A few weeks ago, Mozilla announced a new version of Firefox, a browser well-known to anyone who secretly installed it on their grandparents’ PC in the early 2000s so that they wouldn’t have to use the abominable Internet Explorer 6.
Firefox, with its open-source structure and enormous library of extensions, eventually overtook IE6 as the preferred browser for anyone who considered themselves halfway web-savvy. You could block ads! You could create your own user scripts with Greasemonkey! You could install a number of very ugly skins! In middle school, I figured out how to load Firefox onto a USB stick and run it on the library computer, bypassing the filters installed for IE.
Then Chrome arrived and took over the market very quickly, aided by promo on the Google home page, which saw millions of users a day. Firefox, never terrible, but certainly a little scrappier, eventually turned into a runner-up.
Chrome, however, is not without its faults. For years, users have complained about it hogging memory and processing power. It’s also a web browser owned and operated by one of the most expansive data-harvesting operations in the history of human knowledge, which is surprisingly easy to forget, if we’re being totally honest.
For a while now, a couple of years maybe, a seed has been growing in the back of my mind, wondering whether or not I should get off of Google Chrome. Maybe I should switch to Safari, which is based on the WebKit engine, same as Chrome. Maybe I should try Edge, Microsoft’s new browser who’s marketing gimmick was “We totally admit IE6 sucked butt for a very long time.” Or maybe I should see what Firefox is up to.
Last month, when Mozilla released Firefox version 57 — Firefox Quantum — it touted the browser as the best Firefox ever, a significant overhaul both aesthetically and beneath the hood. It’s supposedly a lot faster than Chrome (we’re talking whole milliseconds here). It’s got tracking protections built right in. It renders things differently? I guess all of those things are nice, and it certainly feels zippier — though confirmation bias is playing a very heavy role in this analysis.
There are still plenty of old habits to relearn, though. Keyboard shortcuts are different, interfaces like those for bookmarks and downloads work a bit differently, and there are fewer analogous extensions. The Quantum update is incompatible with most extensions in Mozilla’s directory, but the important ones for things like whitelisting cookies and blocking ads are there (I have been asked by my employer to tell you that blocking ads is wrong, and you shouldn’t do it). Embedded tweets don’t render on pages, and I’m pretty sure that’s because I have strict tracking prevention enabled, but I’m not entirely sure, and quite frankly, anything that makes it slightly more difficult to read tweets doesn’t really bother me.
But the real reason I’m enjoying my switch to Firefox so far is more existential. As the largest companies grow and grow, and shift their business model from stand-alone products to persistent services, switching your preferred browser remains one of the primary important tech choices that consumers can still make. These companies want to make it difficult for you to leave their ecosystem, but with limited exception, they don’t mandate the specific browser that services are accessed from (the most famous exceptions to this are Apple keynotes, which result in the biannual Launching of Safari across the globe).
Switching your mobile operating system requires porting over contacts and data, making sure your app is available on a competing platform or some analog is. Leaving iOS requires getting Apple to relinquish its iMessage stranglehold on your phone number. Switching requires relearning buttons and interfaces and iconography. Shifting desktop operating systems requires relearning keyboard shortcuts, and plenty of software available for Mac isn’t available on Windows (and vice versa). Hell, the three buttons to close, minimize, and resize a window aren’t even in the same place. For tinkerers who really want to dig around in the system, get ready to learn two different file-organization systems. Because almost everything is a proprietary service now, your only option for accessing said service might be a first-party app.
Switching browsers is one of increasingly rare transitions that users can still decide on for themselves. Most browsers can import data like bookmarks and history from other browsers, making setup a breeze. Spend another five or ten minutes finding the right extensions, and you can create a reasonable imitation of your old web-surfing environment. Quite frankly, it’s fun to learn (or relearn) new software every few years, even at the slight expense of personal efficiency. By this point, you are probably locked into your desktop and mobile operating systems, but switching your browser — probably your most used app — can still provide the thrill of something new. Sure, it’s just a browser, but there’s a sense of discovery all the same. In a software industry that seems increasingly mundane and stagnant, that feeling is no small thing.