Mozilla has become the modern-day Sun Microsystems: While known for churning out showstopping innovation, its bread-and-butter technology now struggles.
In its glory days, Sun had on staff prominent people like Java founder James Gosling, Unix whiz Bill Joy, and XML co-inventor Tim Bray. It produced groundbreaking technologies, such as Network File System and, of course, Java. But the company's once-high-flying, principal source of revenue -- its SPARC hardware paired with its Solaris Unix OS -- got trampled in the stampede to commodity Intel hardware and Linux. This led to Sun being acquired by Oracle in 2010 after an extended period of losing many millions of dollars.
The decline of Firefox
Indeed, Firefox is at a crossroads, with its loss of market share compounded in part by questions over tooling for the platform. Firefox has seen its share decline steadily, data collected from log files of the W3Schools Web technologies training site reveals. According to W3WebSchools, Firefox was the leading browser in December 2009, with a 46.4 percent share, compared to 37.2 percent for Microsoft Internet Explorer and 9.8 percent for Google Chrome. But in January, Firefox's share had slipped to 23.3 percent, while Chrome had soared to 61.9 percent. W3Counter, which tracks websites and page views, had Chrome leading with a 42.8 percent share in February, followed by Internet Explorer (16.9 percent) and Safari (15.5 percent). Firefox was in fourth place (14.8 percent).
Firefox's absence on mobile devices is a likely cause of its decline, analyst Jeffrey Hammond, of Forrester Research, acknowledges. "I'd suspect that is largely to blame. Once I use a particular browser on one platform, I tend to use it on others to keep my links in sync," he said. "And with all the Android phones out there with Chrome pre-installed, Google gets a leg up on the multi-channel user."
NetMarketShare, which assesses usage of Internet technologies, has Safari leading in the mobile/tablet browser space, with a 43.21 percent share, while Chrome is at 26.59 percent. Firefox's 0.67 percent share barely registers.
In addition to trying times in the mobile browser space, Firefox and its developers must deal with a lack of standard tooling, according to conversation begun recently on a Firefox Internet mailing list. Gregory Szorc, a developer productivity engineer at Mozilla, has engaged in a dialog on this list about coding standards to facilitate tool usage as well as adopting a plan to convert existing source code to be standards-compliant.
Responding to Szorc's points, Mozilla CTO Andreas Gal says Mozilla has used Firefox as a testing ground for technologies that may or may not become industry standards. Some, like WebGL, end up meeting that goal, he adds. Others, such as E4X (ECMAScript for XML), have not. Szorc says Mozilla's experimentation with language features was healthy but can have drawbacks when it comes to using tools.
Hope for Firefox OS
Indeed, it has become a veritable powerhouse in developing Web technologies. This week, Mozilla detailed partnerships with Verizon Wireless, KDDI, LG U+, and Telefonica to build devices based on its Firefox OS mobile platform. "I would say the most important [technology] we are focusing on right now, with the most resources for us, is Firefox OS," Gal says.
Firefox OS has thus far been limited primarily to developing countries. Spreading to markets where Android and iOS already have a stranglehold on consumers' choices will be a challenge, but Mozilla is undaunted, seeing a sweet spot for a device between smartphones and feature phones -- flip phones, for example -- where Firefox OS can play.
"We are trying to move the mobile landscape toward more open standards and open technology. That's why we are doing with Firefox OS." Over time, Firefox OS could be monetized via means such as app stores, Gal says.
While Sun had to deal with bottom-line profit issues, the overarching Mozilla Foundation is a nonprofit organization. To pay for its operations, Mozilla's business model generates revenues via efforts like philanthropic fundraising and search deals with vendors like Yahoo. Mozilla brought in around $314 million in 2013, according to Mozilla blog post. Foundation subsidiary Mozilla Corporation, however, is a for-profit entity, dealing with the organization's search agreements.