The cult of the free must die

For a terrible half an hour last night I thought Firefox was on the brink of disappearing as an independent browser and rendering engine. I was frightened silly by the rumour that Mozilla laid off significant portions of its browser team. The official press release being full of useless corporate open web blah didn’t help — the vaguer the press release, the worse the situation, in my experience.

Fortunately, the news is not quite that bad. Still, it set me thinking.

To my mind, Mozilla’s core problem is the cult of the free. To my mind, we should eradicate the cult of the free from web development, and Mozilla should take a small step in that direction by requesting donations from inside Firefox — on an entirely voluntary basis.

First, though, let’s review the news. From what I’ve been able to cobble together from Twitter, the layoffs have severely affected devtools, the Servo team, MDN, and likely also the events/sponsorships team. The core Gecko team is unaffected, and that’s good. Firefox will continue to exist as an independent browser — for now.

From a money-saving perspective the gutting of the events team is understandable. Frankly, I’ve been wondering for years where Mozilla got the money to run all their events and sponsorships. Now we know the answer, I guess. It will have a minor effect on me as a conference organiser, but it can be survived.

The other three are more serious: although the core Gecko team survives, many supporting teams have been gutted. If this is the last round of layoffs ... ok, we can survive this. But if it isn’t ...

The cult of the free

The gutting of MDN strikes closest to home. Part of the reason I stopped doing browser research is the advent of MDN: it took over my role of documenting web standards (and sometimes browser differences) quite efficiently, so this site was less vitally necessary.

The bigger reason I stopped doing research, however, was that I was tired of doing all of this vital web-supporting work for free. That’s also the main reason I never contributed to MDN; I don’t mind doing it, but I do very much mind doing it for free. I’ve done my duty.

And who is going to give web standard and browser compatibility information now that MDN might go away? For a few minutes I considered returning to my old job, but I refuse to do it for free, and there is no financial support in sight.

Truth, I made some money with my work. In the end Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla granted me sponsorships for a few years. It wasn’t enough, though. And of course Apple never paid up, even though from the release of Safari/Mac to the release of the iPhone they referred to my site for JavaScript compatibility information. For a while I was the Safari documentation team — for free.

This brings us to the core point I’d like to make: the culture of volunteering in web development, and especially within the Mozilla segments of our community. To my mind it’s not only outdated and should be replaced, it should never have been allowed to take root in the first place.

I see the cult of the free as the web’s original sin. To my mind it’s an essentially random historical development that could have gone quite differently, but, once the idea of everything on the web being free took root, became a cultural touch point that is almost impossible to dislodge.

Granted, the cult of the free also has its positive points. But today I’m focusing on the negative ones that, to my mind, outweigh the positivity by a rather large margin. If we continue to give everything away for free, the big companies will win.

Small company gives away software for free. Large companies give away the same software for free, and to them the cost is essentially peanuts, and they own the platforms the sofware runs on. Therefore small company will lose, decreasing diversity in the browser market. Simple as that.

Asking for donations

Isn’t it time to change this? Isn’t it time Mozilla distances itself from the cult of the free? I know it’s deep in their DNA, but that hasn’t prevented it from hitting a very rough spot. Maybe the model is not as viable as we all thought.

So allow me to make a modest proposal: build in a donations function in Firefox itself — for instance by adding a simple “Please support us” message to the update page you get to see whenever you update the browser, and by adding a Donations item to the main menu.

Oh, and don’t bother with perks for paying members. It’s not about perks, it’s about supporting the software you’re using. The software is the perk.

I’m not saying Mozilla should erect a paywall around Firefox. That would far worse than the problem it’s supposed to solve. (The fact that it would be such a terribly bad move is part of the problem, though. If people had just learned to pay for the good stuff ...)

I’m also not saying this will solve Mozilla’s financial problems — in fact, I’m quite certain that it won’t. Still, it would be one step in the direction of a better web where consumers slowly get used to the idea of paying. Also, it might help Mozilla itself veer away from the cult of the free towards a more sustainable model, mostly by putting psychological pressure on the organisation as a whole.

We need a break with the past. Trying times like these might be the best opportunity to make that break.

The cult of the free must die so that Firefox may live.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, web developer, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter or Mastodon.
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