Thursday, April 3, 2014

And now for something completely different: Brendan Eich, and FirefoxOS review for Power Mac users

I've been writing up my FirefoxOS review for this blog/audience, but the flap over Brendan Eich (briefly) as Mozilla CEO eventually came to a crashing halt today with his resignation, not only from the CEO post but from the board and the entire organization. Besides a few private inquiries I got about TenFourFox's use of Mozilla technologies, this news sort of overshadows the entire thing. So here goes. If you want to skip this part, scroll down to the review.

UPDATE: In his own words, leaving Mozilla.

We have many users across the entire spectrum on gay marriage. (That's an important point I'm going to come back to.) This blog is apolitical -- I am intentionally expressing no personal viewpoint on this subject, because it's irrelevant. My use of Mozilla and Gecko, and my actions as a Mozilla contributor and security board member, is because I believe it to be the most community-driven engine, the most standards-friendly engine, and the most open engine. It's not based on support or opposition to the views of any one person in Mozilla, even the CTO (when he was the CTO) or the CEO (when he was the CEO).

For those who don't know the history yet, California (I live in Southern California) qualified Proposition 8 for the ballot in 2008, which stated that the following text, almost in its entirety, be added to the state Constitution: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." This was against a context of several long court battles going back for at least a decade, along with the earlier Proposition 22 in 2000 which passed but did not survive subsequent legal challenge; Prop 8 was designed to address the constitutional issues where Prop 22 had failed. Prop 8 survived to reach a vote and passed, 52.24% in favour (see the Wikipedia map for breakdown by county), and was immediately challenged in court. The California Supreme Court upheld it in 2009, but the United States District Court for the Northern District of California overturned it in 2010, affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court denied legal standing to those attempting to defend it, technically overturning the Ninth Court, but leaving the original ruling by the District Court intact. Gay marriage has been legal again in California since 28 June 2013.

California also has a law requiring disclosure of certain personal information of individuals who donate $100 or more in support of or opposition to a ballot measure. This information is public, and is downloadable from the California Secretary of State. Among other groups and news outlets, the Los Angeles Times publicized the donor list for Proposition 8 shortly after the measure passed, making it searchable; soon the entire donor list was widely circulating as boycott targets.

One of those names was one Brendan Eich, of Mozilla, who had donated $1,000. Eich started at Silicon Graphics, where he worked on IRIX, and eventually made his way to Netscape Communications in 1995 where he became the inventor of JavaScript (for Netscape Navigator). After America Online bought out Netscape in 1998 he helped to spin it out as Mozilla, which later became independent, and where he remained until now as the CTO since 2005. Eich's contribution was public record for some time, but did not come to light until 2012 when it was rediscovered. Many of Eich's coworkers, including some of his closest, were shocked and dismayed. However, virtually everyone, even his detractors, agreed that he had never made his views public at work and had left his personal feelings at the door. Such was the background when he was made CEO by the Mozilla board, apparently against the wishes of three board members who later resigned, preferring an external candidate. The reaction was swift, including at least two high-profile boycotts, an employee request for him to resign, and many prolonged flamefests in every corner of the Internet. Eich was repeatedly asked to recant his views and, most recently given an opportunity in an interview with the Guardian, he did not.

Today he did step down, apparently for good, not even returning to his previous position as CTO; it seems his days at Mozilla are done. It's not clear where he's going next.

Free speech in the United States is heavily protected, possibly to a point that our readers from other countries will find absurd, but it is and has been for decades. However, those protections extend to preventing government from abridging those rights; private actors are not so enjoined. One interpretation is that this sad series of events is the system working exactly as designed: Eich had a right to have those views and express them, and those opposed to those views had a right to express their opposition and their displeasure with his employer. That is, essentially, exactly what happened -- he has a right to free speech, but not to be absolved of the consequences, which in this case was likely a "fall on your sword" resignation.

I agree with this principle, but only up to a point. There are clearly certain views that are now so far out of the mainstream that no one will tolerate them in a high profile position anywhere. You may still get to be a racist, or sexist, or express your dismay over miscegenation, in certain parochial environs but at large the vast majority of Americans do indeed reject these views as antiquated, wrong and damaging. Certainly any CEO as high-profile as this would expect to be hounded out for holding such opinions today. However, generational change happens generationally. We did not expect many of the most ardent racists to reject their views; some may have moderated them, and some made public apologies, but many went to their graves with the same beliefs and after racial integration laws and other marked civil rights changes it was their children who grew up in a different world. Gay marriage has not reached that point, and is qualitatively different in that at least a large portion of several religious traditions continues to regard it as immoral. As recently as 2010, only 44% of U.S. citizens supported it; President Obama himself did not reverse his previous statement on gay marriage until 2012. As of 2013, a slim majority supports it, which means almost half of the country still does not or is undecided.

Opposition to gay marriage, despite people's feelings and protestations, is still a mainstream view in the United States (to borrow Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom's infamous phrase, "whether you like it or not"). It is a mainstream view that is likely to erode bit by bit because of recent Supreme Court rulings on the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which struck it down and will likely be a precedent to overturn laws and constitutional amendments against gay marriage in those states that already have them, and the children of people today who are against gay marriage will grow up in that world instead where it is legal and in many places accepted as normal. But this is generational change. Until then, a significant proportion of Americans hold these views, and many will hold them until the end. In fact, if there were indeed a religious motivation, would we expect differently? More to the point, is anyone with a sincerely held moral objection to gay marriage a "homophobe," even if they accept the legality of gay marriage as reasonable or at least unopposable?

It is highly corrosive to society to exclude or relentlessly ostracise those people whose views were thoroughly acceptable just a short while ago -- it cuts out large swathes of people while accomplishing nothing practically, especially now that the legal argument against gay marriage has been made all but void by the Supreme Court, and acts as a chilling effect on free discourse. There is no honour in establishing a blacklist even if you are on the right side of history. Ah, you say, but Eich's actions are beyond simply expressing a view; he acted willfully with this campaign contribution (and arguably others) to restrict the rights of gays. To this assertion I say you'd better be careful. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that campaign contributions are indeed a form of free speech like any other, a view doubled down upon just today by McCutcheon v FEC. Like it or loathe it, this was his part of expressing his view in the democratic process just as you or I get to do, and if you don't like this ruling then you should remember it was also this same Supreme Court that overturned DOMA. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

I've had my disagreements with Eich as a community member, but they always have been resolved amicably even when things didn't go my way, and while my interactions with him have always been of a purely professional nature he was always professional. In the end this whole sad affair might be perceived as decisively striking a blow for gay rights, but no one really won here. Certainly not Eich -- where will he go now? Even if he had returned as CTO, who knows if this would have blown over this time? He'll always be "that guy," and someone will always want his head; some posts don't believe he's fit anymore for any job in the tech community. Definitely not Mozilla -- they should have foreseen this and predicted how bad a message this would send to their community and employees and never made him CEO in the first place; now one of their biggest carriers of institutional memory and technical knowledge is under a cloud and will likely never be a meaningful contributor to Mozilla again. This was bad business, plain and simple. Their ill-advised move making him CEO looked tone-deaf; now they look diffident as well. They'll suffer the public relations ramifications of this whole story for years.

But proponents of gay marriage have also lost. A vigourous mob took a man who by all accounts never brought his beliefs to work and who embodied the Open Internet principles on which Mozilla is still grounded, and hounded him out of a job. (Yes, I know he "resigned." Everyone in that position "resigns." Many are told to.) This makes martyrs out of whole cloth and hardens the viewpoints of the people you need to accomplish your goal. It represents the movement badly, and it sets back the generational change that is desired.

Adlai Stevenson once observed that a free society is one where it is safe to be unpopular. If you believe this sort of mob justice is acceptable, pray it never sets its sights on you.

Done with that topic. Now that some of you have stopped reading in fury, let's talk about Firefox OS and the Geeksphone Revolution Revulsion. In this post-PC age, Mozilla has virtually no presence on mobile devices and tablets, and even though there is Firefox Android it's large and unwieldy and hardly used. So Mozilla has focused on the feature-phone market to bring low-spec devices that may not run Android well into smartphone territory. That focus brought us FirefoxOS.

FirefoxOS has direct benefit to us in TenFourFox-land because it is written for (what are now) low-spec phones somewhat straddling the gap between feature phones and smartphones. Happily, these phones have similar specifications to our aging Power Macs, and since the rendering is all cross-platform code, we can reap these benefits on our own hardware. But let's say that you're tired of the Google-Apple binary in smartphones (Windows Phone? really?). You don't trust any of them, not even the new and sexy Microsoft, and you're tired of having to void your warranty to run something else. Ostensibly, at least, you have a third choice and this is it.

My previous review of the Revolution Revulsion was singularly disenchanted with the poky Atom CPU, the crummy screen and the plasticky feel. Most importantly I was really p*ssed off that it came with Android, and AOSP Android 4.2 at that, not the Firefox OS phone I had ordered despite Geeksphone's advertisements to the contrary. Those criticisms still stand.

Fortunately, no thanks to Geeksphone, I discovered where you install it. In Settings, you can select another operating system, and Firefox OS is one of them. It does not dual boot -- this will flash your phone. It will automatically download a build of FirefoxOS from Geeksphone's servers and reboot:

And here we are at the main screen of what appear to be a completely vanilla install:
FirefoxOS distinguishes itself with its particular brand of "apps" which can be hybrid offline or online, but 100% written in HTML5. This isn't as bad as it sounds considering how functional HTML5 has become. Even things like the dialer are HTML5, interfacing through privileged DOM objects with the phone hardware. A number of them come with the default install, but you can delete these freely. If we swipe to the right side, taking a screenshot (Power-Home), we see the rest of the built-in apps:
These are very basic, but functional (except for Mail, which for some reason I could not persuade to work with Gmail). Dialer, SMS, browser, phone book, calendar, music, it's all there. The camera is similarly basic, but here the Revulsion's hardware lets it down. The camera's low light performance is slow,
and the flash white-balances poorly, which ought to be correctable in software. I'm not sure if Geeksphone or Mozilla is to blame here.
The HTML5 apps included with the machine span the gamut; here are the Social ones. (Notice the Spanish labeling.)
More are available in the marketplace, like my current favourite timewaster, 2048:
Happily, notifications and control strip operations work pretty much like most other phones do.
However, Android users such as myself will keep trying to hit the back button, and this doesn't work -- you go "home" and pick other apps. iOS users won't have any problem.

Bluetooth pairing was a little wacky with my G5. It's better if you initiate pairing from the Mac -- if you try to do this from the Geeksphone, then the pairing dance gets a little wild and they try to pair at different intervals and it becomes messy. Once it's done, though, it works fine and transfers files and pictures. You can even queue Bluetooth transmissions up into a big all-at-once blob, which is something my Android Nexus 5 does not do well.

I am also delighted to note that the SD card is fully accessible over USB, so you can dump files and music from your Power Mac right on it. I wish Nexus phones would support this again.

The phone identifies itself as Firefox 28, but gets updates from Geeksphone, not Mozilla.

I haven't yet received an OTA update, so I don't know how well that works. By the way, you should consider the switch to FirefoxOS practically one-way. You can go back to Android, but there is no installer and you will have to reflash the device. But Android is so lousy on this I don't know why anyone would want to.

I don't think FirefoxOS could be my regular phone, at least not yet. I dithered over swapping in my 3G SIM and seeing how long I could put up with it, but decided not to -- I still have a lot of Android apps I like, though I suppose I could run them on a tablet and use a Firefox phone besides, and my work depends on me being accessible at all times and I'm not 100% convinced of that level of reliability with FxOS yet. The biggest problem is, of course, this particular phone: it sucks, even though it sucks a lot less in FirefoxOS than it does in AOSP Android. That does bode well for Mozilla, and a very inexpensive phone running FxOS should be a lot more pleasant than Android on the same hardware plus a lot less restrictive. But I'm not really in that market -- I like high-end hardware, and FxOS is not compelling on that, or at least not on the choices we have now short of buying another Nexus 5 and trying to flash it.

Those of you who are in that market, though, should consider FirefoxOS to be very serviceable. I'd look at another handset than this one, and I wouldn't pay a lot. But if I had to, I think I could use it and adapt to it. It's going to take something better than that to wrest established smartphone users away like me, but for people upgrading to a smartphone from a feature phone, Mozilla has a chance with those people and they might have a chance with you. And being Power Mac friendly, or at least not Power Mac hostile, is a big plus. If Mozilla finds a better hardware partner, I myself would strongly think about buying another Firefox OS device and giving it another shot. Let's hope and see, because I don't want just two tech companies in the mobile space -- and Mozilla needs all the help it can get to stay relevant.

A polite request: no comments about Brendan Eich -- I will delete them, even the ones that agree with this view. I don't have time to moderate a flame war. This post is the only statement I will make on that topic.


  1. I like your review, but why 2048? Threes is much better, and somebody actually beat the game by designing a bot that presses up and right repeatedly, while pressing left every hundred times when the tiles get stuck at the top right.

    1. I didn't see a Threes in the Mozilla Marketplace. Maybe there's one there now.

  2. I had a quick question for you to perhaps address: Regarding Eich's leaving, have you seen any impact on browser stats? Like more or less people downloading tenfourfox? I've heard a lot of people switching to Pale Moon on the windows side, or Opera, chrome and even IE; I was curious if you'd seen anything? And is Firefox being hurt by this? If so, wouldn't that impact TenFourFox, if Mozilla suddenly shrinks a large amount?

    1. I don't know how much the incident has affected Firefox's user base. Chrome has caused it to have a slow decline for some time now prior to this whole things, see

      If Mozilla abruptly shrunk, there would still be users working on it other than MoCo employees. It certainly wouldn't make me abandon Gecko for TenFourFox, and frankly there's no easy way to jump to WebKit now anyway without creating a totally new browser.

    2. (Also, I haven't seen much change in TenFourFox download stats, possibly because for some configurations such as 10.4 or most 7400s and all G3s, we're the only game in town.)


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