Free Software Could Use Some Consolidation

Jul. 18, 2022 [technology] [libre]

I get why forks happen. And I get that disagreements occur in development direction. But fracturing efforts into halves, thirds or worse comes at the expense of slowly reinventing the wheel. Sometimes the technical debt becomes too great to walk back on, just look at Palemoon effectively building on a vestigial branch of Firefox snapshotted somewhere around Firefox 24. It is maintained by a small and struggling team who likely do not have the resources to build a browser independently from top to bottom.

Other notable mentions include youtube-dl splitting off into yt-dlp over complaints of development stagnation and searx splitting off into searx-ng due to differences in development ideology. Users are left out like childen in a divorce; do you stay with mommy or go with daddy? Well, you go with whatever works best. The only constant is the unending churn.

But it’s not all splitting, fracturing and talent walking away from team efforts. There are actually instances of software projects who share similar goals which decide to merge. That’s exactly what happened between Razor-Qt and LXDE-Qt when both small teams realized they were doing the same work in parallel. They write about it in an LXDE blog post:

“…we have decided that the best course of action for both projects is to focus on a single desktop environment, instead of two. There have been talks of ‘merging’ ever since LXDE-Qt was announced. Having taken the decision to collaborate, we’ve all had the pleasure of working together already. Our plan is to cherry-pick the best parts of Razor and LXDE and include or port those to LXDE-Qt. Other components will be ported straight from GTK code or rewritten from scratch. In the end, we want to offer the best possible experience while reusing as much code as possible.”

Hong Jen-Yee ‘PCMan’, developer behind LXDE/LXQt, has shared some insights in conference talks. He found attracting new developers to desktop environment projects is becoming an increasingly difficult task as promising rookies seek to focus on flashier mobile projects. And that’s before even taking into consideration how niche lightweight desktop environments like LXDE are, in comparison. And so merging with projects of similar scope and vision might make sense.

So let’s bring this back around to browsers. It is no secret that web browsers suck. Especially those forked indie outfits. As of this writing, Mozilla has about 750 employees. For comparison, GNU Icecat is maintained by 4 individuals, Palemoon references 20 notable developers, 10-18 significant contributors to Brave, 6 core contributors to LibreWolf, Iridium has 1 maintainer (that I can see) and so on for all of the many indie browsers that have anywhere between one developer to a few dozen. Imagine if this talent could be aggregated into one truly independent web browser effort (with it’s own engine, no Gecko or anything). The world might finally have a sane browser that can actually keep ahead on web security and standards without sugar daddy Google and without succumbing to feature creep.