When Firefox was introduced in 2004, it was designed to be a lean and optimized web browser, based on the bloated code from the Mozilla Suite. Between 2004 and 2009, many considered Firefox to be the best web browser, since it was faster, more secure, offered tabbed browsing and was more customizable through extensions than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. When Chrome was introduced in 2008, it took many of Firefox’s best ideas and improved on them. Since 2010, Chrome has eaten away at Firefox’s market share, relegating Firefox to a tiny niche of free software enthusiasts and tinkerers who like the customization of its XUL extensions.
According to StatCounter, Firefox’s market share of web browsers has fallen from 31.8% in December 2009 to just 6.1% today. Firefox can take comfort in the fact that it is now virtually tied with its former arch-nemesis, Internet Explorer and its variants. All of Microsoft’s browsers only account for 6.2% of current web browsing according to StatCounter. Microsoft has largely been replaced by Google, whose web browsers now controls 56.5% of the market. Even worse, is the fact that the WebKit engine used by Google now represents over 83% of web browsing, so web sites are increasingly focusing on compatibility with just one web engine. While Google and Apple are more supportive of the W3C and open standards than Microsoft was in the late 90s, the web is increasingly being monopolized by one web engine and two companies, whose business models are not always based on the best interests of users or their rights.
The fight against the monopolization of the web has been led by the Mozilla Foundation, which was set up when Netscape open sourced its code in 1998. The Foundation is a non-profit organization which produces free and open source software and is dedicated to maintaining a free and open internet, as stated on its web site:
Our mission is to ensure the Internet is a global public resource, open and accessible to all. An Internet that truly puts people first, where individuals can shape their own experience and are empowered, safe and independent.
The Foundation works very hard to promote the use of Internet standards and advocate for user privacy and security. While the majority of Mozilla’s revenue comes from Yahoo!, Google, Yandex and Baidu who pay for their search engine to be used as the default, Mozilla makes it easy for users to select their own search engine such as duckduckgo.com, so their search data isn’t collected and monetized through targeted advertising. In contrast, Chrome and its open source variant Chromium are designed to suck up as much of users’ personal data as possible by Google.
It is disheartening that Chrome/Chromium has become so much better technically than Firefox. Google’s business model based on monetizing people’s personal data carries the risk of leading us into an Orwellian future, where our information is used against us by both little brother (private companies) and big brother (the 3 letter government agencies).
It is not surprising that so many geeks and techies switched from Firefox to Chrome due to its superior performance and growing market share. Nonetheless, it is sad that they feel so little loyalty for a Foundation which has been struggling for their digital rights for so long. Even on the technical merits, technophiles should have been enamored by what the Mozilla Foundation has done with WebAssembly, WebVR, and the Rust programming language. WebAssembly makes it possible to run programs inside the web browser at the speed of a desktop application. Imagine being able to play a first personal shooter game with high-resolution graphics inside your web browser. Rust provides multi-threading, security, and high level features from newer programming languages, but at the speed and memory usage of C.
For years Firefox’s performance has been falling behind Chrome, but it is not easy for a small organization like Mozilla to marshal the resources and programming talent to overhaul the code and catch up with Chrome. Firefox contains 7 million lines of code, and that code base can’t be changed overnight. Mozilla started developing Servo, its new experimental web engine, in March 2012. Only now after 5 years of development are many of the ideas from Servo starting to be incorporated into Firefox as components that Firefox calls “Quantum”. Unlike the old Gecko layout engine in Firefox which is programmed in C++ and only uses one processing core, Servo is programmed in Rust and uses multiple processing cores at the same time to speed up the rendering of web pages. Firefox 57 which was released last week contains the new Quantum CSS engine, but other Quantum components will be included in the coming year. Firefox 57 is now twice as fast as it was six months ago, and now competes with Chrome in the speed it renders web pages. It also uses 30% less memory than Chrome. The Mozilla Foundation predicts that the speed will double again in 2018, as more Quantum components are incorporated into Firefox.
Firefox 57 is arguably already superior to Chrome on its technical merits, but the incorporation of more Quantum components over the next year will blow away Chrome in terms of performance. It will probably take the Google programmers several years to catch up to the multi-core processing of Quantum components. Hopefully, this technical lead will help Firefox recover some of its lost market share. This is important, not only to prevent Google from monopolizing the web browser market, but also because gaining market share will give Mozilla more leverage to push for a free and open internet and the digital rights of users.
Sadly, being faster and using less memory may not be enough to regain Firefox’s lost market share. Firefox will lose some of its long-time users, because it is ending support for its XUL extensions, so it will not long be possible to customize many parts of the Firefox interface. The new extensions framework, WebExtensions, makes it possible to use extensions from Chrome and Opera with a little adaptation, but people may see less reason to choose Firefox, now that it can’t be customized any more than other web browsers. Basically, Firefox is trading security and performance for customization and extensibility, and not all users will be happy with that tradeoff.
The bigger challenge is the fact that the world is moving toward mobile devices, where Firefox doesn’t have much of a foothold. Most usage of Firefox occurs on Windows devices, but Windows devices only represent 37.0% of total web browsing in 2017, according to StatCounter. Firefox is the dominant web browser in Linux, but Linux devices only represent 0.77% of total web browsing. Firefox is being relegated into a smaller and smaller niche as mobile devices replace PCs as the dominant type of computer.
Use of Firefox on mobile devices is now growing, but it still represents just a tiny fraction of the market. According to StatCounter, Firefox’s share of mobile web browsing increased from 0.06% to 0.45% between July and October of 2017. It is very difficult for Firefox to become a significant player in mobile web browsing, due to the stranglehold that Android and iOS have over mobile phones and tablets. Android devices are designed to use Google Web Services which have been optimized to run on Chrome. Apple wants to maintain control over the user experience on its devices, so it won’t encourage the use of 3rd party browsers on its devices. Samsung, LG and Alibaba offer their own web browsers for mobile devices, but they are based on WebKit, not Mozilla’s Gecko engine.
Mozilla will be forced to also create a version of Firefox based on Microsoft’s EdgeHTML if it ever hopes to be included in the Windows Store. In other words, Firefox on iOS (and probably on future Windows S devices) will be little more than a skin for Safari (and probably Edge), so there will be little reason to choose it over Apple’s or Microsoft’s web browser, because it can’t take advantage of Mozilla’s superior Quantum components. Even worse is Google’s policy of prohibiting the installation of 3rd party web browsers on Chrome OS devices. Firefox simply can’t be installed on any Chromebook.
These underhanded practices should be prohibited in a sane world, but the US government’s enforcement of anti-trust law has been almost non-existent under recent Republican administrations, so there is little hope that the Trump Justice Department will do anything about the anti-competitive policies of Microsoft, Apple and Google that discourage the use of Firefox on their operating systems. The EU is more proactive in forcing “dominant” companies to follow fair business practices with smaller competitors. The EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager in charge of competition policy has been fining companies like Google billions of dollars for their anti-competitive practices, but she is unlikely to do anything about the web browser market. Microsoft, Apple and Google can effectively argue that Windows 10 S only runs a tiny fraction of PCs, iOS only runs 18% of the world’s smartphones, and Chrome OS only runs 3.5% of the PCs sold in 2016, so it will be difficult to argue in court that these restrictions should be prohibited under antitrust law.
Mozilla doesn’t need to become the gorilla in the room like Microsoft was in the late 1990s or Google is today in order to be influential in the fight for a free and open internet. It just needs a large enough percentage of the web browser market that every web site has to take it into account. Apple devices only account for 15% of web browsing, but that was a large enough percentage that when Safari stopped supporting Flash, most web sites started getting rid of Flash or offering an alternative. If Firefox’s market share can grow to double digits again, it will have enough weight to not be ignored when it pushes for better standards on the internet and greater user rights. Unfortunately, new Quantum components and the innovative use of WebAssembly, WebVR and Rust may not be enough to increase Firefox’s market share, when it is facing so many anti-competitive barriers in the tech industry. To maintain its influence over the development of the web, the Mozilla Foundation will need the support of millions of passionate users who not only appreciate the technical benefits of its software, but also the Foundation’s advocacy for their rights on the internet.
If the Foundation is going to maintain its influence and be able to effectively fight for a free and open internet, it must be able to reach outside of its current niche as alternative desktop web browser. That niche is still enormous, but it is shrinking. Only about 8 of the roughly 100 million daily users of Firefox are on mobile devices. The problem is that mobile devices running iOS and Android are tightly linked to Safari and Chrome, and neither Apple nor Google want their users to switch to an alternative browser. Unlike Apple, Google can’t be too blatant in its efforts to sideline third-party browsers, out of fear of provoking antitrust regulators. Nonetheless, most Android devices are designed to use Google Web Services and those services run well on Chrome, so few Android users are going to take the time to search for Firefox on the Google Play Store and install it.
After the failure of Firefox OS to establish an alternative mobile operating system, the Mozilla Foundation is now considering other ways to get its browser installed on mobile devices. If people aren’t going to actively download and install the Firefox app on their mobile devices like they do on PCs, then another route to gain market share is to convince mobile device manufacturers to preinstall Firefox on smartphones and tablets. The Mozilla Foundation is considering sharing its revenue from search engines with device manufacturers who preinstall Firefox. Giving up a portion of its search revenues would be a bitter pill to swallow, especially after the Foundation shut down the development of vital projects like Firefox OS and Thunderbird, because it didn’t think it could keep funding them.
Nonetheless, paying device manufacturers may be the most effective way to get Firefox on a significant portion of smartphones and tablets and to make Mozilla relevant in the mobile age. For years software companies have been paying PC makers to preinstall their software. Many of those same companies probably could be induced to preinstall Firefox for a share of the search revenue from Google, Yahoo, Yandex and Baidu. Most device makers, including LG, Sony, Lenovo/Motorola, HTC and Blackberry Limited, loose money on every smartphone they sell, and many of them are eager to loosen Google’s stranglehold over the software on their devices, so Mozilla might be able to induce them to preinstall Firefox.
Another idea that the Mozilla Foundation is considering is the creation of a membership plan. In the same way that the American Association of Retired People (AARP) and the National Rifle Association (NRA) are membership organizations that provide perks for their members and lobby for their interests, the Mozilla Foundation is discussing the idea of creating a membership plan that would provide services to members, but also flex political muscle advocating for user privacy, encryption, net neutrality, etc. Currently, the Mozilla Foundation employs a team of 8 lobbyists in the US and EU, but it could have a much larger voice if could represent millions of users in the political sphere. Users desperately need an advocate to push for their rights in a world increasingly dominated by the commercial interests of a handful of tech giants. If the Mozilla Foundation can be transformed into a membership organization and advocacy group, it will be much better at maintaining the loyalty of its users and its browser market share.
It is unclear at this point whether any of these ideas will become reality, but they show that Mozilla will not go quietly into the night without a fight. The very fact that Mozilla is still struggling and still pushing for a free and open internet should be a rallying cry to us all to not give up in the fight for our digital rights.