Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Recode by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, executive editor at The Verge and editor at large of Recode.
Until about five years ago, techies and others who wanted a speedier, extensible, more privacy-oriented web browser on their desktops often immediately downloaded Mozilla's Firefox to use instead of Internet Explorer on Windows or Safari on the Mac.
But those days seem long ago. Firefox is hardly discussed today, and its usage has cratered from a high of over 30 percent of the desktop browser market in 2010 to about 12 percent today, according to Mozilla, citing stats from NetMarketShare. (Various other analytics firms put the share as low as 10 percent or as high as 15 percent.) And Firefox’s share on mobile devices is even worse, at under 1 percent, according to the same firm.
Today, the go-to browser is Google’s Chrome, which, according to NetMarketShare, has over a 50 percent share on both desktop and mobile.
Mozilla wakes up
After years of neglecting Firefox, misreading mobile users and putting most of its chips on a failed phone project, Mozilla says it is working hard to get Firefox off the mat.
“In many ways, we went through a time that you don’t get to survive,” said Mark Mayo, senior vice president for Firefox and a member of Mozilla’s decision-making steering committee. “Somehow we’re not dead ... and it feels like we’re picking up speed and figuring out what to do.”
He admits that Firefox has fallen behind Chrome, Microsoft’s Edge and Apple’s Safari, but says the company is executing with total focus on a plan to reverse that. “For several years, we have not been spending the effort we would normally spend on the flagship product,” Mayo concedes. “Firefox didn’t get better along with the competition.”
Why Firefox is different
Now, he says, the company has embraced the proposition that “it kind of makes no sense to be us and not have the best browser.” That’s because for Mozilla, which is controlled by a foundation of the same name, Firefox is its main product. The two names are inseparable in many peoples’ minds. And an open, vibrant web — as opposed to a world of apps and social media and search controlled by a few companies — is its main philosophical concern.
That last bit may sound like idealistic claptrap, but it’s always been core to Mozilla’s mission. Mayo says he fears that big companies like Google and Apple don’t care whether roaming the open internet is subsumed by launching apps or by the act of searching. But, he says, Firefox does.
“Everyone else builds a browser for defensive reasons,” said Mayo. “We build one because we love browsers.”
A little good news
The company brags that Firefox is finally showing signs of growth. It claims — without revealing the exact figures — that its daily and monthly active users metric grew in 2016 for the first time in four years, by “high single digits.”
And it has been paying more attention to mobile browsing. In late 2015, it finally brought out Firefox for iOS, after years of refusing to do so because Apple requires all iPhone and iPad browsers to use its own Safari engine under the hood. The reason, Mayo said, was that Mozilla realized that iOS users surf the web much more than their more numerous Android-using counterparts.
In November, Mozilla introduced a second iOS browser: Firefox Focus. It’s a stripped-down app that automatically blocks all trackers as you move around the web. It grew out of a tracker-blocker the company had built for Safari. I find Focus snappy and dead simple to use. Whatever you think of Firefox, if you’re an iOS user, Focus is worth a try.
The company has also relaunched something called Test Pilot, a home for experimental add-ons that change the desktop browser experience. For instance, one add-on places the tabs down the side instead of across the top. And Firefox’s privacy mode doesn’t just block cookies, it blocks trackers, on some pages leaving blank spaces where elements containing trackers were placed.
But Mayo admits that, while the worst of the bleeding may have stopped, the current usage is precarious. He says the minimal viable position would be a solid 15 percent share, at least on the desktop, and an unspecified uptick on mobile. The “aspirational” goal, he says, would be around 20 percent on the desktop.
Mozilla reports that it’s in the black, although its financials are different from those of a normal company because of the nonprofit foundation to which it is tied. And, it has a lucrative search deal with Yahoo that will pay it handsomely even if Verizon completes its takeover of Yahoo.
So how did Mozilla get into the weak position from which it must now rebuild? Essentially, the company spent three years, from 2013 through 2015, wandering down a blind trail and taking Firefox for granted. It was almost entirely focused on trying to sell a new, web-based mobile operating system (Firefox OS) for cheap phones in developing countries, taking on the Android juggernaut. It failed, and Mayo says it took the focus off of Firefox. “It was close to a bet-the-farm effort,” he said.
(Side note: This plan never made much sense to me. In fact, in a 2013 onstage interview about the new direction with Mozilla’s then-CEO, my very first question was simply: “What the f**k”?)
On top of that, the company endured turmoil in its management ranks.
When Mozilla returned its focus to Firefox, it had to devote all of 2016 to just catching up on things like running each tab in its own process, so a crash in one wouldn't crash the whole browser. Competing browsers already had this technology.
In my experience, Firefox today is still only a meh product. Sometimes, it can be very fast, on both Mac and Windows. But often, it lags a bit and has trouble with heavy, ad-laden sites. Still, at least for me, its competitors have their own flaws, so there’s an opportunity. For instance, Chrome too often taxes the resources of my laptops, slowing things down.
The task ahead
Building Firefox into a real contender will take a lot more work, and Mayo concedes that parts of the plan won’t be visible to users until later this year. Still, Mozilla claims that it “aims to pass Chrome on key performance measures that matter by end of year.”
To do that, the company is betting on something called Project Quantum, a new under-the-hood browsing engine that will replace big chunks of Mozilla’s ancient Gecko engine. In an October blog post by David Bryant, head of platform engineering, the company claimed this:
“We are striving for performance gains from Quantum that will be so noticeable that your entire web experience will feel different. Pages will load faster, and scrolling will be silky smooth. Animations and interactive apps will respond instantly, and be able to handle more intensive content while holding consistent frame rates. And the content most important to you will automatically get the highest priority, focusing processing power where you need it the most.”
Another cornerstone for the new Firefox is a project called the Context Graph that aims to use an enhanced browser history to replace navigational search. The idea is to use differential privacy — the same kind of privacy-respecting machine learning that Apple uses — to suggest places on the web to go for particular needs, rather than getting navigational answers from search.
Mayo calls this “navigation by browser, not Google” and declares: “Navigation in the browser has been stagnant for a decade and we’re not going to stand for that.”
Both of these projects are aimed squarely at mobile versions of Firefox as well as the desktop version, Mayo says, though he notes that, under Apple’s current policies, the new Quantum engine — like other third-party browser engines — wouldn’t be permitted on iOS.
I have no idea if Mozilla can rescue Firefox and make it into something special again. And I’m not a foe of apps and search, or of Google and Apple. But I’m rooting for Firefox, because I think the big platform companies, for whom the browser isn’t a central product anymore, need competition. And I think a healthy, widely-used web matters.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.