Monday 25 January 2010
Many responses to my post about video codec issues have expressed the opinion that "Mozilla should do whatever is most useful for users today, regardless of 'politics' or 'ideology'" and also that "if a user already has codecs on their system, it's wrong for Mozilla to refuse to use them". These opinions fail due to various legal and technical issues that I've already discussed, but I also want to point out that taking such positions is nothing new for Mozilla and history has proved us right for doing so, in particular regarding ActiveX and Web standards in general.
Perhaps it's not widely known, but Gecko has had code to support hosting ActiveX controls, dating back as far as 1999. ActiveX controls are very much like system video codecs. ActiveX support would have been very useful to users ever since 1999, and still would be now --- certainly in corporate intranets, and everywhere in China and South Korea. Enabling ActiveX support would probably boost our market share significantly. Most users have useful ActiveX controls on their machines. But for the last ten years, even during Mozilla's most desperate days, we have consistently refused to turn this feature on, because we believe that ActiveX is not good for the Web.
I think history has proved that this decision was completely right. Our market share rose anyway. The ActiveX ecosystem was a big vector for security attacks. Most importantly, if we'd caved, the Web everywhere would look like it does in China and South Korea, but more so --- dependent on ActiveX, and tied to Windows. No resurgent Apple, no Linux netbooks, precious few Linux users, no ChromeOS, no iPhone, no usable browsers on phones at all, and Microsoft's grip on the industry stronger than one dare imagine. We would have sacrificed huge long-term wins for users --- ALL users, not just Firefox users --- for the sake of a temporary filip.
During the ascendancy of IE, we had similar pressures over the issue of whether to follow Web standards or focus on IE compatibility. The "pragmatists" wanted us to focus on IE compatibility for the very sensible reason that authors had to develop for IE anyway, so it would be easier and cheaper for them if we just fell in line. Obviously pursuing IE compatibility would also have been good for our market share --- and our users --- at the time. We chose standards. Again, I think history shows we made the right decision.
I'm not suggesting that the consequences of exposing system codecs to the Web would be identical to exposing ActiveX. That's unlikely, and unknowable. But favouring our principles over short-term gains for users is nothing new for Mozilla, and when we've done it in the past, history shows it was the right thing to do.