It's getting hard to use and recommend Firefox, I'm afraid for the free web

Monday, April 8, 2024

A couple of months ago, every video call I had on my personal computer ended up using Chromium. I tried using Firefox and it looked good on my end: I could see and hear the other person. But they just saw a blank video feed and heard nothing. Firefox showed me that it's sending, but it never goes through to them. This happened with Google Meet, a body doubling platform, and a telehealth platform, all using different underlying video services.

I'm a software engineer, and I run Fedora on my personal laptop. This particular bug was on the latest version, and by running a bleeding-edge distribution I got cut. I didn't have the same issue on my work laptop, running an LTS version of Ubuntu. So in some ways, it's a problem of my own making, and there was a workaround.

But that's the problem. I have to be so careful about which version of Firefox I have installed, because things break tremendously now and then. Even on the bleeding edge, a showstopper bug like this one—and this is not the first time something similar has happened to me—means that I cannot rely on having Firefox around as my only browser. I have to have everything setup in Chromium as well, because Firefox will let me down.

In some ways, the constant breakage is not Firefox's fault. When web applications are only tested in Chromium, they will inevitably have bugs that are showstoppers in non-Chrome browsers. Yet other problems do seem to be Firefox's fault, like this issue with video calls. But at the end of the day, it doesn't matter whose fault it is. If users cannot reliably use a browser for everyday tasks, they will switch and never look back. Whether they move to Chrome or Edge or Brave, those are all Chrome under the hood.

It's getting harder to keep using Firefox, but I do, because preserving the free web requires that we have more stakeholders than just Google (and Apple). We used to have Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Mozilla all at the table to prserve the free web. But now Microsoft uses the Chromium engine, and while Apple is a strong influence thanks to iOS, that influence may erode due to European regulators compelling them to allow alternative browser engines on iOS.

It's almost impossible to argue for other people using Firefox. The abstract damage of the loss of the free web, of handing control to Google, is intangible and pales in comparison to the real pains of using a lesser browser daily. We're too removed from the benefits of browser engine diversity right now to make the case.

I hope that under Mozilla's new CEO, they'll recover their footing. They're leaning into data privacy. Not everyone cares about it, but enough people do that maybe we'll regain a clear pitch for Firefox for regular everyday user. For now, I'm still defaulting to Firefox, but it's harder with each showstopper bug. And someday, maybe I won't open it first anymore.

I'm afraid of that day.

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