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Firefox doesn't need to be No 1 – and that's OK, 'cos it's falling off a cliff

Mozilla runs counter to Valley narrative

Open Source Insider Just in case you didn't believe Firefox was on a trajectory that should have it crash and burn into extinction in the next couple of years, former chief technology officer Andreas Gal has usage stats that confirm it. To use Gal's words: "Firefox market share is falling off a cliff." The same could be said of Firefox itself.

What's most interesting about this data and Gal's interpretation of it is that at the same time that Firefox is sliding into irrelevancy it's becoming a better browser. It's faster than it's ever been and uses less memory – less than its replacement, Chrome. Of course, as the ancient Betamax vs VHS format wars demonstrated, having a superior product does not translate to market share.

The big question is why? Why is Firefox, despite being faster than ever and using less memory than Chrome, losing ground?

Gal believes a big part of the problem is Google's monopoly on search and its aggressive marketing of Chrome. Log in to Google Mail, Google Calendar or YouTube, and Google will push Chrome through overlays, bars at the top of the screen and other means. The language of these ads implies that whichever browser you're using, if it isn't Chrome, it's slow and insecure.

As Gal puts it: "It's hard to compete in a mature market if your main competitor has access to billions of dollars worth of free marketing." Indeed, it's impossible.

"Firefox's decline is not an engineering problem," writes Gal. "It's a market disruption (Desktop to Mobile shift) and monopoly problem. There are no engineering solutions to these market problems."

To be fair there may be some explanations for Firefox's market-share drop related to the source of Gal's data. Gal used Mozilla's (previously) public data on active Firefox Desktop installs running the most recent version of Firefox. There are two potential problems with that data. First, legacy Windows XP users are not counted because they're no longer using the latest version of Firefox. Then there's those of us who will be sticking with a legacy version of Firefox because some feature has been dropped.

For example, it'll be years before I move post-Firefox 57 because of Mozilla's decision to drop "legacy" add-ons. Since the power of add-ons are a big part of Firefox's appeal, I won't be upgrading until all the plugins I use have been updated.

As with anything that puts Mozilla or Firefox in a negative light, there are a million ways to defend both. Perhaps the best is to point out that Firefox still has 90 million daily users, which, while less than it was in the past, is still nothing to sneeze at.

There's another important thing to realise about Firefox's decline, and it's anathema to Silicon Valley and capitalism generally: Firefox doesn't have to be number one in market share. Gasp. What?

Yes, it's true. Firefox can survive and even do very well as the number-two browser on the web, perhaps even the number-three browser. Indeed, my favourite web browser, Vivaldi, is barely a blip on the market-share radar.

Is a monoculture on the web bad? Yes, monocultures make systems vulnerable, but despite Firefox's declining market share, there's no browser monoculture just yet.

When Firefox first came along, Microsoft had a monopoly by pre-installing IE on Windows clients. Now Chrome has something of a monopoly. But there's an important difference between IE and Chrome – Google isn't neglecting the web the way Microsoft did with IE, which means Firefox's role today doesn't require it to have a majority market share. Firefox can take on a different role, providing an alternative for those who want it, without worrying about market share.

Perhaps the most sage observation to come of Gal's post can be found on Hacker News, where a commenter pointed out: "Mozilla won the browser war. Firefox lost the browser fight. But there's many wars left to fight, and I hope Mozilla dives into a new one." ®

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