How’s that for a sensationalistic headline? In all seriousness now, after pondering the issue for a good part of the evening, I realised how fine a line Firefox is walking, even more now than in the past.
Think back to mid 2005, early 2006, the days of Firefox 1.5. That’s when Firefox became a solid alternative browser. As more and more tech-savvy people were getting sick and tired of Internet Explorer 6, Firefox was the right thing at the right time. It promised less crashes, better performance and most importantly better security. Along came the extensions and themes, and as their number grew from tens to hundreds – now thousands – the user base expanded further and eventually trickled down to people less interested in tech. Three versions later, it’s 2009, and Firefox has 25% of the market-share according to a Net Applications survey.
What has essentially changed from three years ago?
- We’ve got ubiquitous wireless internet access via 3G networks and WiFi at pretty good throughputs, sufficient even for video streaming.
- Fibre-Optic and high speed cable connections are more accessible.
- Web applications seem to be quickly attacking the current computing paradigm. It could turn out to be the second coming of the thin-client.
- Whereas in 2006, we would accept pretty much anything to get rid of IE 6, we now have something called competition.
First of all, Firefox lacks any sort of meaningful leverage. It only comes preinstalled on a number of Linux distributions. Which as much as we’d want to, doesn’t amount to more than 1,6% machines. On comparison Internet Explorer is preinstalled on millions of Windows machines, from netbooks to gaming PCs. Even Safari, which is based on the same underlying technology as Chrome, benefits from more leverage by being preinstalled on Macs, not to mention the millions of iPod touches and iPhones. So, I guess this is strike one. (Nay-Sayers out there, my mom isn’t going to be installing a browser anytime soon. Being ‘there’ is very important for a large sector of the market.)
Second of all, Firefox isn’t revolutionary anymore. It’s no longer the fastest, the most stable or secure, the most open. Does anyone have any doubt that by next year, every single one of Firefox’s add-ons will be ported to Chrome? I for one, do not. And the trouble is, it’s the only thing that separates Firefox. If anyone out there has leverage, then Google has it, with its millions of hits every day. They already have a message for IE 6 users browsing YouTube, asking them to upgrade their browser to either Chrome, Firefox or IE 8. And how much would it cost them to give Chrome a plug on the frontpage? Or AdSense links?
Lastly, think about more devices like the ‘alleged’ Apple tablet and netbooks running Chrome OS. Is Apple going to let Opera publish its browser on the App Store? I don’t think so. More than that, Google can choose to end its search engine referral deal with Mozilla, which nets for 91% of all the revenues. Who’s going to promote and sustain active development, at a level that would allow them to compete with Google’s resources?
I’m not saying this is a good or a bad thing. That’s for each of us to decide. More than anything else, it should be a message to the developers working on Firefox that there’s still a window of opportunity to make Firefox relevant once again.