I remember when pen drives were a technological luxury and burning CD-ROMs was the only way to transfer large files from one computer to other. It’s amusing when I think how I had a case of 100 blank CDs I used to fill with content from neighbors and friends. Along with Pen drives, internet too wasn’t considered a basic right like we do today. Dial-ups that made you wait forever once you decided to load Yahoo! dot com were the norm. That was the time I discovered Firefox. I had Fifa 2002, Road Rash and Motocross Madness 2’s demo on that disc I copied from a friend’s computer.
It will sound crazy but the fact that I could access internet without clicking on that blue Internet Explorer icon felt revolutionary. That fox-engulfing-the-globe logo was a geek’s cool factor at that time. Coming from IE 5, tabbed browsing felt unreal. In my mind I was mumbling “Why didn’t they think of it before?”. Enough with my nostalgia. Like, Winamp Player, Space Cadet Pinball, Groveshark & Napster, Firefox will probably be part of Internet folklore in future.
Imagine there was no Firefox. Just Internet Explorer stagnantly holding the world browser market share. The web, running like Microsoft would want it to run. We have been blessed to have various browsers and browsing engines competing to render the best of web for us today. As economics teaches us, competition is good. In a quest to one-up each other in the browser-sphere, browser makers are constantly trying to add features, streamlining performance and adding support for upcoming standards.
Emergence of Chrome and Safari with the Webkit engine on the scene has been one of the most important events in web-browser history. Thanks to Apple forcing Chromium on every browser on iOS and Google’s gigantic influence on the web, within a decade everything we know as a web browser is adopting Webkit. The web is heading for a monopoly. And once again economics teaches us that monopolies are bad, real bad. It totally looks like a build-up to a stagnant web to a skeptical like me.
Few years back, Opera, my favorite browser at that time, adopted Blink, a fork of Webkit. This meant the poweruser’s favourite browser was dead, along with the Presto Engine. Opera’s decision can be justified in terms of markets and business. With a market share of less than 2% it wasn’t an insane decision in any sense. Surely, that workforce can be deployed to some other worthy venture for Opera. But in the end, for the company that invented tabbed browsing, speed dials, private tabs, mail and IRC integration, gestures etc and was at the helm of web innovation for more than 20 years, it felt like a death to me. Consider this paragraph as a eulogy.
What concerns me is the fact that Firefox’s gecko is the last major open source rendering engine left apart from Webkit. Imagine a world without firefox, or maybe with 2% usage share. Would the developers care to make their sites compatible for all the engines? or will they simply make sure the site runs of Webkit based browsers, because that’s what everyone will be using.
Webkit being everywhere will surely bring consistency, lesser headaches for developers and uniform implementation of web standards. But will a lone horse care to run faster if it knew it’s the only one in the race? Innovation is the best by-product of competition and here, typing this on Firefox I met 12 years back I can only hope our kids don’t wake up to a stagnant web.