My browser needs are pretty simple. I need something fast and secure that I can use to view web pages, and something that makes it easy to store and organize bookmarks. It would also be cool if the browser could be loaded onto a USB flash drive and used when on the move, and it would be really cool if there was a simple way to sync bookmarks between different systems, but these are dream features. Ultimately, what I want it speed and security.
The Firefox project is interesting because it is an example of what goes wrong with anything designed by committee. Theres an old saying that a camel is a horse that was designed by committee, well, Firefox is a web browser designed by committee. The early goals of the Mozilla team were to come up with an open-source web browser, designed for standards compliance, performance and portability (this quote dates back to Nov. 1999, via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine). Add security to that and you got me hooked! That sounds just like the kind of browser I want to be running. But theres a problem with developing a browser thats standards compliant, fast and portable its just not sexy.
So the Mozilla development team came up with a way to make Firefox sexy without adding too much bulk to the code add-ons. This enabled users to add additional functionality to the browser but kept the overall download small and the base browser relatively simple to use. The problem with add-ons, in particular browser extensions, is that they become addictive. You start off by tentatively installing one and pretty soon you have a dozen installed. This does nothing to improve performance, and if youre like me its also real pain making sure that several different Firefox installs all have the same extensions fitted.
But it didnt end with add-ons and extensions. Weve now got spell checkers, phishing filters, live bookmarks, RSS readers, integrated search and more. Firefox is not a browser any more but an integrated suite of web applications.
So what are the mistakes that both Mozilla and Microsoft made with their browsers? Its the mistake of using an ever increasing number of features to encourage people to adopt or keep on using that browser. A features war has, almost always, only resulted in three things overly bloated code, poor performance and security vulnerabilities. Mozilla as an open source movement was in the perfect position to put aside a drive for big user numbers and concentrate on the basics. Thats a real shame and a missed opportunity.
Not only is Mozilla adding more features to Firefox (a whole raft of new features are slated for version 3) but development has stalled on fixing (or at least alleviating) current issues of poor performance and massive memory footprint. Ask the Mozilla team for a comment on the huge amount of RAM that Firefox can consume, and the reply you get is that its not a bug but a feature. When you need a system with 1GB of RAM just to run a browser well, you know that the project has steered far away from the original goal of developing an open-source web browser, designed for standards compliance, performance and portability.
Or maybe performance just doesnt mean what it used to.