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Why Did Google Abandon Firefox?

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Today Google unveiled Chrome, an open-source web browser built for web apps. The release begs the question: What happened to its relationship with Mozilla, its Mountain View, Calif.-based neighbor and formerly close collaborator on Firefox, the open-source upstart trying (and to some extent succeeding) to take a piece out of Internet Explorer? [digg=]

In addition to providing the majority of the non-profit Mozilla’s revenue through a deal to be the default search engine for the Firefox browser, Google had in the past paid for some of its own employees to work part-time or more on Firefox. Most notably, Google hired Firefox lead engineer Ben Goodger in January 2005 under the condition that he would continue to work at least half-time on Mozilla projects.

And who should turn out to be one of the lead engineers on Chrome but Goodger himself, who in fact presented the browser at a media event at Google’s headquarters today. When asked after the presentation about the circumstances surrounding his stopping work on Firefox, Goodger said the Chrome project had begun two years ago, after he was hired, and he was grateful to Mozilla for giving him his first experience in the space. (As confirmation, Goodger’s blog says he stopped contributing to the Mozilla project in 2006.)

When we talked to Mozilla CEO John Lilly yesterday his spoke of Chrome like that of a competitor, saying he would wait and see if he should be worried about yet another player in the market.

So when did Google decide to forge its own path? Sundar Pichai, Google’s VP of product management, said that at some point Google realized it wanted a complete overhaul of a browser to fit its needs. While Chrome development was conducted in secrecy, now that it’s (somewhat incongruously) out there as an open-source project it may have the opportunity to rejoin other browsers’ development cycles, he said. “I hope that big chunks of Chrome can make it into next generations of Firefox,” said Google co-founder Sergey Brin, later adding he wouldn’t mind if they made it into Internet Explorer, either.

“Without what [Mozilla] have done, this would have been nearly impossible because would have had only one browser,” said co-founder Larry Page.

At least for Google there’s some money behind those words; in a nice bit of timing, Google last week renewed its Firefox search deal through November 2011. And Pichai made a point of emphasizing that Google services aren’t given preferential treatment within Chrome, though the default search provider is rather obvious.

So OK, it’s another open-source, free web browser. What’s in it for Google? Page said that the monetary benefits Google will gain from Chrome will come from the better and cheaper-to-develop web apps that its engineers can build using a better browser, as well as increased user loyalty and freed-up user time so they can search more.

But because Google has no desktop monopoly to build upon, what ultimately matters is if (like its search engine) Chrome is faster and better enough than existing options to prompt people to switch. For me, Big Brother implications aren’t an issue, but it’s just not worth using Windows, so I’ll grumble through Firefox stalling out my computer for yet another day until the Mac version comes out.

Chrome’s features — “incognito” browsing, searching within sites from the toolbar, tab dragging on steroids — are indeed excellent, and if Mozilla isn’t holding a grudge, should be added to Firefox ASAP. But the features are for early adopters and power users, so it’s Firefox’s market share that Chrome will eat up, not IE’s. And it’s Firefox’s engineers that Google took away. Maybe being open source and having a common enemy will heal up this little bout of backstabbing, but then again, maybe not.

62 Responses to “Why Did Google Abandon Firefox?”

  1. Personally I like Chrome, but I wish you could use some of incognito’s privacy settings in the normal browsing options. I think Google probably didn’t use FireFox as the basis for Chrome, because their basic operating theories are almost totally different. That has nothing to do with their partnership, which is for Google to be the default search engine within FireFox and to use a Google hosted search page.

    Chrome acts much like its own operating system environment and builds off the ideas of Prism more so than FireFox. Personally, I think Google saw a specific way it wanted a browser to work (for whatever reasons) and didn’t foresee FireFox pursuing that way in an affective time frame. Google’s goal has always been to store and make available the world’s information, which includes information that wouldn’t be on the web. (Check out Google’s health records service.) In my opinion Chrome is just a stepping stone toward a web-based operating system-like environment (which has been done). It’s been rumored for years, but I think it’s actually coming. Chrome is just a stepping stone towards Google OS or whatever they’ve named it (GoOSe? :) Whether they do it or someone else… AIR, Prism, .NET’s initiatives, the clouds, etc all point to the desktop on the web.

  2. Bob Poortinga

    Let’s face it. Although I like and use Firefox, it has a really poor memory manager and Javascript interpreter which means it doesn’t perform Ajax very well. Ever leave a Gmail window open in Firefox for a few days? Firefox slows to a crawl. Google was probably not happy with the pace that the Mozilla foundation was addressing these issues and decided to take the lead. Additional things such as plugins (Java, Adobe Reader, etc) crashing the whole browser are not being addressed in Firefox.

  3. The ingognito browsing already exists in Safari (called Private Browsing) as does the moving of tabs (Move tab to new window)- try right clicking on a tab, also try dragging a URL from the toolbar to the tabs bar of another window, also try dragging a tab between two open browser windows – all work or use the window menu item “Merge all Windows”

    In Firefox you can already move tabs between two browser windows and the private browsing can easily be done by setting the privacy options Esp “Clear my private data when I close Firefox”

    IE is the behind the times browser – slow and unstable – no I have not used IE8 beta

    – I use a Dualcore iMac and am not prepared to screwup my Bootcamp partition which I use when required either directly or via Parallels. I have Both the Mac and Win Versions of Firefox 3, Safari 3, Opera 9.5, and (IE7 and Chrome on Win) I mainly use Safari on the Mac and Firefox on the Windows side

    Chrome looks fast and could develop into a competent replacement for the dreadful IE

  4. scarface74

    The better question is. Why is the FireFox code base so bad that no major company seems fit to base their own browser on it? Apple, Google, Adobe, Nokia, etc. are all basing their browsers on Webkit.

  5. It’s so obvious that they have something major to gain from web advancement. They have one of the biggest capitalizations in the world in web services. Priority number one for them is sure to be ensuring the continued security and advancement of that technological conversation.

    In addition, it seems fitting to me that this is released at the beginnings of Android. I think you’re looking at a real attempt to create a browsing suite for handset browsing and internet functionality. And I think it’s a solid attempt. The sheer scale of marketshare that Google is going to have access to by making this all opensource – and at the same time, standardized – is going to give them brand placement in the handset market overnight. I don’t know if you know anything about cell OS structures, but typically (stereotypically) they’re VERY proprietary and VERY difficult – because almost EVERY new phone has a different and idiosyncratic OS that’s custom made for the tasks it has to complete. A unified and standardized OS that works across platforms is going to streamline phone releases, make programmers’ jobs easier, and give Google a hands down advantage in the handheld market. It’s a brilliant strategy, and I think this is really just an arm of it.

  6. bradleybossard

    Google didn’t abandon Firefox in exactly the same way they won’t abandon the iPhone once Android phones are available (Google still makes money with people looking at ads on an iPhone). Chrome just represents a much needed change in browser architecture. Isn’t anyone else tired of all your tabs crashing when just one isn’t working? Also, Firefox is extremely slow compared to what it could be, and Chrome is here to challenge Firefox to either speed up the architecture to be more web-app friendly, or be replaced with something else. We are far from seeing the death of Firefox, Chrome is just the type of competition it needs to evolve.

  7. I can’t believe Google is doing this, to be honest it’s an affront to webmasters and content producers, that Google is going to be entering both the content market with Wikia (monetization only through adsense remember) and that now they have their browser which they will be using to call the shots on how content is displayed, etc.

    I’m very weary to say the least.

  8. Martin deGuile

    Wow, this is scary! I use Google a lot for searching, but not for anything else. Just like Apple, I feel I can’t trust a company that makes this much money by gathering as much information about individual users as possible. Google Mail for example, I think it would give them too much power. And power corrupts (and they have the money to get away with it). On our way to 1984…

  9. “Even the name chrome is lifted from Firefox Gecko Engine.

    “if you got Firefox enter chrome://browser/content/browser.xul and you can see that chrome actually refers to the XUL render engine.”

    I’ve seen this outrage against Google for “stealing” the name Chrome from Mozilla in several other forums besides this one. Google didn’t steal the word Chrome! Chrome is an industry term for the browser window, frame, toolbars, etc. (everything in the browser besides the viewport).

  10. One Word: AdBlock Even if Google used a modified version of FireFox people would still hack in adblock. By using the premise of a “light, slimmed down” browser with no extension support they stop the adblockers in their tracks.

  11. Michael Tomlin

    “But then, Apple got away with installing MobileMe Control Panel options with everyone’s iTunes update and didn’t tell anyone”

    Actually, it was in the EULA; that thing you didn’t read and just clicked through before iTunes was upgraded/installed.

  12. Wow. I can’t belive somebody reccomended Cuil. Google isn’t stealing anything, and it isn’t spyware. Besides, Chrome is still in beta, and may crash and burn. Besides, your whining can’t do anything to stop Chrome, can it?

  13. Michael Yurechko

    To be honest, I find this article total bullshit. This is an open source project that is available for all other browser developers to work with. If anything, Google is helping Mozilla/Firefox by giving them a more advanced platform to work into further browser development.

  14. I think I’m the only one who doesn’t seem to find Google’s latest wonder boy application to be all that and a bag of chips. Firstly, it’s horrendously ugly for anyone who uses the Windows classic styled appearance. It reminds me of one of those over skinned media players that we were seeing spawning up everywhere around 2003.

    Beyond that – it’s okay, my address bar now works as my search bar and my tabs are at the top. I’m not particularly thrilled about the tabs being at the top and I don’t find it to be a user interface revolution like so many others are touting it as.

    The only exciting thing about Chrome is the new “V8” javascript engine. If it performs as well as their press release claims, it is something to get excited about. Enough to make me switch to an ugly-skinned browser with an unconventional user interface layout? Nah. I’d miss my Firefox plugins too much.

  15. The fact that the browser is open source is great. It’s also great how fast and speedy the browser is (apparently it’s not so fast if you untick the DNS option). What’s not good is that it installs a process called GoogleUpdate.exe, which runs all the time, even after you unistall Chrome (no uninstallers for it either).

    But then, Apple got away with installing MobileMe Control Panel options with everyone’s iTunes update and didn’t tell anyone…

    In response to ‘Chrome is spy ware that sends everything back to Google HQ about user patterns’… a number of browsers to this – but it’s opt-in. The browser doesn’t do that if you didn’t tick the box that said to send such info, and it’s always ‘anonymous’ usage statistics.

  16. This can’t be considered evil because it’s open source and free. You are in no way forced to use it. It’s still a merit based system, where you use it because you want to, unlike Windows, where you use it because you have to (applications/hardware tie-in).

    My understanding of Mozilla’s goal is that it’s there to provide an open source, free, and user-friendly browser that does not favor hardware, software, or data source. If they are to go by this, I don’t see any problem with adopting portions of Chrome that would benefit the users, as long as what they take DO NOT tie them to anything specific about Google, such as things that would send data back to Google or somehow favor Google’s app development. I expect to see Firefox to take some parts of Chrome. They have nothing to lose given their mission.

  17. I’ve tried chrome today, Woah! looks like Google copied lots of stuff directly from Mozilla Firefox! and they didn’t even acknowledge them!
    Even the name chrome is lifted from Firefox Gecko Engine.

    if you got Firefox enter chrome://browser/content/browser.xul and you can see that chrome actually refers to the XUL render engine.

    Chrome is spy ware that sends everything back to Google HQ about user patterns.

    Don’t write-off Firefox or IE yet. Firefox is amazing browser with great addons/plugins. It wouldnt take much for Mozilla team to add Firefox with whatever chrome got today. But I dont think they would do that.

  18. Might be interesting to see if Microsoft swoops in if the the relationship goes sour…maybe even Yahoo. That would be a big boon for either.

    Chrome looks pretty good from my first look at it. Still ugly though, wish google would invest in a UI person(s) to pretty up ALL their properties (the ones they built in house at least).

  19. I’m not a Google or Firefox fan but have to come to Google’s defense and ask how you can slate Google for abandoning Firefox when they’ve just signed a deal with Mozilla to provide default search capabilities until 2011?

    The deal, which was first agreed on in 2006, represents the single biggest income stream for Mozilla, almost 85% of its total income (approx $57M in 2006).