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:
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.
- Now is the time to switch back to Firefox — Jack Schofield, ZDNet (April 2014). A little old but many of the points he makes are still true today.
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.