The indispensable ingredient that binds developers together on a free software project, and makes them willing to compromise when necessary, is the code’s forkability: the ability of anyone to take a copy of the source code and use it to start a competing project, known as a fork. The paradoxical thing is that the possibility of forks is usually a much greater force in free software projects than actual forks, which are very rare. Because a fork is bad for everyone, the more serious the threat of a fork becomes, the more willing people are to compromise to avoid it.
— Karl Fogel, Producing Open Source Software
Is Firefox actually forkable? In one sense, clearly, yes – there have been several pseudo-forks, from Beonex to Flock to Iceweasel. But Firefox is much more than just a codebase – it’s also a well-loved brand, a movement, and a connection with 400+ million users. Anyone taking the Firefox code and starting their own project doesn’t have that – as Flock discovered. “Firefox”, in its widest sense, is pretty much unforkable.
So if, as Karl suggests, the possibility of forking is actually a force which binds developers together and makes them willing to compromise when necessary, does the Firefox community actually lack that safety valve, leading to a lack of necessity to compromise from those with power within the project, and greater frustration for those without it?
Or, to look at it from another angle, does the lack of forkability actually give leaders (who have meritoriously risen to the top) the opportunity to execute on a single-focussed vision without the risk of fragmentation of their community?
As my accidentally-leaked scratchpad put it, “Discuss…”.