An incredibly shrinking Firefox faces endangered species status, says Computerworld, and reports their user market share at 10% and dropping. It doesn’t look good for the Mozilla Foundation – especially not with so much of their funding coming from Google which of course has its own browser to push.
I wish I could feel sadder about this. I was there at the beginning, of course – the day Netscape open-sourced the code that would become Mozilla and later Firefox was the shot heard ’round the world of the open source revolution, and the event that threw The Cathedral and the Bazaar into the limelight. It should be a tragedy – personally, for me – that the project is circling the drain.
Instead, all I can think is “They brought the fate they deserved on themselves.” Because principles matter – and in 2014 the Mozilla Foundation abandoned and betrayed one of the core covenants of open source.
I refer, of course, to the Foundation’s disgraceful failure to defend its newly promoted Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich against a political mob.
One of the central values of the hacker culture from which Mozilla sprang is that you are to be judged by the quality of your work alone. We aspire to be a pure meritocracy, casting aside irrelevancies of race, sex, nationality, and of political and sexual preferences.
Brendan Eich lived those values. Though he was excoriated for donating to California Proposition 8, it was never even claimed – let alone established – that he judged gay hackers on the Firefox project by anything but their code.
Another central value of the hacker culture, intertwined with judgment only by the work, is free expression – the defense of people holding and expressing unpopular opinions. It must be this way, because suppression of dissent prevents us from discovering and acknowledging that our beliefs do not align with reality. That hinders the work.
When Brendan Eich was attacked, the correct response of the Mozilla Foundation from within hacker and open-source values would have been, at minimum “His off-the-job politics are none of our business.” Ideally, it would have continued with an active defense of Eich’s right to hold and express unpopular opinions, including by donating to the causes of his choice.
That’s not what happened. Instead, the Foundation truckled to that political mob, putting Eich under enough pressure that he felt he had no alternative but to resign. By failing to defend and support Eich, the Mozilla Foundation wronged a man who had every right to expect that he, too, would be judged by his work alone.
There, are of course, also technological factors in the decline of Mozilla – an aging codebase and failure to rapidly deploy to mobile devices are two of the more obvious. But in any market-share battle, hearts and minds matter too. It’s a significant advantage to be universally thought of as the good guys.
The Mozilla Foundation threw that away. They abandoned the hacker way and trashed their own legitimacy. It was a completely unforced error.
That is why I can only think, today, that they brought their end on themselves. And hope that it serves as a hard lesson: to thrive you must, indeed judge by the work alone.