Mozilla's mobile misstep puts the Web at risk

In mobile, the browser is becoming an undesired legacy, and the Firefox creator that should reverse the trend seems unable to lead

Mozilla's mobile misstep puts the Web at risk

Mozilla's mission is at risk. That, in turn, could put the entire Web at risk.

Mozilla, the foundation behind the Firefox Web browser, may declare in its mission statement that "the Internet is a global public resource that must remain open and accessible," but it's going to have a hard time realizing that vision with less than 1 percent of the mobile market share globally.

Worse, the foundation, which still manages to scratch together about 18.5 percent market share for desktop browsing, has been a nonstarter in mobile, limping forward with a series of failed attempts at relevance.

That reality should concern us all. As one industry insider told me, "The Web is sick for sure," and the mobile Web perhaps most of all, what with its endless redirects, bloated Web pages, and other cruft.

Without Mozilla, who will heal it?

Mozilla has locked itself out of the mobile Web

People used to listen to Mozilla -- Web developers, government officials, business executives. Mozilla mattered, because Mozilla managed to upend Microsoft's browser dominance and gave the industry a viable, open alternative.

That was the desktop. Today's world is all about mobile, and here Firefox isn't even an also-ran. It's a rounding error, as StatCounter data shows.

Part of this comes down to Mozilla's unwillingness to bow to Apple's demand that Mozilla use Apple's preferred Web engine, WebKit. Thus, Mozilla was locked out of the early movement in the market around the iPhone. Mozilla wasn't much faster with its Android browser, either, releasing Firefox 9.0 only in June 2012, nearly four years after Android debuted.

Perhaps Firefox could have caught up. But not with its awkward mobile Web strategy.

Hemmed in by Google and Apple, Mozilla tried to position Firefox as a Web-oriented OS for cheap smartphones. It hasn't worked. Even in Africa, still filled with so-called feature phones, Opera rules, not Firefox. As one observer told me over email, "Mobile Firefox is useless." This is, he posits, because "Mozilla decided to avoid the two platforms real people use [iOS and Android] and instead pursue a demonstrably dumb fantasy."

More recently Mozilla has said it will "build phones and connected devices that people want to buy because of the experience, not simply the price."

Good luck with that.

The mobile Web: How sick is sick?

If this were only about Firefox and one organization's inability to keep pace with innovation, it wouldn't be a big deal. But, again, this is about finding someone to stick up for an open Web, a Web that is currently "sick for sure."

"Sick" takes many forms. For one, we're loading the Web with crap, as Monday Notes columnist Frederic Filloux has opined.

This problem is particularly pronounced on mobile Web pages, which are now three times bigger than they were four years ago, a Soasta study uncovers, with all sorts of performance problems stemming from excessive resource requests, redirects, and more. Some of it driven by attempts to monetize a bad Web experience with an even worse ad experience.

This Web crappiness has led Facebook (Instant Articles) and even Apple (Apple News) to sidestep the browser, as The Verge's Nilay Patel spotlights. He concludes, "Apple and Facebook are turning their back on the Web to build replacements for the Web, and with them replacements for HTML and CSS and every bit of Web innovation it's taken 20 years of competitive development to achieve."

In other words, there may soon not be a Web for Mozilla (or someone else) to save.

Does mobile mean the end of the Web?

Former Mozilla CEO John Lilly suggests that Firefox's anemic mobile market share doesn't matter because "mobile browsers in general are irrelevant," with “something new required” to replace them. As he tweeted, "at the moment, the bigger issue is that the Web is mostly not that important to the future of mobile, which is the future of tech."

In other words, Mozilla can't help the Web, but perhaps no one can.

There's no shortage of data that shows that apps trump the Web on mobile devices (even if that data is somewhat misleading). But there's no question that we're in transition from a desktop Web-oriented world to a mobile app-oriented one.

For now -- some argue that apps are simply transitional, a stopping point while the Web catches up. Maybe.

Whatever world we're veering toward, Mozilla currently doesn't play a meaningful part. I've argued that Rust, the uber-cool programming language it fostered, has the potential to reshape the industry and return Mozilla to its former importance, but that remains to be seen.

For the time being, we're an industry hell-bent on replacing the Web with isolated apps, only lightly punctured by the occasional deep link.

We need a Mozilla to remind us of why we moved to and stuck with an open Web in the first place. But Mozilla is MIA. If it doesn't or can't step up, can anyone will replace it?

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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