Mozilla follows in Sun's faltering footsteps

The trajectory of Mozilla, from the trail-blazing technologies to the travails of being left in the dust, parallels that of the now-defunct Unix systems giant

sun sets on Sun Microsystems
Credit: Reuters/Robert Galbraith

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.

Mozilla, meanwhile, was home to JavaScript founder Brendan Eich, who is now a contributor to Mozilla projects. Other accomplished technologists at Mozilla include Engineering Director Vladimir Vukicevic, involved in the development of WebGL, and CSS stack author David Baron, a principal software engineer. The Mozilla Research division has built such important Web platform projects as the Rust programming language, the Servo Web browser engine, and the LLJS precompiler. These days, however, its well-known Firefox browser has been losing market share during the rise of Google's rival Chrome browser and mobile computing.

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.

Tool trouble

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.

A lot of what is going into Firefox is what Szorc has called "Gecko-flavored JavaScript," meaning JavaScript not conforming to any standard. "Instead, it's JavaScript that takes advantage of nonstandard, SpiderMonkey/Gecko-only extensions like Components.utils.import()."

This nonstandard JavaScript poses a "major problem to the productivity of Firefox developers," as well as hindering the ability to more quickly ship high-quality features, he said. "In my capacity as a developer productivity engineer, I'd love to build and deploy tools, so you can do your job better and more efficiently," he said. "Unfortunately, the lack of standard JavaScript in the Firefox code base makes that significantly more difficult than it could be. This is because pretty much all the existing JavaScript tools out there barf when processing Firefox source code because it contains nonstandard JavaScript."

Szorc stressed that addressing the "JavaScript tooling gap" should be a priority for Firefox development. "We're already playing around with automatic linting and code rewriting for Python and C++ developers at Mozilla," he said. "Unfortunately, those advancements can't easily come to JavaScript until the tools can understand the Firefox code."

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

Regardless of the predicament its browser finds itself in, Mozilla is forging ahead, leveraging its roster of technologists to push initiatives including the Firefox OS mobile platform and parallel JavaScript.

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.

The company also is proceeding with efforts like Firefox Developer Edition, a browser built for developers and that has recently added 64-bit capabilities for Windows. Company technologists also are moving forward with plans to fit JavaScript with parallelism. "This is incredibly important," analyst Michael Facemire, also of Forrester, says. "As devices -- both mobile and desktop -- gain more compute power, more CPU cores, GPU cores, and so on, and as the Web becomes more involved in activities that require compute power, parallelizing JavaScript is almost a mandate."

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.

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