement, bordering on sabotage.
What Mozilla is doing is getting rid of absolutely everyone they need to ensure that Firefox has a future as an independent browser. This is bad news for the Web. If we lose Firefox, there will be exactly two browsers left: Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari. Which means that the future of the most important medium of communication will be in the hands of two very big corporations, one of which is a rent-seeking monopolist, and the other which is the same, and laid the foundations to surveillance capitalism. Hardly the types of companies you’d want responsible for a lemonade stand, let alone the Web.
Mozilla’s predicament is an indication of a larger problem. The Web started its life as a document format and has since been extended. A lot. These days it’s an all-singing, all-dancing application platform. The way we got there was by shoe-horning absolutely every functionality you could think of into what was the equivalent of Word documents. There are literally thousands of standards documents totalling hundreds of millions of words describing how a Web browser works. Drew De Vault did a quick study:
If you added the combined word counts of the C11, C++17, UEFI, USB 3.2, and POSIX specifications, all 8,754 published RFCs, and the combined word counts of everything on Wikipedia’s list of longest novels, you would be 12 million words short of the W3C specifications
Web browsers are probably the most complicated pieces of software we have. They are more complicated than the rest of our operating systems, and probably more complicated than computers themselves. Let me turn the subtext into text here: this is not sustainable.
This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that Web browsers are impossible to monetise, as they don’t really do anything on their own. Nobody wants the browser, they want the web pages the browsers display. The browser itself is infrastructure. Which is one of the reasons why Mozilla is in financial trouble; in contrast to Apple and Google, they only make a browser. Which, as I mentioned just before, is so hard it is practically impossible, requiring large teams of very skilled workers. And nobody wants to pay for it. From what I gather, most of Mozilla’s actual income came from Google paying to be the default search engine. Which they probably did in part to avoid antitrust legislation.
As some pointed out, this spells trouble for other large, public-goods type projects like the Matrix chat protocol. Historically, we have addressed these types of situations by collecting taxes. And indeed Matrix, for example, has received government sponsorship, as did the initial work that made the Web possible.
However, taxing the Web, or tech companies in general, is a bit more complicated, given their flighty and international nature. There are projects underway within the OECD to tax the tech sector, and they may even be a very good idea, in particular for righting some global inequalities (podcast link). Taxation might not be a good idea though, given that democratic control of states seems to be waning.
Another way to address the problem is the growing movement towards smaller technologies (“smolnets”), that would be cheaper to implement, more “human scale”, and less conducive to mass surveillance. And also, possibly more fun. Such projects stretch from “fantasy consoles” like the PICO-8 (games), to retro-networking like the older Gopher protocol, as well as its reimagining in the slightly larger Gemini protocol, and the resurgence of the experimental operating system Plan 9 from Bell Labs through projects like 9front and the ANTS public grid.