Firefox may be down, but it's not out

Don't cue the funeral dirge yet. Firefox has redeeming values, including its non-alignment with online advertising -- unlike Microsoft and Google

The buzz on the street is that Firefox, everyone's favorite underdog, has hit the ropes.

If you haven't seen the obituary yet, it goes something like this:

  • Depending on your sources, Chrome is either overtaking Firefox (per Net Applications) or has already overtaken Firefox (per StatCounter) in market share.
  • Firefox's chaotic shift to a much faster development cycle and inscrutable -- at one point invisible -- version numbers made a lot of enemies, particularly in IT shops. Its bug-handling slip-ups, exacerbated by the breakneck schedule, alienated even more.
  • Mike Shaver, one of the founding members of the Mozilla Organization, later VP of engineering and VP of technical strategy, jumped ship in September to become the engineering director at Facebook.
  • Mozilla's contract with Google expired last month, and there doesn't appear to be a new source of income on the horizon. Mozilla hasn't reported how much money it receives from Google, but in 2008 -- the last time Mozilla officially reported the source of its royalty payments -- 88 percent of its royalty revenues came from Google.
  • Mozilla hasn't divulged how much money (if any) it made in October's pact with Microsoft to ship a version of Firefox with Bing as the default search engine, but it's unlikely to pick up the slack. More than a few developers have taken umbrage with Firefox linking up with Microsoft.

Where does that leave Firefox?

As reported today in Computerworld, Mozilla isn't saying if it renewed the contract with Google. If it loses that major source of income, Mozilla can draw on the $105 million it has in the bank -- almost enough for a year of operation -- but the financial hit could prove fatal.

Technically, Firefox on the desktop has never been stronger, with new features barreling along. The powers-that-be backed down on the version numbering controversy. Add-ons, which have always been one of Firefox's big selling points, are slowly catching up with the rapid changes in versions.

But the battle for mobile market share presents its own unique problems. Foremost among them: Apple isn't likely to cut Firefox any slack in its pursuit of a iPhone/iPad version of the browser. Apps just aren't allowed to run JavaScript, for example, and unless Apple makes an exception for Firefox -- or somebody figures out a workaround -- the browser's going to be running at a severe disadvantage. With Apple's vested interest in Safari, and Safari rolling over mobile search with more than a 60 percent market share, there's not a lot of motivation for Apple to change its ways.

Firefox on Android's a different story, but once again Google looms large.

On the bright side, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that Mozilla's looking to hitch up with mobile phone manufacturers: Mozilla's trying to become the default browser on certain phones "and hopes to announce a deal by February."

I find it interesting that we've heard almost nothing about Firefox and Baidu. Back in 2007 Baidu signed a search agreement with Firefox in China, roughly analogous to the deal cut with Google, but it doesn't seem to have gone anywhere. Firefox has minuscule penetration in China, while Baidu is chomping at the bit to roll out in the west. Baidu released its own browser in July. Perhaps there's some synergy.

Firefox has many redeeming social values, not the least of which is its non-alignment with online advertising. As I noted last March, Microsoft and Google have huge vested interests in online advertising, and that controls decisions made about their browsers. Only Firefox is in a position to rise above the fray and put users' privacy at the forefront.

Whether that unique position will translate into a browser that's more widely accepted by business and consumers remains to be seen. But I wouldn't bet against Mozilla, or its customers.

This story, "Firefox may be down, but it's not out," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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