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Why independent web browsers matter

Published on 2023-11-12

Back in 2020, I wrote an article promoting the Gemini protocol on my old blog "toffelblog". In short, Gemini is a lightweight protocol that recreates Web 1.0 with SSL and Markdown-inspired format instead of HTML. A great amount of information can be conveyed through simple formatted text, including this blog, but expecting it to succeed outside a small group of enthusiasts was simply wishful thinking on my part.

At the time I had simply lost faith in the web, it was obvious Apple and Google had majority control over browser engine tech, and Firefox, with the only independent engine, in steep decline. Not helped by the fact Mozilla laid off much of it's R&D team.

Then in 2021, I discovered the SerenityOS project through lead developer Andreas Kling's YouTube channel. Key to the project is that everything must be written from scratch for maximum fun, including it's humble browser. Over the next two years it would evolve into a surprisingly capable browser called Ladybird.

Seeing this team effort has me remoralised on the web. I want to explain in this article why I think Ladybird or any independent browser like it is important.

A collage of pages visited recently in Ladybird, picked ones that rendered well:

Collage of Ladybird screenshots

Andreas was motivated to create Ladybird by blog posts causing a stir on Hacker News at the time which stated in no uncertain terms: "it is impossible to build a new web browser". Andreas, experienced with KDE's Konqueror browser, and Apple's WebKit engine (chiefly used in Safari), wanted to prove them wrong.

The post which inspired Andreas was likely the one written by developer Drew DeVault, that post being the same which inspired me to write my Gemini article back in June 2020. My article was frontpage on Hacker News for the day it was posted, and I know for sure the post inspired many to look into Gemini, and I'm happy if my post inspired you. I don't know if this post had any effect on Andreas to power ahead with his browser, but if it did then I'm most happy! However, I can confirm the post did not inspire SerenityOS to support Gemini.

The truth is that the web is here to stay. Even something as basic as the web's transport protocol HTTP become the defacto for client-server communication, leaving only a few for special purposes. HTTP swallowed every proprietary and centralised information system before it. All of this happened only about two years after the web became public in 1991. It took off and every tech company built around the web, evidenced by the fact HTTPS is used as the sole network protocol by most smartphone apps. For nearly any software development task that requires internet and can be built with off-the-shelf components, you often choose a web server, web framework, and HTTP client library. Outside of that, both email and IRC predate the internet in communications, SQL databases use their own protocol (usually not exposed to the internet), SSH for remote server management, and maybe a bit of FTP internally.

I think it's fair to say that the web has been the only successful solution for creating truly cross-platform applications. So much so that anything with a functional web browser, including a hobbyist OS, could run it. A web browser is the difference between a usable desktop operating system, even the iOS/Android ecosystem couldn't survive without one. Consider the web was a probably a huge reason non-tech folks bought a PC in the 90's/00's.

It has become obvious to me the importance of independent web browsers, whether to level the playing field against the Apple/Google monopoly over browser technology, or just as an interesting take on these open standards.

For those who agree, I propose doing the following:

The first point should be obvious, it's thanks to sponsorship's Ladybird can hire two full-time developers. You might not have enough money to sponsor a full-time dev, but you can donate to Andreas Kling or other individual developers through GitHub Sponsors, such as Linus Groh, who works part-time++ on the engine.

Linux desktop distros, most of which rely heavily on Firefox, should think carefully about what to do next. Due to how Mozilla is structured you cannot sponsor Firefox directly. I would instead suggest corporate Linux distros sponsor a developer to work on Firefox full-time, it is open-source software after all. Firefox has often left Linux behind with support for features like hardware video decoding (not supported until recently), so this could benefit both parties.

It might be worthwhile to use and promote alternative Chromuim-based browsers who do push back on some of Google's harmful proposals. But I would much rather support a new independent solution with serious momentum behind it already. We've really been itching for an actually new browser for a long time now.

A quick aside, Mozilla really isn't your friend. Some organisations like the GNOME and KDE foundations focus all their funds on their respective products. Mozilla isn't one of these orgs, their financials are dire, and that is besides the fact Google is nearly the sole income. Much of what they spend money on is unrelated and suspicious. I'd recommend reading Bryan Lunduke's article detailing this.

The web is here to stay, and is really good at solving the problems it was intended for. I would like to see more amplify the web's importance by explicitly promoting independent web browsers like Ladybird. At worse they'll be an impressive passion project, where new ways of doing things are found, but they could level the playing field against Apple and Google's monopoly over browser technology.

Oh and before I forget, Happy 5th Birthday SerenityOS!