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Firefox 89: Can this redesign stem browser's decline?

New visuals, simplified menus, though Mozilla has yet to fully state its position on 'privacy preserving ads'

Mozilla has released Firefox 89, proclaiming it a "fresh new Firefox," though it comes amid a relentless decline in market share.

Firefox matters more than most web browsers, because it uses its own browser engine, called Quantum, and its own JavaScript engine, called SpiderMonkey. By contrast, most other browsers, including Chrome and Chromium, Edge, Brave, Opera, and Vivaldi use the Google-sponsored Blink engine, while Apple's Safari uses WebKit (from which Blink was forked). The existence of multiple independent implementations is important for web standards, helping to prevent a single vendor from pushing through changes without consensus, and ensuring that the standards are coherent.

A glance at a statistics site like W3Counter is telling. In April 2008, Microsoft enjoyed a 63 per cent market share with Internet Explorer, and with Firefox performing strongly behind it at 29.3 per cent. By April 2010, IE was down to 48.6 per cent, Firefox up to 32.7 per cent, and Google's newer Chrome was starting to make an impact, at 8.3 per cent.

In April 2012, the three were almost on a par, though Chrome (26.8 per cent) had overtaken Firefox (25 per cent). Today, Chrome is at 65.3 per cent, Safari second at 16.7 per cent, IE and Edge has 5.7 per cent, and Firefox has just 4.1 per cent share. Despite numerous updates, Mozilla's browser has declined from 6.1 per cent share a year ago. Statcounter tells a similar story, reporting a 3.59 per cent share for Firefox, down from 4.21 per cent a year ago.

The decline is a concern, then, not only for Mozilla but also for standards advocates. In this overall context it is no surprise that Mozilla hopes has embarked on a redesign, which is now available in Firefox 89. Mozilla has posted not one, not two, but four articles and videos on the new look Firefox, as well as the release notes for developers.

The vid below summarizes the design refresh on desktop and mobile:

Youtube Video

At a glance, there are no huge changes under the covers though top level await is a useful new feature for JavaScript modules. Another new feature that is not part of the redesign is that Total Cookie Protection, which confines most cookies to the site where they were created, is on by default in private browsing.

The redesign, on the other hand, includes a new icon set, new typography, and simplified menus. There are now just two menu buttons, the hamburger menu top right, and a right-click menu; the three-dots menu in the address bar has gone.

Tabs are visually more distinct from the rest of the browser window and feature controls when multimedia is active that can be used to mute sounds; they are easier to float and dock than before. Mozilla said that it optimized permission dialog boxes specifically for Google Meet to reduce the number of prompts. Notifications and alerts have been reduced, and the team claimed there are more cohesive and calmer visuals with "more consistent styling, lighter iconography, a refined color palette, and a more modern aesthetic for screens of all sizes."

Mozilla said that its redesign is based on telemetry showing that 43 per cent of clicks go to the tab bar, 33 per cent to the navigation bar below it, and 5 per cent to the bookmark bar.

Regarding standards compliance, Firefox 89 scored 513 on HTML5 Test versus 528 for both the latest Edge and Chrome on our Windows 10 box. Regarding performance, Edge 91 and Chrome 91 both scored 116 on JetStream2 whereas Firefox 89 could only manage 74 on our particular PC. In both respects, Firefox is good enough though the performance gap looks significant.

Perhaps more interesting is the matter of privacy and business model. Mozilla is pitched as a privacy-preserving browser though not to the same extent as Brave; it has a ton of strong features for blocking trackers yet it is compromised by the importance of Google to its business model. In 2019, a financial report [PDF] showed that royalties, paid for setting Firefox's default search engine and understood to be largely from Google, make up the bulk of Moz's regular revenue.

Mozilla CTO Eric Rescorla posted a few days ago on the matter of "the future of ads and privacy" but with few conclusions; similarly a Mozilla post the same day on "a more privacy preserving ads-based ecosystem," states that "the advertising ecosystem is fundamentally broken" but only introduces the topic. Rescorla promises thoughts on Google's controversial FLoC are "coming soon." These issues are important since it will likely take more than a user-interface refresh, pleasing though it is, to recover market share for Firefox. Maybe a firm stand on privacy and web standards would help. ®

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