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The Lone Coder

MidRange
The Lone Coder
By Ernie Smith • Issue #27 • View online
A letter of appreciation to the guy who spent years developing one of the few modern web browsers for vintage Macs.

Brett Jordan/Unsplash
Brett Jordan/Unsplash
It takes a certain kind of person to create something for an audience of die-hard enthusiasts for years on end, but it takes another kind of person to transition away from that project.
That person is Cameron Kaiser, and that project is TenFourFox, one of the last continually developed browsers that supported Macs from the pre-Intel days. Based on Firefox, the browser had a reputation of running sites reasonably modern but nonetheless ran up against the realities of its hardware, which is, let’s face it, really freaking old at this point.
And this week Kaiser announced that he was winding the project down and eventually putting it into “hobby mode,” in which any further work done on the browser is done in private. (Kaiser, who also produced the last pre-OSX Mac browser, Classilla, also released an incomplete final update for that.)
Despite the age of the hardware it supported, Kaiser’s TenFourFox maintained a continued base of users—he said in a blog post that an average of 2,000 computers pinged his server for updates on a daily basis, which is impressive for computers that generally are a bit hamstrung in 2021.
TenFourFox, as seen in a special dark theme, circa 2016.
TenFourFox, as seen in a special dark theme, circa 2016.
But the thing that really stands out about Kaiser’s announcement is less about the retirement, and more about what he says about the challenges he faced as a creator of open-source software on a platform where his app was literally the only show in town:
If you aren’t paying for the software, then please don’t be a jerk. There is a human at the other end of those complaints and unless you have a support contract, that person owes you exactly nothing. Whining is exhausting to read and “doesn’t work” reports are unavoidably depressing, disparaging or jokey comments are unkind, and making reports nastier or more insistent doesn’t make your request more important. This is true whether or not your request is reasonable or achievable, but it’s certainly more so when it isn’t.
As kindly as I can put it, not all bug reports are welcome. Many are legitimately helpful and improve the quality of the browser, and I did appreciate the majority of the reports I got, but even helpful bug reports objectively mean more work for me though it was work I usually didn’t mind doing. Unfortunately, the ones that are unhelpful are at best annoying (and at worst incredibly frustrating) because they mean unhappy people with problems that may never be solvable.
This is what is particularly interesting about Kaiser’s comments: Because of what he was producing, he effectively became one of the most important people in the vintage Mac scene almost by default, because he was producing software that anyone who was at all serious about continuing to use their vintage computers probably needed. And this, of course, creates pressure. Sure, others likely helped him, but he was the person out front and it’s not like he was making millions of dollars by continuing to program a browser that has basically no modern commercial use case.
(And it’s not the only place where he’s doing it, either; as I wrote in 2017, his Floodgap Systems is one of the bedrock sites of modern-day Gopher.)
And that puts undue pressure on the one guy who is pushing this specific platform forward on what is arguably its most important tool. (On top of all of this Kaiser, a medical doctor and infectious diseases expert, has had an immeasurably difficult job over the last year as the public health officer for an entire county during a pandemic, a position he was recently removed from after gaining a reputation of being ahead of the curve on things like requiring mask-wearing. Kaiser, who briefly hinted at this in his TenFourFox post, literally was the person who called off Coachella this year.)
Action Retro #MARCHintosh
I've been working on a thing - https://t.co/1aqvM9nghM - read Google News on ancient browsers!

Built with Netscape 2+ in mind, but should work on way older stuff. No JS, no CSS, no tables.

Most articles should work and be readable. Still working out some kinks. https://t.co/jEGkuFRCVv
Sure, others are doing good work on a related front—Sean Malseed, a pal of mine who runs the YouTube channel Action Retro, just created a lo-fi version of Google News for vintage computers that would otherwise be blocked off the internet—but at some point, the modern day was going to catch up to Kaiser’s work, and he realized it was just too much work for one person to solve.
Plus, there’s also the dogfooding element of it all: “I can’t maintain a quality product if I don’t dogfood it myself,” he wrote. “And my G5 has not been my daily driver for a good couple years; my daily driver is the Raptor Talos II.”
In other words, it was no longer personally helpful for him, even if other users benefited.
Now, there are options for people who want to browse the web on a G4 to this day—Linux offers some choices, while the Amiga-like MorphOS offers two fairly modern options—the built-in Odyssey web browser and the more recent WayFarer. And for Mac users, there’s a customized update to Safari that allows for more-modern Webkit support (and in some ways is faster than TenFourFox), though it hasn’t been updated since 2018.
Instead of lamenting the loss of a project like this, we should reflect on the fact that Kaiser was willing to support it for so long—especially given his day job. He made digital culture a lot better for a specific subculture. And that should be appreciated.
Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes
Time left on clock ⏲: 1 minute, 56 seconds
If you like this, be sure to check out more of my writing at Tedium: The Dull Side of the Internet.
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