Blog Post

For Firefox, a Challenging Future Awaits

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

For much of this decade, Mozilla and its Firefox browser were the upstarts, out to beat the big, bad Microsoft and its Internet Explorer browser. Firefox, the descendant of Netscape, the browser that helped jump-start the web revolution, was nimble and it was secure — something Microsoft’s (s msft) IE wasn’t. And it triggered a movement. According to Net Applications, which tracks browser market share, as of the end of May, Mozilla accounted for some 22 percent of the browser market. Microsoft’s IE, by comparison, still holds a roughly 66 percent share. [digg=]

Despite it success, the open-source browser maker finds itself in an all familiar situation: fighting the odds on multiple fronts. Unlike the past when it had to contend just with Microsoft, Mozilla’s competition has grown many fold. Furthermore, the browser battleground has grown much bigger and now also includes mobile devices. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8, Apple’s (s aapl) Safari 4.0, Google’s (s goog) Chrome, Opera and Firefox are the five major competitors on the desktop, while WebKit-based browsers are the champions of the mobile world. Last week, when Mozilla announced its new Firefox 3.5 browser software, I decided to reach out to CEO John Lilly for a quick conversation about the state of the browser market. After all, Firefox’s latest browser comes at a time when Google, Apple and Microsoft have all upped the ante in the browser marketplace.

“The world is a lot different from a year ago, and we have three brand new browsers and there is a lot more competition and as a result the users are getting a lot more technology,” said Lilly. But he was not coy about the fact that Firefox has taken over a substantial share of the market, snatching it away from Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. “Having said that, I think it is uncomfortable, because our rivals have 2-3 times the magnitude of people and resources, and they are relentless.” (Techcrunch has a post about recent market share changes, based on statistics from Statscounter.)

It’s quite understandable why everyone is so obsessed with the browser. As guest columnist Rohit Sharma had previously noted, “Today, browsers have lent their structure, chassis and struts to network-connected applications that devour user time and attention away from the browser itself.” But going forward, things are going to be vastly different. To understand the potential, look no further than the iPhone and its many applications. “Many iPhone users may have already forgotten that the rendering engine used underneath them all is a Webkit,” wrote Sharma, “the same underlying layout/display engine used in Safari and Google Chrome as well as Android and Palm Pre webOS.” What that means is that now browser-based network-aware applications can exist on any platform — be it the desktop or the mobile. This makes controlling a browser wildly important for companies such as Google, Microsoft and Apple.

“Super-interactive browser that sits atop a super-fast connection…now interesting things will happen over the next 5-10 years,” remarked Marc Andressen, whose first startup, Netscape Communications, introduced the consumer web to millions by way of its Netscape browser, at a gathering last year.

Lilly is betting on a few things that will keep Firefox ahead of its rivals. First of all, it’s built by a vibrant community of Firefox developers. Secondly, it has garnered the support of folks who develop browser add-ons such as extensions and themes, which allows the browser to adapt to the needs of a diverse user base. Most importantly, Lilly said that Firefox supports the open web, whereas his competitors have their own agendas. “It is premature to put the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner on the open web,” he said. “Microsoft is still a big player.” Apple, meanwhile, won’t be supporting open video codecs such as Ogg Theora, according to Lilly. Even Google is ambivalent about certain things, though the search giant is “better than” the others, he added.

When I asked Lilly if the emergence of Google Chrome had shifted the focus toward a browser’s speed and performance, he acknowledged that there is competitive pressure and said that as a result, the Mozilla team is looking to “keep the browser fast and slim and still be highly customizable.” So while the version 3.5 of Firefox might be out, Mozilla is working hard on the release of the next version of the browser (3.6), due out either late this year or in 2010. “You should look at what is in Mozilla Labs and see those features making it to the browser,” Lilly said.

Mozilla Weave (which blends web services with the desktop) and Personas, a lightweight theming system are two recent efforts that will likely end up in the next generation of Firefox browsers. Mozilla is excited about Ubiquity, an in-browser command line utility and another new recent effort. JetPack is an API that allows developers to write extensions for Firefox using standard technologies such as HTML, CSS and JavaScript. A common theme that unites these four major areas of push: they allow Mozilla to keep the browser slim and fast, but at the same time make it super customizable. “It is about making the browser faster and increasing its performance,” Lilly said.

When I asked Lilly about Mozilla’s mobile efforts, he said that they were working hard to extend Firefox to the mobile. “It is something the whole company is paying attention to,” he said. He pointed out that a beta version of Firefox for Mobiles (code named Fennec) is available for Nokia-backed (s nok) mobile-focused Linux distribution, Mameo, and that another version is available as second alpha for Windows Mobile.

I don’t think that’s going to be enough, however. Mobile is Mozilla’s Achilles heel — it’s losing mobile platforms to WebKit. As we pointed out earlier, “Today’s browser competition is less about who renders HTML properly, and more about what the incumbent browser is and how well it accommodates whatever new applications the Internet throws its way.” These days, many of these applications are popping up on mobile phones, thanks to the emergence of platforms such as Google’s Android, Palm’s Pre and Apple’s iPhone. These platforms are attracting developers, who will work with WebKit and not Firefox. In other words, Mozilla runs the risk of losing developer interest.

But Mozilla has been here before, with its back to the wall. The good news is that Lilly and his crew realize that and are working on it. Well let’s hope they succeed — for if they do, it will mean consumers get better technology.

Related Posts:

Photo of John Lilly by Joi via Flickr.

23 Responses to “For Firefox, a Challenging Future Awaits”

  1. Ron Fischler

    I don’t understand what people are talking about when they say Firefox, (I am running 3.5.1 on Ubuntu,) consumes 500+ MBytes. This has never happened to me since I began running 3.5. It is fast and memory efficient – I don’t understand what others are talking about. It is slow to startup, but I am running about 40 addons.

  2. Interesting piece Om. What about the revenue generated over the past 5 years by Mozilla and how will this help? Or, will it help them tackle these issues? You’re way closer to this – but given the work I’ve done with them in the past this piece of the puzzle always fascinates me. Did you speak with them about this? Maybe it’s overly reported, I’m not sure, just an interesting angle I think. There is always a lot to discuss in terms of how these respective browsers are engineered, but the fact that Mozilla piped into the search monetization cash flow early has got to still be a big advantage? Maybe not w/ Chrome…

  3. Interesting article, but I question this: ‘As we pointed out earlier, “Today’s browser competition is less about who renders HTML properly, and more about what the incumbent browser is and how well it accommodates whatever new applications the Internet throws its way.”’

    If that were true, then IE would not be losing share and Firefox would not be gaining share, no? That was true during the first browser wars when it was Netscape battling IE, but now? Less of a big deal, still obviously a big advantage.

    On the mobile front, WebKit is definitely proving a huge benefit – and the first (reasonable) mover advantage is clearly Apple’s, but there simply isn’t a viable competitor yet. We’ll see what happens if Fennec ever makes it to the iPhone.

    • Mishan Aburted

      The biggest problem IE had prior to IE8 was _horrible_ Javascript performance. There were worst-cases where pages could take several seconds to run scripts that other browsers executed in less than a second. This has been vastly improved in IE8, but Apple and Google are making big strides and still appear to be faster.

      As absurd as it is in many ways, web applications are relying on Javascript on the client, so this needs to run fast. Microsoft’s foot dragging on this is just another example of a monopoly’s complacency. (And my company paid a very big price for it — it actually crossed my mind to sue MS.)

  4. The state of the browser market pretty much proves that it’s impossible for an open source project to remain a popular front-end application for too long.

    A successful open source project will see one of two trends:

    – commercial entities, each with its own USP will pick, modify and integrate portions of the project into their own products. This is what’s happening with Firefox. (Chrome, according to Google, used ” components from Apple’s WebKit and Mozilla’s Firefox”)

    – will see widespread adoption on back-end IT infrastructure. Apache, Linux, *BSD are examples of this. I guess this is because after a point, the marginal cost of polishing the UI is more than what developers are willing to bear.

    In this context, I’m particularly interested in following how Android ends up.

    • Android should be able to pull it off as long as it has industrial support from Google, that is ready to commit funds to develop it.

      It is astonishing how the “Not Invented Here” syndrome is allowed to exist.
      Opera is the dominant browser on the mobile platform, as long as it delivers to Nokia and all Symbian platforms. The others are a mere curiosity. And read the article again what is stated about “mobile browsers”.

      Opera, has like Android a leg to stand on. It allows its community to contribute with “Widgets” – that can fully use Java and enhance functionality, but it provides the main functionality, including an email browser. So simple things like downloading a file does not require a subsequent search of all disk.
      Opera also seems to be the browser that paves the way with new functionality, from tabbed windows, downloading, notes (including “Copy to Note” and “Insert from Note”) – and because of the mobile: the ability to zoom on on what is interesting on the page.

      Now, the article address the application that is to be integrated with: “Widgets”. That is available in Opera, with a kit for developing new widgets to interface to other applications.

      IE will be loosing share because of the inherent security violations. I am surprised by the number of Internet banking sites that permits IE access. FF is a skeleton, with add-ons that nobody controls style and quality. When will you reflect on the reason for why so little useful software is created in the US? Because, Apple has seen it for years?

  5. Peter

    Mozilla needs to focus on performance and fix the memory leaks. 3.5 is not much of an improvement in both regards. Realistically, they should take a 6 month interval and stop adding new features and work ONLY on increasing speeds and improvement memory management. There’s no reason for a browser to take up 500mb of memory and slow the computer down, well after you’ve closed all but one tab.

      • Mishan Aburted

        No, Peter’s right: Firefox is an infamous memory leaker. I do browser software development of all sorts and IE — for all its faults — at least cleans up after itself better. Firefox suffers from many forms of entropy the longer you leave it running, and often exhibits odd behavior requiring a restart (though it rarely crashes outright).

        And this isn’t surprising when you look at the Gecko source code. A lot of it is pretty amateurish, and for all of Firefox’s supposed superiority in security, by now it’s as full of holes as IE (which has lately cleaned up its act).

      • Peter

        Asa, I don’t even install extensions and I still have 500+ mb after a few hours. Compared to Chrome (which I like the speed but not the interface), I estimate that Chrome manages memory at about an order of magnitude better. Chrome goes to under 100mb after closing all but one blank tab, but not Firefox.

  6. It is really surprising to see that no one actually cares to look in to the depth of the article. They just repost.

    FF has gained the market share but IE has not lost by 11%.

    please have a look at overall figures instead of comparing just one version of IE.

    The article in TechCrunch clearly misses that point.. but I didnt expect this from GigaOm.

    • I am not sure what you are talking about, the number is essentially from May 2009 and it totals up the all IE versions and it is a year-over-year “%” decline, though actual number of users might be up for all browsers.