Browser Wars of the Worst Kind

by Kai MacTane

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It’s no surprise to denizens of the open-source community — or those who are concerned with Web standards — that partisans of the Firefox and Opera Web browsers have something of a good-natured rivalry going on. But the recent contretemps between the Mozilla Foundation’s Asa Dotzler and Opera Software moved things to a new level, in two different ways.

First, it took place on a much more public level, in plain view of everyone from the tech news media to Microsoft’s strategic planning divisions. Second, it went far beyond the level of the informal joshing and even the occasional teasing that’s been a staple of mailing lists and Web forums since Firefox’s debut. Instead, it looked like an immature round of “he said, she said” bickering, in which both parties claimed victorious receipt of an award that, honestly, nobody will remember or care about five years from now.

We mustn't fight each other! Surely we should be united against the common enemy!

The Judean People's Front?!

No, no! The Romans!

— Monty Python’s Life of Brian

The entire affair tarnishes the image of the Mozilla Foundation (and, by extension, both the Mozilla and Firefox browsers), and it doesn’t make Opera Software look too good, either. To Opera’s credit, they appear to be taking the high road, having changed their press release and web site to back away from their mistaken earlier claims. But having made the mistake at all leaves them with some egg on their face, and the extreme reaction by Mr. Dotzler lends credence to the image of the open-source software movement as one that’s run by a bunch of fanatical, militant hotheads.

If our common goal is to promote secure, standards-compliant Web browsers, public acrimony like this is not the way to do it. What? You thought I was going to say the goal was to get rid of Internet Explorer? That’s an easy fallacy to fall into, but it suffers from the critical problem of being focused against something rather than for something.

Linus Torvalds already understands this. Consider his statement: “Really, I’m not out to destroy Microsoft. That will just be a completely unintentional side effect.” Though he was probably joking at the time, this statement still makes a good description of his actual strategy. He’s focused on making the Linux kernel into the best OS kernel it can possibly be. Whether the rest of the world uses it is entirely up to them. “Destroy Microsoft” isn’t even on his long-term development roadmap; instead, it’s loaded up with things like “Improve SMP scalability”, “Handle module unloading better”, and so on.

It doesn’t really matter whether Browser X is open-source software or not, as long as it’s compliant with the standards. The enemy is not Internet Explorer, it’s not Microsoft, and it certainly isn’t “that other browser-maker who’s putting out a competing (but otherwise compliant) product”. And those who love a particular product, whether they be the product’s creators or mere end-users (who are often much more vehement about their evangelism), should remember that no software package is more important than the actual task it performs.

Taking a browser manufacturer to task for mistaken claims in their marketing materials is not that horrible a thing, and I’m certainly not trying to suggest that the mistake should have gone uncorrected. But treating others with respect and common courtesy is also important, and Asa Dotzler’s casual accusations of deliberate lying on the part of Opera Software do nothing to advance adoption of Mozilla or Firefox. Indeed, Dotzler’s time could have been much better spent preventing any further security bugs.

Kai MacTane is the Freak Nation’s webmaster. He’s been an avid Mozilla/Firefox user for years, and an advocate of Web standards for even longer than that. (He still remembers when Netscape was the company violating the W3C spec.)