Mozilla's Existential Crisis Is The Web's Existential Crisis
Back in May of this year (2014) Mozilla announced it would be partnering with Adobe to make sure Firefox users would have a way of loading a binary closed source, proprietary EME module. EME, Encrypted Media Extensions are essentially the mechanisms for baking DRM into the web.
This is pretty much the antithesis of Mozilla’s mission statement. Which is why they have been vocal infighting EME’s formal inclusion into HTML as a standard. Even promoting digital watermarking and investing in technology to implement it as a viable alternative.
Mozilla appears to have receded from this position because they viewed themselves as a loosing end of a a battle they fought before.
“If Mozilla didn’t enable the possibility of installing the Adobe Access CDM for use with EME, we’d be in a situation similar to the one we were in when we did not support the H.264 codec in HTML5 video. Instead of moving away from H.264, Web sites still delivered H.264 video to Firefox users—but did it via the NPAPI using Adobe Flash Player or Microsoft Silverlight rather than via the “video” tag.”
“We very much want to see a different system. Unfortunately, Mozilla alone cannot change the industry on DRM at this point. In the past Firefox has changed the industry, and we intend to do so again… …We’ve contemplated not implementing the new iteration of DRM due to its flaws. But video is an important aspect of online life, and a browser that doesn’t enable video would itself be deeply flawed as a consumer product. Firefox users would need to use another browser every time they want to watch a controlled video, and that calls into question the usefulness of Firefox as a product.”
The Previous Battle
The standard for video codecs in HTML5 video was a long standing hotly contested war running from 2007- 2013. The debate opened with H264 versus OGG Theora. H264 is a patent encumbered technology. Standardizing on H264 would force all browsers adhering to the spec (meaning all browsers which wanted to play video) would have to pay patent holders and the royalters would be per user of the browser. OGG Theora would mean business as usual for open, free and transparent web. Though with less visual fidelity per frame of video.
Google swung in half way in with a next generation codec from the same family as OGG Theora known as Webm.. Coalitions were formed. On the side of H264 were Microsoft, Apple and the on the side of OGG Theora + Webm were Mozilla, Google and Opera.
Google talked big. It announced that it would remove support for H264 in it’s Chrome browser and at a Google IO event they announced their intention to transcode all Youtube video to the new format. Mozilla and Opera likewise took similar stances in staunch opposition to H264.
Unfortunately the coalition for a patent free web faltered. Google very silently failed to live up to all of its commitments. Opera’s desktop numbers went into decline as the company desperately tried to keep a foothold on mobile. Leaving Mozilla the only real contender on the desktop to fight the issue. Mozilla was the loan fighter amongst browser vendors desperately trying to convince the Web Standards Bodies and other vendors to quite frankly do the right thing.
Eventually, they caved. Mozilla began working on its first version of H264 support in the desktop browser in late 2012 about handful of months before Opera announced it was going to stop developing rendering engines for browsers (and just copy Google’s code.)
Why Mozilla is Unlikely to Win Now
Mozilla is the only browser vendor on their end of this fight. Google, Apple, Microsoft are all aligned against them on this issue.
Browser plugins are not going to be a viable fall back for DRM encumbered video for much longer. Google is aggressively depreciating plugins in Chrome and Microsoft has never allowed them in their Metro UI Internet Explorer and the industry is predicted to transition to EME very quickly.
Mozilla’s desktop user base is in free fall. It has been struggling against a steady decline since October of last year, but has been hemorrhaging users since about May. It simply represents less of the world than it once did.
Mozilla has also been unable to make any penetration on mobile operating systems, despite having an advanced feature filled mobile browser. Apple’s policies preclude their existence on the iPhone and Google enjoys the home turf advantage on Android.
Why It Is Too Costly For Mozilla To Fight And Loose On The Issue
Mozilla’s ability to defend the Open Web is a function of the number of user’s it represents. Its relevancy is directly proportional to its political strength to move conversations at the W3C.
It is a tight rope to walk in that roll. Popularity doesn’t always align with principles. Free software often states that it isn’t concerned with popularity or winning, its concerned with user freedom.
The thing is Mozilla loosing market share means less advocacy for freedom at the W3C, which isn’t a concern most free software has to deal with. It might be different if their were other agencies to fight the good fight, but allies are few if not nonexistent. The W3C in the past few years become host to a lot of hostile players, including the MPAA and TV and Advertising providers. Some of which are actively and openly hostile to Mozilla.
And despite noise to the contrary, I don’t think its realistic to expect user’s will stick with Firefox when Netflix stops working with it, when Hulu forces users to another browser, etc, etc.
What To Expect
Firefox is entering an era where its options are narrow and the market is going to be increasingly hostile. Coalition building has helped them in the past with a recalcitrant W3C but there are no obvious partners.
More so, the W3C is enshrining elements into the HTML standard which can no longer be built in a collaborative community constructed free open source way. Rendering web content according to the spec means you have to have a corporate sponsor. Its the beginning of the age where corporations will be increasingly trying to dominate the very fabric of the web and its likely going to continue down that path.
Simply put the Web is moving in a potentially irrevocable direction away from people and communities, and towards corporations dominating its future.
While the future is bleak it isn’t necessarily the end for Mozilla. Mozilla still has a lot of market share left on desktop. It is also no stranger to uphill battles in browser wars and its pushing back with it’s own mobile operating system.
But what is clear is that people need to be concerned. Even if you are not a fan Mozilla’s struggle here is a struggle to keep the web, transparent, open and a level playing field for corporate and non corporate entities a like.
I don’t want to see what the Web looks like without Mozilla, no one should be eager for that.