Firefox was on a roll toward the end of 2008. It was used by 20 percent of the 1.5 billion people who were online at the time. Moreover, half of all internet users in Macedonia, Indonesia, and Slovenia used it.
In a blog post, Ken Kovash, Mozilla’s data analytics team manager at the time, said, “Our market share in the regions above has been expanding like crazy.” However, almost 15 years later, things shifted in the opposite direction. The browser’s market share dropped to about 4% across all devices and less than half a percent on mobile.
“There’s no denying the reduction when you look back five years and look at our market share and our figures that we disclose,” says Selena Deckelmann, senior vice president of marketing.
From the beginning of 2019 to the beginning of 2022, Mozilla’s figures show a loss of about 30 million monthly active users. Deckelmann further explained that they have seen a substantial flattening in the last few years.
Firefox has been essential in influencing the web’s privacy and security in the two decades since it emerged from the shadows of Netscape, with workers advocating for more openness and more robust standards. However, the drop in Mozilla’s market share was followed by two rounds of layoffs in 2020. Its lucrative search arrangement with Google, which accounts for the vast majority of its revenue, expires next year. A slew of privacy-focused browsers is now vying for market share, while new-feature missteps have threatened to estrange its user base. These have raised concerns about Firefox’s future among industry analysts and former employees.
Firefox’s fate has far-reaching ramifications for the internet as a whole
For years, Firefox has been the greatest contender for keeping Google Chrome in check, offering a privacy-conscious alternative to the world’s most popular browser. But Chrome has been synonymous with the internet since its inception in 2008. It is used by about 65 percent of all internet users and greatly influences how people can use the web. Many sites rushed to adopt Google’s AMP publishing standard when it was first released by the company. Likewise, Chrome’s plans to replace third-party cookies are modeled after Google’s. It is hoped to have a significant influence on millions of advertisers and publishers.
Chrome has triumphed in the battle of desktop browsers
According to a former Mozilla employee who worked on browser development but did not want to be identified because they are still in the industry, “our hopes for a Firefox revival aren’t high.”
“It would be naive to believe that Firefox will reclaim even a small percentage of the browser market share at this stage. The company needs to accept that Firefox will not come back from the ashes,” says another former Mozilla employee who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
Mozilla and Google
The connection between Mozilla and Google is tricky. They are not just competitors but also business partners. For its search engine to be chosen as the default in Firefox, Google pays Mozilla hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties each year. Reports claim the sum is currently in the order of $400 million each year. Mozilla reported an overall income of $496 million in its most recent financial results available, with royalties from search deals totaling $441 million. These fees are also crucial for Firefox’s other default search engine partners, such as Yandex Search in Russia.
Can Firefox stand out in the future?
The present stand of the browser reflects concerns about its ability to stand out in the future. Former Mozilla workers argue that the company’s flagship browser should have a unique strategy. “It’s essentially a more optimized privacy browser, but at the same time, they’re trying to wring revenue from it by going in other directions,” one former Mozilla employee adds, citing search bar adverts as an example of competing priorities.
“I feel Firefox has a huge problem defining a distinct position—not just in marketing remarks, but across their product—and advancing in a consistent direction,” Bart Willemsen, a privacy-focused VP analyst at Gartner, claims to have been a Firefox user since the beginning.
Making Firefox more tailored is important
Deckelmann claims that this involves attempting to improve the browser’s functionality to accommodate people’s increased use of the internet. “It’s nearly hard for humans to manage all of this information now,” adds Deckelmann. Last year, for example, Firefox redesigned its homepage to allow users to resume previously abandoned searches and articles. Its Android app has been revamped, and features from its password manager have been incorporated into the Firefox app. Mozilla has also been focusing on partnerships, most recently collaborating with Meta, the parent company of Facebook, to push for more privacy-focused advertising.
Firefox, according to Deckelmann, is likely to remain to look for ways to personalize people’s web browsing. “I’m unsure if what people usually expect to get from a browser will come out of that,” she says, “but the goal will always be to put users first.” Firefox just announced a deal with Disney—linked to a new Pixar film—that entails changing the browser’s color and running adverts to win Disney+ subscriptions. The agreement reflects both Firefox’s customization push and the weird paths it might take in its search for new revenue streams.
Firefox, according to Deckelmann, does not need to be as large as Chrome or Apple’s Safari, the second-largest browser, to prosper. “Our desire is to be a viable option as it makes the internet a better place for all,” explains Deckelmann.
Is it over for Firefox?
Firefox is still essential, despite numerous flaws. Mozilla is pushing businesses towards being more private, and its main product is unique. Google’s Chromium codebase and its underlying browser engine, Blink, which converts code into visual web pages, dominate the browser industry. Adapted versions of Chromium are used by Microsoft’s Edge Browser, Brave, Vivaldi, and Opera. On iOS, Apple forces developers to use the WebKit browser engine. Aside from that, Firefox’s Gecko browser engine is the only other option.
Willemsen added that “The market requires diversity.” There will be less competition for Chrome if Firefox continues to depreciate. “That gap is necessary for open internet standards to prevent monopolies,” Willemsen argues. Having Firefox succeed makes the internet a better place. It’s only a matter of figuring out how to get there.
Feature image credit: Mozilla San Francisco Headquarters Monument by Tmittelstaedt under CC BY-SA 4.0