Marco's Blog

All content strictly personal opinions.
en eo

The Rise and Fall of Internet Browsers

2010-09-24 4 min read Electronics Anonymous marco

It amazes me how, since the very inception, Internet Browsers have been subject to periodic meteoric rise and subsequent fall. They do so a lot more than other pieces of software, like operating systems or word processors. It seems people are much more willing to throw out their browsers than virtually any other kind of software.

It all started with the venerable grandfather of them all, Mozilla Navigator. Marc Andreesen, the ur-type of the “smart kid with an idea brighter than even he thinks it is who goes on to think he’s the smartest person on the planet because he’s been lucky with his idea”, and his team created the software and threw it out. Instant success, huge company, enormous IPO. But a piece of software that was horrible, and got more and more horrible as time wore on.

Mozilla was mired in the conflict of the dot-com days: how do you monetize a piece of software without charging the user? It would take almost ten years for Google to show us, but back in the day, it meant shareware. Mozilla was selling servers, and the browser was a loss-leader. It got all the attention that a loss-leader gets – it got more and more bloated, supporting more and more reasons for people to upgrade their servers (and not buy them from anyone else), but in the process it got slower and slower.

Finally, in one of his last acts of Imperial Fiat, Bill Gates decreed that the Internet was not a fad and that Microsoft needed to get in on the action. A few years later and a ton of lawsuits after, Mozilla was dead (or bought by AOL, which is pretty much the same thing) and Internet Explorer the only dominant figure in the landscape.

Then IE started showing problems. Not bloat and slowness, although those became more apparent. No, it was security that became the big issue. IE’s security model was cooperative and not designed for the abusive exploits of Internet Mafia conglomerates. As a result, surfing certain types of “shady” sites would invariably land your machine into zombie territory, or at least get you a virus infection or two.

When the Mozilla Foundation announced it was looking at a new, brand new browser named Firebird, even the most hopeful were not easily convinced. Navigator was a monster, written by people that needed to get things done, no matter how unmanageable the result, and Firebird would have to be a rewrite from scratch to compete.

But it did. Renamed Firefox (sadly), it began a march of conquest that landed it to top spot in the browser stats. Nowadays, almost half of all Internet users choose Firefox, while IE has only a little more than a third of the market.

Firefox was helped by a series of advantages: it was much faster than IE; it was factors more secure than IE; it had an extensive extension system with loads of useful things – useful for users, which IE had traditionally ignored in favor of usefulness for companies. Only lately has Firefox started to show weakness, and from the most unlikely of sources.

I invested much time in my Firefox setup. I have the extensions I want, synchronized across my two dozen machines (don’t ask) using a sync extension. I have Firefox customizations for nearly everything, and I write my own Greasemonkey scripts. Yet, I started using Google’s Chrome browser (Chromium on this laptop). Why? Because Chromium uses “one process per tab”.

How does it matter? Why is it so important to me that each tab have its own process? The answer is Flash. You see, Flash is a giant memory leak. Whenever I land on a page that has Flash on it, memory gets allocated (by the Flash plugin) and never released. After a few hours of heavy browsing, my browser slows down to a crawl. Another few hours, and it’s completely unusable. After a day, I have to restart it, and the process of freeing up memory may take upwards of 10 minutes.

Flash on Linux, of course, is an afterthought. The way Adobe treats its Linux users, though, shows all the weaknesses of the technology in a merciless way. First, there is the closed nature of Flash: Linux users cannot suggest modifications or fix bugs, as they do with other software, because the plugin is closed.

Then, there is the “one-size-fits-all” approach of the plugin. I find Flash used for controls on web pages (especially ones that require notifications), for e-cards, especially of the inspirational or funny kind, and for online videos. Those three use cases are totally different, and using the same software for each of them is only in the interest of the maker of the software, Adobe, not in the interest of the user.

So. for now I am forced to leave Firefox for no reason of its own and adopt a different (and very capable) browser simply because I can’t get Flash to work on FF.