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Post: Endangered Firefox? | Computerworld



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At this point, the best thing Mozilla Corp. has going for it is that it is not a publicly traded company, because if it was, its stock would be getting slaughtered. The company’s CEO, Mitchell Baker, recently departed, and recent reports put its share of the browser market in the low single digits.

But Mozilla is no stranger to challenges. It was born into adversity, launched after the collapse of Netscape Communications in 2003. As one of its last acts, Netscape open-sourced the code for its eponymous browser. The Mozilla Foundation was formed to take up the project abandoned by Netscape and create a new, modern browser. And it did so with Microsoft owning virtually the entire browser space by that point.

Mozilla released the Firefox browser in 2004 as the only viable alternative to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Fast and nimble, Firefox ran circles around the aging, bloated IE. Mozilla’s browser saw a steady gain in market share, peaking in mid-2010 at 34%. But it would be all downhill from there as Google Chrome’s star rose throughout the ensuing decade. With Google putting its full weight behind Chrome, both Mozilla and Microsoft saw significant loss of market share.

Firefox came so late to the mobile space that it never had any ground to lose. For iPhone users there was Safari, built on WebKit, Apple’s open-source browser engine. On the Android side of things, Chrome was preinstalled.

Squeezed on all sides, Mozilla has tried in recent years to position Firefox as a privacy-focused browser, but to no avail: Firefox’s market share has dwindled to just 3.3% while Chrome commands 68.8%, according to W3Counter. The federal government’s Digital Analytics Program (DAP), which monitors traffic to government websites for the past 90 days, puts Firefox at only 2.2% of the market. 

“Consumers and business users adopt what works best for them, and they are free to change browsers on a whim or to try the newest and latest features,” said Todd R. Weiss, an independent consultant.

“Without a price tag or commitment for browsers, it is hard to grow brand loyalty, especially as the products, their security, features, improvements, and reputations change constantly over time,” he said. “That is what happened to Firefox, as it happened to Netscape Navigator, Microsoft Internet Explorer, and other previously popular browsers over the last several decades.”

Part of the problem is Mozilla’s business model. Mozilla Corp., which manages Firefox, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, and all profits are reinvested in the foundation’s open-source projects. It is hard to monetize “free,” which is why there has never been an open-source company the size of Microsoft, Oracle, or SAP.

“Mozilla basically lives off donations. They have no marketing budget. If they want to survive, they need to find a path to profit so they become self-sustaining and can afford to compete with the products they offer,” said Rob Enderle, president of the Enderle Group.

“They need some out-of-the-box-thinking and a focus on creating a revenue stream that will sustain them. Without that, they are on a path to corporate death, with the only question being when they’ll have to turn out the lights,” he added.

Mozilla doesn’t appear to be in any danger of closing up shop just yet. According to its most recent annual report for calendar year 2022, the company is sitting on more than $1 billion in cash, equivalents, and short-term investments. Its debt is minimal.

But it is also wholly dependent on Google. Of the $593 million in revenue for 2022, $510 million of that was royalties paid by Google. Those royalties come from making Google the default search engine in the Firefox browser. Subscriptions and ad revenue were just $75 million.

Mozilla has tried to break its Google dependency by diversifying its products, offering everything from an encrypted email service to a VR-focused browser. But critics say it has spread itself too thin, with too many projects taking resources from Firefox. The departure of CEO Baker last month, appointment of an interim CEO through the end of the year, and subsequent round of layoffs have done little to instill confidence in Firefox’s future.

“The shakeup at the top is usually not a good sign,” said Joe Karasin, president of digital marketing firm Karasin PPC. “I suspect that there are further problems on the horizon, as Firefox hasn’t really innovated anything new in the past few years, and they allowed DuckDuckGo to really own the ‘private browser’ messaging and space.”

Mozilla declined our request for comment.

Another problem exacerbating the issue has been Google and Microsoft pressing the accelerator on AI tools, while Firefox has not incorporated AI on any real level and is only just now starting to pivot toward AI integration.

“As the bigger brands continue to innovate, companies like Mozilla will eventually be among the long list of also-rans in the browser market,” said Karasin. “As the world has trended toward mobile browsing, iPhones have built-in Safari browsers, and Androids obviously have Google Chrome. Firefox has been downloaded over 100 million times from the Google Play Store, but how many monthly and daily active users it has is anyone’s guess.”

But Weiss holds out hope for a turnaround for Firefox. “I’m not sure if Firefox can do anything to reverse these trends, but it is possible if they add more features that users love from browsers such as Chrome and even Safari,” he said. “Maybe the Firefox team needs to be listening better.”

It’s worth noting that Firefox is the only mainstream browser built on an independent, open-source browser engine whose roots don’t go back to Apple’s WebKit engine. Google based its Blink engine on WebKit, and Blink powers both Chrome and Chromium, the open-source browser upon which most other modern browsers are built, including Opera, Brave, and Microsoft Edge. Continuing to develop Firefox’s Gecko engine — and thus preventing a browser monoculture — is important for the health of the web, say open-web advocates.

“Firefox is worth maintaining and trying to grow again,” Weiss said. “It has good bones.”

One glimmer of hope for Firefox and other alternative browsers has appeared in the wake of Apple’s recent rollout of iOS 17.4 to comply with the Eurpean Union’s Digital Markets Act. When iPhone users in the EU open Safari, they see a spash screen that lets them choose a default browser. Both Firefox and Brave have reported spikes in iOS installations among EU users since the rollout.

“When consumers get a clear choice of iOS browsers, they’re choosing alternatives to Safari. Maybe that’s why Google still hasn’t implemented a browser choice screen on Android,” Brave posted on X. Absent such a screen, Android users must actively seek out and download alternative browsers from the Google Play Store.

So Google has won for now, but let’s not forget that Microsoft won this crown once as well, and Google took it from them. However, Google has a search service tied to Chrome, something Internet Explorer did not have until Bing launched in 2009. That makes Google less likely to repeat Microsoft’s mistake and pull development resources from Chrome.

And there are plenty of alternatives to Chrome in addition to Firefox — Edge, Opera, Safari, Brave, and Vivaldi among them — none of which have yet to make a measurable dent in Chrome’s hegemony. For now, at least, Chrome rules the roost.

Copyright © 2024 IDG Communications, Inc.

Lora Helmin

Lora Helmin

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