Trading Off Freedom for Convenience

Google Docs is notifying users of the new Microsoft Edge web browser that their browser is unsupported. It’s surprising, given that Edge uses the same rendering engine as Google’s own browser, Chrome. I don’t know if there’s anything nefarious going on (i.e., Google trying to stifle competition in the browser space), but I was reminded of all the trouble I’ve been having lately with my preferred browser (Safari).

To recap: Chrome’s dominance in the market is now large enough that many web app developers target it by default, often at the expense of less popular browsers like Safari. One side effect of this is that some apps don’t work — or don’t work as well — with Safari. The situation has gotten worse since I wrote my previous post on the matter a little over a month ago. More and more major apps are failing for me in Safari, while Chrome gives me no such trouble. This includes systems that are key to my business, such as Quickbooks, Webex, and one of my banks’ websites.

These are systems I interact with on a daily basis. As a result, I now keep Chrome open all the time alongside Safari. I don’t like this situation, for the practical reasons I documented in the previous post. But more philosophically, I don’t like it because it’s a constraint on my freedom to determine the components of my information ecosystem.

The foundational components of my ecosystem are:

  • its operating systems (macOS and iOS),
  • file managers (Finder.app and terminal shell),
  • web browsers,
  • text editors.

I could get much of my work done with just these components. There are other specialized apps in the ecosystem (spreadsheets, diagramming software) that are very important to me, but not to the degree a text editor or a web browser are. (I can access spreadsheet applications using a web browser.) Being forced to replace one of my preferred options for these central components rubs me the wrong way.

Software organizations like Google want us to be all-in on their information ecosystems. I see this goal as being in tension with my wish to define and control my personal information ecosystem. Google’s ecosystem has a lot of neat features — especially if you must collaborate with other folks. (Something I do a lot.) One easy way out for me would be to acknowledge the reality of my current needs and switch over to Chrome. This would certainly be more convenient for me. But convenience often comes at the expense of freedom.

There was a time in my life when I used a lot of open source software: My PC ran on Linux; Firefox was my browser of choice; I worked mostly using Emacs and a host of *nix command-line tools. I had a great deal of freedom. I could even tweak the kernel of my operating system! But I also spent a lot of time maintaining this ecosystem. Every (seemingly) minor tweak required hours of Googling. And all of these tools were “behind the curve” technologically; the more commercial ecosystems had more and better features. I spent almost as much time trying to find workarounds as I did trying to work.

Eventually, I gave up on the whole open source thing and moved back to the Mac (this was at the beginning of the OS X era.) Mac OS was much more convenient than Linux, but it was also more limiting. That was part of its appeal. I also held on to some aspects of it (Firefox, Emacs) which were also present on the Mac. I was excited to switch from Linux to Mac OS, and undertook it with full awareness of the tradeoffs it required.

I’m reminded of this transition as I contemplate how to approach my web browser woes. I’m not excited about having to switch over to the monoculture du jour for the sake of convenience. This time, I’m also aware of the tradeoffs required this time around — and I’m not happy about it.

Back to the Browser Monoculture?

Folks who’ve been around the web for a long time recall the “bad old days” when Internet Explorer was the dominant web browser. Back then, it was common to visit websites that were obviously broken on non-IE browsers. Rather than fixing these problems, developers would include banners nudging users to download the latest version of IE (or sometimes, if their organization was particularly enlightened, Firefox.) This would be a problem for folks like myself who didn’t use Windows computers.

In the best cases, rendering was the only thing that was broken in these sites. In many cases, functionality would be broken. In my small business back in Panama, we used to keep a Windows computer in the office for government transactions (e.g. filing certain taxes) that mandated the use of Internet Explorer. Yes, the browser monoculture was so ingrained​ that even governments expected (and reinforced) it.

Then the web standards movement came along. Little by little, sites started to work in different types of browsers. The explosion in mobile web access that followed the introduction of the iPhone drove the adoption of web standards even more strongly. Now there was an incentive for designers and developers to think about the structure of web pages beyond the presentation of particular form factors or browser rendering engines. It took a while, but eventually,​ things got much better.

Sadly, we seem to be backsliding to the bad old days. Lately, I’ve noticed many web applications not working well with my browser of choice, Safari. Keep in mind: this isn’t some random, obscure browser; it’s the default on the Mac, iPhone, and iPads. Still, I’m running into more and more web applications that simply don’t work well on Safari. I increasingly have​ to keep Google Chrome permanently open as my “web application” browser alongside Safari, just because I know Chrome always works.

This is understandable ​since Chrome has a bigger market share than Safari. But it’s not good. I don’t like how Chrome behaves on the Mac; Safari is a much better citizen of the ecosystem. But at least on the Mac you have the choice of setting Chrome as your default web browser. Not so on the iPhone and the iPad; there you must stick with Safari as the default. I want my browsers to always be in sync between platforms, so Safari is my baseline. You could blame Apple for this situation​ since they could choose to make it possible to set Chrome as the default browser on iOS. But even if they did, the situation isn’t ideal. I like Safari and how it integrates with the operating systems I use it with. I just want things to work well with it.

(One of my rules for computing sanity is to stick with the default web browser for whatever ecosystem you’re; working with. I suspect that part of Chrome’s popularity is due to the fact that so many people use Windows on their desktop combined with either iPhones or Android devices on mobile; this necessitates defaulting to Chrome as the browser of choice since it’s one that is available in all three ecosystems.)

Now that Microsoft has curtailed further development of the Edge rendering engine in favor of Chromium, I expect that more and more developers are going to opt to test on Chrome exclusively. This makes me sad; it harkens a return to a time when I had to constantly find workarounds for broken web experiences. Monocultures are seldom good.​

(Editorial note: I checked this post for grammar and spelling using the Grammarly extension on Safari. It has bugs. 😦 )