Stick a Fork in WebKit, it’s Undone

Just as there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, we should be equally suspicious of free web browsers.

Over the years, Microsoft, Apple and others must have sunk fabulous sums of money into the development of browsers which they hand out free of charge. Discovering just how much is invested annually in the development of browsers is well nigh impossible, as several of the major players do not publicise development costs.

However Opera, one of the smaller participants in this ostensibly free meal, spent more than $2.5 million on product development in 2012. The Mozilla Foundation and its subsidiaries, responsible for more than just Firefox, invested a total of $103 million on product development in 2011.

The back of my napkin now gives a guesstimate of the annual cost of all these lunches at something around a quarter of a billion dollars. Can they really be that altruistic?

Of course not. Our browsers do cost us, or at least their donors can make handsome incomes from our browsing behaviours. Perhaps the largest return on investment in browser development comes from royalties paid by search engines: Mozilla enjoyed an income of over $130 million from Google, Firefox’s default search partner, in 2011; Opera’s similar deal with Google is augmented by direct income from advertising. For its modest $2.5 million annual investment, Opera returned around $200 million revenue, declaring a profit of over $20 million after tax.

Given that even minority browsers are such big business, the market players are inevitably keen to increase use of their products, as it is that use which generates their income. This might seem as bizarre as an automotive industry owned by oil companies giving cars away free, so that they can reap profits from the fuel that is consumed; but that is the way that ‘free’ meals get served up.

The snag is that, in order to get us to use their browser, our luncheon host has to offer something that others do not. For example, one reason that Microsoft has retained its high market share is the way that it matches the capabilities of Internet Explorer with the web servers bundled in its server products.

Despite the valiant efforts of the rest of the industry to standardise, there are still a lot of websites designed to work best with Internet Explorer, and to work considerably less well, if at all, with competitors. Our generous caterers therefore have substantial financial interests in making their browsers both compatible but superior, two conflicting courses.

There used to be three major browser foundations, which determine fundamental compatibility and particularly rendering: Microsoft’s (using the Trident engine), Mozilla’s (Gecko), and WebKit. Now WebKit has forked, with Apple and a handful of minority developers sticking with the mainstream, and Google and Opera launching out with Blink.

Of course Google has been careful to claim that this will not further fragment compatibility, but given the money at stake and the temptation of corporations to pay lip-service to not doing evil, it is simply not credible.

Traditional media such as books and magazines have become central to culture and civilisation because of their universality. Once you have learned to read English, you can pick up anything published in English and enjoy the same content that any other English reader can: access is universal and remarkably little controlled by business or government.

Sadly multinational corporations are once again trying to manipulate our access to websites, in pursuit of commercial advantage. This will make life harder for those of us who develop online content, and for everyone who wants to access it.

Dare we bite the hands that feed us?

Updated from the original, which was published in MacUser volume 29 issue 09, 2013.