No Food for Thought

Modestly Moving Away from a Monstruously Mad Mozilla

admin Sunday April 22, 2018

In 2003, I was using Internet Explorer, Hotmail and Microsoft Windows when I discovered the Mozilla Suite. I could certainly count the number of open source applications I used on a single hand at that time. I installed Mozilla 1.4, a friend told me about Firebird, and then I switched to Firebird and never went back to MSIE as my main browser. Impressed by Firebird (now Firefox), and curious about free software, I migrated from Windows to GNU/Linux later that year. Since then, Firefox has always been the main browser on at least one of my operating systems. For most of these years, Firefox (or its close relative Iceweasel) was also my main browser.

Soon after discovering Mozilla's browser, I tried Thunderbird, which I started using instead of webmail. For most of these years too, Thunderbird (or its close relative Icedove) was my MUA. So it has been nearly 15 years since Mozilla became one of the projects with the most influence on the software I use.

For years, I was evangelizing friends and family about Mozilla software. I was also a developer of projects upstream of and downstream to Mozilla. When Firefox was released, I was helping early adopters on IRC channels. For more than a decade, I also sporadically contributed to Mozilla's wikis. I wrote and helped triage issue reports. For some time, I even edited Wikipedia's page about the Mozilla-Debian licensing/branding issue. When I discovered Firebug thanks to a friend, I immediately installed it. Over time, I would report many of its issues.

Despite the licensing issue and XUL's reliance on GTK+ instead of Qt (my favorite desktop environment's toolkit), I never hesitated before contributing to Mozilla. In 2010, I was thrilled to realize the milestone we had reached when Microsoft's Internet Explorer dropped below 50% in browser market share. Years later, Mozilla finally agreed to relicense its logos, and the old Mozilla-Debian conflict ended.

For years, we wrote history. And then, in 2016, I realized a major issue using Gmail via Thunderbird had been affecting me for years. That issue had been slowing me down and putting the security of my customers at risk. Following that initial realization, I spent numerous person-days dealing with the damage (cleaning up my mailbox, directly and indirectly). But in the course of that long process, I also realized more issues in Thunderbird/Gmail, as well as in the Mozilla project itself. Since these are numerous, I will not list them here, but instead ask those who volunteer in Mozilla to read the overwhelming report I sent to Mozilla's governance and bugmasters mailing lists.

This mail appears on the archives of Mozilla's governance mailing list, but careful readers will notice it does not show in the archives of the bugmasters mailing list. Indeed, although I did send the mail there (using Thunderbird!), the mail apparently never reached the list, for reasons unknown to me.

That additional problem is one of those I reported in a follow-up to "Issues, meta-issues and transparency" which I sent to the governance list on 2018-01-13. Weeks later, I hadn't received any response to my follow-up, and realized that mail had apparently not reached the governance list, so I resent it on 2018-03-10. Unfortunately, I can only link to a local version of this mail, since the second sending visibly also didn't reach the list.

I have to conclude these events did not just reveal issues in Gmail and Thunderbird, but huge issues in the Mozilla project - not just in its issue tracking, but also in its mailing lists (and yes, Mozilla also knows about these). And so, more than a year after I reported what I personally witnessed, the persistence of this situation shows not only that Mozilla is broken, but also that users are far from its priority (if it's not simply unwilling to fix itself).

Going forward

All of this is not to say that Mozilla products are worthless, nor that no part of Mozilla can be salvaged. Many large free software projects struggle with separation of duties, decision-making and prioritization. No matter how one looks at these problems, ultimately they "just" indicate a governance issue.

So in fact, if there were no issues other than those I reported, Mozilla - the open source project which has more resources than any other - could fix these quickly. Unfortunately, beyond the governance issue(s) exposed, there seems to be an extra issue at Mozilla. What this debacle and the aftermath shows is not just that Mozilla needs to review its governance. It also suggests that Mozilla does not want to solve the issue(s). My report was not met with silence; in fact, several people replied. Some contributors genuinely tried to help a bit, and I must thank at least Svetlana Tkachenko for offering a significant and credible contribution. But no one has offered thanks for the report, or even acknowledged the issues. In fact, I believe most replies were - most ironically - claims that the report was off-topic on the only forum which it managed to reach (the governance mailing list).

In my opinion, this reaction is evidence that Mozilla is denying its governance issues. Mozilla is in its 15th year and would not be the first once thriving organization trying to hide or deny its difficulties now that it is struggling. So unfortunately, even if all of this "just" comes down to governance problems which could be solved with reasonable resources relative to Mozilla's size, "just" solving these issues from within an organization which denies them seems like a challenge beyond what the old and busy man I have grown into can reasonably tackle.

In any case, what it certainly means is that this will remain my last contribution to Mozilla on a volunteer basis, and I will no longer endorse any Mozilla product. My departure is in no way because Mozilla's mission is complete; despite all the progress accomplished in the last decade, the web and its standards have evolved a lot too and much remains to be done. I hope that other contributors to Mozilla or other people interested in Mozilla's objectives can either fix it or get involved in other projects which share some of these objectives.

As for Mozilla, if it wants to remain a project where its goals can be accomplished, it will have to review its priorities and put users, quality and transparency first. If the current situation is just the result of a lack of resources, Mozilla should focus on its own issues. Proving contributors that Mozilla products and processes could be trusted will be a lot cheaper than "rewarding" contributors, and much more effective in winning the loyalty of remaining and potential contributors. Mozilla, just make our work effective, so we will become proud of our accomplishments and willing to pay for Mozilla clothes ourselves. Stop offering us to pay for traveling to your HQ, start valuing our work, and those who want to meet will be willing to pay their tickets themselves. Stop putting the resources you have into producing an Internet health report; people expect Internet health reports from the Internet Society, not from Mozilla; what people expect from Mozilla is reliable software. If you want to help the Internet, focus on your core mission and heal your own systems before worrying about the health of the rest of the Internet.

It's unfortunate to have to make this decision right after Firefox regained its relevance, with Firefox Quantum and the "integration" of my favorite extension (Firebug), both in the previous 12 months. I haven't decided yet what this resignation will mean for myself. I am redacting this resignation in Mozilla Firefox. I already mostly migrated to Google Chrome, even though the product is not strictly superior to Firefox, but even though this is recent, I already have doubts about the Chrome project's management. As for my MUA, I really don't see any free software alternative at this point (I concluded that KMail was way too buggy a decade ago, and I am under the impression this has not improved since).

Farewell, Mozilla

Update 1

The year after my resignation, I installed a new instance of Thunderbird to use with Gmail. Even though Thunderbird facilitated the process, and even though I took care to set the same settings as my previous instance, I realized 5 months later that I had hit issue #651945. Once again. So I went back to the ticket to see what I had missed.
What did I find instead? That the ticket was closed last year by no other than... Mozillain Wayne Mery. The ticket was marked as resolved with not a word on why, and someone gently pointed out that was incorrect nearly a year ago, but the ticket remains... "RESOLVED".
Ah, good ol' Mozilla!

Update 1.1

I finally found a setting which presumably determines whether this bug occurs or not. In a fairly obvious place... except when you use Thunderbird and... don't use Gmail's webmail! If you are experiencing this, start by checking Gmail's Forwarding and POP/IMAP settings (at the misleading URL https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#settings/fwdandpop ). In the IMAP access area, check the second preference ("When I mark a message in IMAP as deleted") and - if that one is set to "Auto-Expunge off" - the related third preference "When a message is marked as deleted or expunged from the last visible IMAP folder". I experienced this bug with Auto-Expunge enabled, which is currently the default.

Over 8 years after ticket #651945 was filed, it still doesn't even provide that information... but it's still "RESOLVED".
Mozilla, ooh Mozilla! Good luck!

Update 2 (2020-02-08)

Reality is forcing Mozilla to start adjusting its glasses

I tried another browser last year, but Falkon turned out way too immature. So I am still writing this in Firefox (but will probably attempt a new switch in a matter of days).

Update 3 (2020-11-21)

This summer Mozilla laid off 250 more. With its market share still plunging and now that Microsoft Edge went with Blink, the future is not looking good for Mozilla. But Firefox is still evolving, and after trying Falkon, the new Microsoft Edge and even Opera, I am still using Firefox on my personal PC. Here's hoping that Mozilla will do the right thing before it's too late and build a proper browser on Blink.

Update 4 (2020-12-26)

Cal Paterson recently wrote a great analysis of Mozilla's struggles, comparing how it uses its resources to how it should allocate them to solve its issues. In short, its revenues are crashing due to crashing market share, yet it still scatters resources beyond anything reasonable, doing nothing to stop the bleed:

Cal Paterson wrote:
Yet despite the problems within their core business, Mozilla, instead of retrenching, has diversified rapidly.

And, it's still critically dependant on Google.

Update 5 (2023-11-20)

As if its "Internet health report" was not enough, Mozilla has started a Consumer Creep-O-Meter.

Where could Mozilla be if it responded to its own concerns and just… minded its own business?

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