Why the world needs Firefox more than ever

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about why the world needs Firefox, and the ways in which Firefox can be sold to normal people who don’t know what open source software is and just like something which works. The challenge for Firefox, and Mozilla, lies in turning around this worrying trend:

Usage_share_of_web_browsers_(Source_StatCounter).svg
By various Wikimedia users, CC BY 3.0

I think what’s getting in the way of Firefox growing — or even retaining its market share — is the widespread perception that Google Chrome is “just better”. Moreover, Chrome is pre-installed on Android devices and available on iOS. With Firefox, by contrast, a potential user has to go the trouble of installing Firefox on Android, and it’s not even available on iOS (although that might change). Finally, Google has a huge ad network on which they run ads prodding you to try Chrome to speed up the web, an approach which Mozilla is unable to match.

I’m going to explore why we need browser competition, the similarities between the fight Firefox is currently engaged in and the one it fought against Internet Explorer in the 2000s, as well as how Firefox might break out of the declining (or at least not growing) user-base problem it’s currently in.

Background: Why competition matters

It’s helpful to think about the benefits of competition in the internet browser market from first principles. The question you might ask is: Why do we care if Google Chrome dominates the browser market if people have the choice to switch browsers? We should care for a number of reasons.

If one browser becomes too dominant, the temptation is for many people who make products which involve the web to stop caring about the others. For instance, developers might stop testing their products properly and assume most of their customers are using Chrome.

Another problem with market dominance of one browser is that the developers/owners of the browser then have a huge influence on the development of web standards. If a browser with a large market share isn’t open to adopting a new web standard, it could block it from being implemented more generally.

When there are no serious competitors, the temptation arises to spend less energy and resources making your product better — why bother when people are probably going to use it regardless of what you do? This was the situation when Internet Explorer 6 was the terrible king of browsers: Microsoft didn’t put much effort into developing it because everyone was using it anyway. That changed when Firefox came onto the scene and introduced much needed competition.

A different fight this time

The earlier browser war (that is, the second one) was a much easier fight. It pitted a clearly superior product (Firefox) against one which hadn’t changed in ages (Internet Explorer). It’s hard to remember back to those days when tabbed browsing was a novelty, and you routinely had four or five Internet Explorer windows open at once.

This time around, the browser wars are much more subtle. The products look pretty similar, especially after Firefox released an update a while ago called Australis which introduced curved tabs and a few other things. Both browsers have been part of a trend to cut down user interface elements in pursuit of an ‘uncluttered’ user experience. They both allow you to sync your browsing history, passwords, add-ons etc between computers.

Part of the difference between the browsers is that the underlying ethos of Chrome and Firefox are very different. Firefox is developed by the Mozilla Corporation, supported by the non-profit Mozilla Foundation. Whereas Chrome is obviously made by Google, a giant sprawling monster of an internet company with its tendrils likely in every aspect of your online life. Fundamentally, the developers of Firefox are motivated by a desire to make the internet a better, more open place. Whereas Chrome’s ultimate controller, Google, cares primarily about making money. Chrome is a vehicle for people to use Google’s services, and they have an interest in promoting those services to the detriment of others.

Another reason why Firefox is ultimately better than Chrome lies in their open source credentials. Firefox is open source to the core, whereas Chrome is open source software (Chromium) with some proprietary stuff on top. I would much rather support something developed by a community in the interests of a community rather than in the interests of a corporation.

The tricky thing is how you communicate these underlying, important differences to the masses. It’s much harder to point out the obvious benefits of Firefox over Chrome as opposed to the benefits of Firefox over Internet Explorer 6. I think privacy can be the thing which sets Firefox apart.

Firefox’s competitive advantage

Although Firefox has plenty of great features, I think Firefox’s competitive advantage is its respect for its users’ privacy — Firefox actually cares about protecting its users. For instance, the tracking protection feature allows you, with a minor tweak of your about:config settings, to block advertisers from creepily tracking you around the web (in a similar way to EFF’s privacy badger extension). Firefox also allows you to block third party cookies. Firefox even gives you privacy tips in their default home page! Meanwhile, Chrome and by extension Google, have an interest in tracking you around the web to get an accurate picture of your habits for ads.

Fundamentally, the choice between Firefox and Chrome comes down to a choice of tools which look similar, but are actually very different. One tool respects your privacy and is built by a community for the community, while the other is also a tool for a corporation to make more money from you. I hope I’ve convinced you the choice is obvious.

Further reading

Edited 14 April to add a sentence about Google’s promotion of Chrome on its ad network, and a new section about the perils of market dominance. Fixed minor typos 17 May 2015.

15 thoughts on “Why the world needs Firefox more than ever”

  1. Firefox is indeed a great browser: it’s fast (pretty much as fast as Chrome), highly customisable (slightly more so than Chrome, and especially in the area of search suggestions); it has a decent interface (if not quite a slick as Chrome’s); and one needs to worry about one’s privacy less. Also, it straddles platforms (PC, Mac, Linux) a bit more seamlessly than, in my experience, any other browser.

    Like

    1. Thanks for your comment! I think you’re right that it straddles *desktop* platforms better, but I think a large stumbling block is that it isn’t available on iOS. It will be great when that changes!

      Like

  2. Dear Mr. Chapman,

    on the hand hand, you write the following in your article: “[…] Google, a giant sprawling monster of an internet company with its tendrils likely in every aspect of your online life.”

    And on ther other hand, your blog does include stylesheets from googleapis. (See sourcecode of this page, line 16)

    I, for one, do use Firefox and am agreeing 100% with your opinion. But sadly, this does not help at all, if the major part of the web does include sources from google.

    Recently I have wondered, why google lets everybody freely use their cdn for stylesheets, javascripts etc. The only answer I could come up with, was, that they make a huge profit from it, which negates all the costs for bandwith.

    Just think about it.

    Like

    1. Many designers are now lazy and use Google CDN for everything. Try the Decentraleyes add-on (Firefox only for now) to reroute this to your local machine. On WordPress.com, bloggers have barely any choice since almost all themes ping Google like this.

      Like

  3. Good Article, I definitely think there needs to be competition. However, the competition needs to be better (just like how Firefox was better than IE), I can’t use a different browser simply because I want competition to be there. I honestly would prefer to use Firefox on a philosophical basis, and the enormity of Google makes me weary of Chrome, but Chrome is simply better. Particularly for those of us that use Linux, Chrome is the only browser that will let you use the entirety of the internet. Adode for some bizarre reason stopped updating Flash for Linux platforms at around version 11.2, but Chrome (not Chromium) comes bundled with an updated Flash plugin, and is the only way to use websites that require an updated Flash plugin. Also, currently you can only watch Netflix with Chrome (though I am sure with enough hacking you might get it to work somewhere else, but who wants to spend their time figuring that out?). The bundled PDF viewer in Chrome is also a godsend on Linux. Also, despite Firefox claiming it has a “sync” feature, it doesn’t sync everything, particularly my browser preferences were not synced, and I lost all my hard work of blocking specific cookies, so Chrome’s sync is also vastly superior.

    I recently tried to force myself to go back to Firefox last month, and I used it for the entire month, but I find myself falling back to using Chrome yet again, despite my strong desire to use Firefox, I cannot argue with the superiority of the Chrome Browser. I can only hope Firefox will come up with some kind of breakthrough that will allow it to truly compete with Chrome.

    lol, though In a seriously ironic twist, due to some sort of bug (because my comment was long, the “Post Comment” button went out of sight and I couldn’t click it), I was unable to post this comment using Chrome, and had to come over to Firefox to do it. You’re website definitely prefers Firefox :). That was funny…. kudos to Firefox!

    Like

    1. I disagree. Chrome has some good points, but it’s not as good as you say.

      First I run Firefox on Linux, Windows and Android. And it’s clearly usable on all these platforms now. About performances, Firefox’s engine recently passed first in the benchmarks. About Flash, I honestly never struggled with the old flash binaries given with my Linux distribution. And as much as possible, I enable HTML5 video players. About Netflix, it’s in its way in Firefox (although I still don’t know if it’s a good thing or not). About the PDF viewer, there is also one in Firefox.

      The only point that makes me uncomfortable to advise Firefox to Chrome users is that there are still no multi-process in Firefox. But that, again, is coming with the Electrolysis branch.

      I’m not saying Firefox is the best browser ever, but I think the picture you’re drawing is flawed.

      Like

      1. No doubt Firefox is usable on all platforms, I used it as my sole browser for around 10 years straight on various platforms.

        Glad to hear it’s passing first in the benchmarks and that it will have Netflix support. True, DRMs suck, but I don’t want to be restricted on the internet because the browser can’t handle it, it’s nice to have the option anyway.

        I think the only flaw from the picture I drew was not giving it credit for the PDF viewer, which must be a recent addition, as I swear it didn’t have this last summer, so my apologies for leaving that out. I didn’t go into bench marks or speeds of either of the browsers, simply usability on my system (Chrome is a notorious resource hog, but I don’t care, I just want usability). You may not have had trouble with the old flash binaries, but I have and it was annoying as hell. Also, the sync does not work properly as I pointed out, many of the preferences were not saved, nor my preferences with my add-ons. Chrome handles the sync flawlessly. My Netflix statement stands, since it is still not implemented.

        Like I said, I really hope Firefox gets better, I prefer it and want to use it. I was a huge advocate of it and used it for 10 years till I gave into Chrome. I tend to check out Firefox every other update or so to see if my issues with it have been fixed, but as of yet they are not, but it looks like they are working on some of their issues, which is good.

        Like

      2. Let me just state that i never worried about getting pdf read inside the browser window. i could saved them and opened them in reader anyway. Let me also remind that most of the crashes in firefox was happenning from plugins like flash player! In fact having the browser open any kind of document inline through plugins and the like…would slow it down becoming memory hungry none the less. What i believe even for machinesequipements (i hate all-in-1 solutions!) u must have a tool for everything different than the main purpose i.e. Browsing. I want the browser to BROWSE and not a PDF reader. i want the Browser to show me the page to Download the video and WATCh it on a Media Player…Browsers are for browsing and HTML,CSS and any other addition is just a bonus that must be left as an addon. Besides that Firefox is an opensource and open source projects avoid including propriety things. If anyone want sto include propriety things out of the box…better stick with IE.

        Like

      3. I think you definition of “browsing” is a bit off, and few (if anyone) would agree with you. Taking your statement to it’s logical end, you are saying that browsers shouldn’t even display images, because you can download images and open them with an image viewer, which is just ridiculous. Heck, forget even displaying text! Download the text and open it in a text editor… seriously man, come on…

        Whether you like it or not, the internet has grown from it’s telnet Bulletin Board Dial-up days. Browsing includes reading text, viewing images, watching videos, and even playing video games (among other things I am sure). A browser needs to be able to do all of this, and do it well. Not to mention, I think most people would be very frustrated to have to download each YouTube video they want to watch and load it into a separate video player (not to mention videos would build up like clutter and take up space).

        As far as open source goes… I think everything should be open source, but sadly, this is not the world we live in. Firefox can remain open source, it’s not hard to simply offer a proprietary plug-in that users can choose of their own accord to install (Are you telling me you have no proprietary codecs on your system? You don’t play mp3s? Watch avi or mp4 files? etc….).

        Also, I think almost everyone will agree IE sucks, which is why it’s usage collapsed when both Firefox and Chrome hit the market… oh yeah, even Microsoft thinks it sucks, as they are retiring in favour of their new browser. Why should someone “stick with IE” simply because they want to do something basic like watch Netflix or view a PDF without downloading it to their system and opening another program?

        Like

  4. On philosophical level the article is fine, but on practical level its bulls***.

    I have used FF for 10+ years, but once I migrated from desktop apps to web apps I can no longer use it – it is simply much much slower when working with extra large apps (for example it takes 3-5 time more time to load my spreadsheets, let alone working with them, same goes for docs, same goes for any other highly complicated web application.

    Firefox was and is still best at surfing the web, but the fact it that its JS engine is not optimized for large application and especially ones built by Google (maybe not a coincidence?). Recent tests also show that js compiled from other languages run slower on FF (like C#, GWT, Dart) while on Chrome the performance is on par with the original JS version (i.e. JS written by hand) and considering the trend to use such languages for larger apps and target the web as deployment platform I think the gap will increase even more.

    Basically you cannot expect users to care about privacy if the browser is noticeably slower – speed is the importance these days and I am talking about apps – browsing websites is imho the same and I could have used FF for it. However it simply takes too much resources to run 2 browsers at the same time just for the sake of philosophical openness.

    Like

  5. What is getting into Mozillas way is that they have abandoned pro users for a bunch of reasons – Mobile devices have today for them priority and they are 100% unwilling to maintain features which work on the Desktop but not on Mobile – One size fits all is bad!

    And they are still trying to catch up with Chrome instead to accept that they never become Number one in the browser war. If Mozilla would lower their ambitions which make them in the end adopt more and more of Chrome’s outlook many users still would have a reason to use Firefox.

    But removing stuff which power users want and then telling them “Don’t complain, get an add-on for having it back or wait until some is released” is utterly arrogance and many people dislike that for sure!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s