When historians look at the history of the Web ten or twenty years from now, chances are they will point to Firefox as one of the most important products of the last ten years. But right now, it’s hard not to look at Firefox and worry a little bit about its future.
At the height of its success, around 2010/11, Firefox owned more than a quarter of the browser market in the U.S. and almost a third in Europe. Today, those numbers are much lower in most regions (though Germans still love Firefox more than any other browser). The exact numbers always depend on who you ask, but the trend is the same everywhere — and it’s not looking good for Mozilla’s browser.
Google’s Chrome launched at a time when Firefox development felt stagnant. I remember firing up Chrome for the first time back in 2008 and being astonished by how fast it was. I had been a long-time Firefox user at that time and Chrome — even in those early betas — blew it away. Much has changed since then and when it comes to speed, Firefox is now comparable again to Chrome (and it even outperforms it on some benchmarks). Firefox had left an opening for Chrome and Google marched right through it.
Things on the desktop aren’t looking great for Firefox, but Mozilla is also at best an also-ran on mobile. Apple didn’t allow third-party browser engines on its platform during the early days and even as Android gained in popularity, it still took Mozilla a while to launch a useful version of Firefox on that platform. Then, over the last few years, Mozilla tried to make up ground by launching its own platform. That was an audacious effort and I can only laud it for its effort to bring low-cost phones to developing countries — but so far, that effort has barely paid off except for in a couple of very small markets (and now that there are plenty of cheap Android phones around, I doubt it stands much of a chance in those markets either).
In many ways, it feels like the Firefox team is mostly fighting a battle of perceptions. Ask anybody why they don’t use Firefox and they’ll say: “It’s too slow.” That’s not actually the case anymore. Like Microsoft with IE, Mozilla now has to convince people that its browser is quite good again. Unlike Microsoft, it doesn’t have a marketing budget to do that (and it’s not like Microsoft’s IE campaigns have really made a difference either).
Mozilla has now partnered with Yahoo to power its search in the U.S. starting next month. And while Yahoo may not be the down-and-out company it seemed to be just a few years ago, it’s not exactly a powerhouse when it comes to search. This deal may gain Yahoo a few extra searchers, but it probably isn’t going to help Mozilla gain market share (because nobody is looking for a browser with built-in Yahoo search).
Maybe Mozilla is okay with all of this. It’s a non-profit organization that aims to make the web a better place and the web is a better place today thanks to the work Mozilla does. But what power does the organization have if its main product continues to lose importance? It’s easy to convince others to follow your lead when you own a large slice of a market, but when that number goes down to ten percent, it’s all too easy for others to ignore you.