In the mid-2000s, saying you were a Firefox user marked you out as bit of a nerd. But at least you were a nerd making smart technology decisions. You could brag smugly about tabbed browsing and instant searches while the rest of the world twiddled its thumbs waiting for Internet Explorer to load a single page. At its peak in early 2010, nearly a third of people chose Firefox as their main browser.
And then Chrome happened. First released in September 2008, Google powered through several version of the browser before Chrome 5.0, released in mid-2010, become the first version to work on Mac, Windows and Linux devices. Within a couple of years it had become the most-used browser in the world, decimating the market share of both Firefox and Internet Explorer. Today, Firefox only has about 13 per cent of the desktop market share and much less than that on mobile. Chrome is at 64 per cent for desktop alone.
Now Mozilla, the company behind Firefox, is hoping that the latest version of its browser can begin the fight back against Chrome. “This is by far the biggest reboot we’ve ever done,” says Mark Mayo, senior vice president of Firefox at Mozilla. The latest version, the firm claims, Firefox Quantum, is twice as fast as Firefox was six months ago and uses 30 per cent less memory than Chrome. That should mean fewer crashes and less time spent gazing at the spinning wheel of death.
“Lots of Chrome users used to be Firefox users, so one of our explicit goals is to take users back from Chrome,” says Mayo. “Firefox, from a raw technology point of view, did fall behind for a bunch of years – there’s no point denying that, we really did.” Now his goal is simple: make a browser that is so fast and simple that choosing it is a no-brainer for users.
This means Mozilla, which is a non-profit organisation, has to take on the second-biggest tech company in the world on its own turf. But for Google, Chrome is much more than just a browser. “Fundamentally Chrome exists to defend Google’s advertising business – it’s a large corporate strategic reason for Chrome to exist,” Mayo says. Google’s web offerings, including Gmail and Docs, are optimised to work best with Chrome, so users are incentivised to stay within Google’s suite of products and keep supplying the company with the data it uses to drive its ad business.
“Google correctly identified the browser was a very important piece of software so they invested appropriately into digging a lot of market share, and they were tremendously successful,” Mayo says. “When you own some of the largest and most visited websites in the world, that’s a pretty enormous marketing advantage.”
For nearly ten years, Google has had two big advantages in the browser wars: it’s had the best product and it has plenty of opportunities to get it in front of users. But Mayo thinks that the company’s long success may just prove to be its undoing. “It feels like browsers have largely stopped evolving, maybe five years ago.” He’s hoping that in the end the best product will win, so if Firefox can just beat Chrome at its own game, they’re in with a chance of clawing back that lost market share.
Although it lost its ‘best browser’ crown years ago, Firefox has always differentiated itself by refusing to compromise on user privacy or security, two issues that are close to the heart of Mozilla, which trumpets itself as a defender of an open and innovative internet. These core philosophies do filter down into Firefox, but Mayo says that ethics alone aren’t nearly enough to convince people to switch browsers. “Lots of people did give us a try, but it felt like a compromise – like they wanted to go with the good guy,” he says.
When I talk to Mayo, we’re in the basement of temporary art gallery in central London, underneath The Glass Room, an exhibition curated by Tactical Tech and presented by Mozilla that explores the extent to which tech companies shape and control our lives. In one corner a jumble of pins and string maps out the extent of Alphabet’s investments. Next to it is a model of Mark Zuckerberg’s Palo Alto home, and the four properties surrounding it that he bought and then knocked down to protect his privacy.
Mozilla is still based in Silicon Valley – its old offices were right next door to Google’s sprawling headquarters – but it sees itself as something on an antidote to the Valley’s act-now, think later mindset. Most of Firefox’s users are in Europe, where people tend to be more sensitive to privacy concerns, and the browser’s popularity – it still has around 90 million users across the globe – add serious heft to Mozilla’s arguments for a more open internet. Without Firefox, Mozilla will lose a serious amount of its bargaining power in organisations such as the W3C, which set standards for how the web is run.
But creating a browser that people actually want to use usually means compromising on some of those core principles. Earlier this year, the W3C was divided in a fierce debate over encrypted media extensions (EME) – a way for allowing browsers to display copyrighted videos such as Netflix films that are only available in certain countries. Netflix, Amazon and the big studios they collaborate with pushed hard for this web standard as it would enable them to crack down on online piracy. But security researchers and online activists hated the idea of EME because it could introduce security flaws into browsers and would also make it much harder for other people to create or modify their own browser.
Although it went against some of its core beliefs, Mozilla eventually accepted and implemented EME in its browser, although it does give users the option to turn it off if they wish. Despite having a firm belief in the openness and independence of the web, Mayo is realistic about how far Firefox can push that agenda while staying relevant to users. “We have to have a browser that appeals to a wide share of humans on the web, and for better or worse, people love video,” he says. For the new-look Mozilla then, some principles are worth sacrificing.
Even with these compromises, Firefox is facing an uphill struggle against Chrome. Mayo is hopeful that people will move to the best browser out there – they did back in 2011 when tens of millions of people shifted to Chrome. But the internet is a very different place now, and with the success of Android and all of Google’s other applications, Firefox faces a real fight to persuade users out of the Chrome world.
Even if the odds seem impossible, Mayo is optimistic that an ethically-minded software company can reclaim its place on people’s desktops. “It is possible to compete with the biggest, most powerful, software companies in the world – arguably the largest companies ever, across any industry. It’s totally possible to beat them.”