Mozilla is looking for a scapegoat

The declining browser’s problem isn’t anti-competitive practices, it’s competition itself.

Mozilla recently released a 60-page report calling on regulators to take action to give consumers a “meaningful opportunity to try alternative browsers.” Alas, the problem for Mozilla isn’t anti-competitive practices from rival browser makers. The problem is competition itself, and Mozilla lost. Mozilla says its mission is to “rally citizens,” “connect leaders,” and “shape the agenda” to foster a “healthy internet.”

Maybe it should spend more time building a great browser.

For years Mozilla has concluded its dwindling market share has more to do with nefarious business practices than poor product development. This led it to plaster cities with billboards that read, “Every browser does fast. But not every browser does good.” It turns out, however, that most people don’t use browsers to serve their charitable impulses. They just want something that works, and Google’s Chrome has delivered that experience consistently across devices more than other browsers.

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Mozilla can’t necessarily be faulted for seeking ways to stand out. Whether on the desktop or mobile, Mozilla’s Firefox browser musters barely a rounding error of market share. It didn’t have to turn out this way.

Not so long ago, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer dominated market share. Antitrust authorities helped change that, but Google, not Mozilla, stepped up to take Microsoft’s place, yet without the bully pulpit of a dominant operating system. Meanwhile, as far back as 2008, I was writing about Mozilla’s chance to make Firefox a true community-developed web platform.

It didn’t succeed, though Mozilla has gifted us incredible innovations such as Rust. Clearly there are smart people at Mozilla and they have demonstrated the ability to push the envelope on innovation. But not with Firefox. DuckDuckGo has carved out a growing, sizeable niche in privacy-oriented search, but Mozilla keeps losing similar ground in browsers. Why?

In its report, Mozilla says browser freedom has been “suppressed for years through online choice architecture and commercial practices that benefit platforms and are not in the best interest of consumers, developers, or the open web.” This would be more credible in Mozilla’s mouth if this weren’t the same company that completely mismanaged its entrance into the mobile market. For consumers like me, it’s essential to be able to use the same browser across different devices. Mozilla ensured that I and hundreds of millions of others wouldn’t have such a choice because it botched mobile early and often (four years too late to Android, refusal to build on iOS out of antipathy for WebKit, a bungled attempt to position Firefox as a web-oriented OS for low-end smartphones, etc.).

Mozilla’s do-gooder impulses later added more distraction with Context Graph, an attempt to reduce authorial intent on a webpage and replace it with Mozilla-generated links that the user might like more. It didn’t work. In fact, nothing Mozilla did seemed to work, as worldwide market share charts for desktop (Figure 1) and mobile (Figure 2) clearly detail. In Figure 2, Firefox’s market share is so small it shows up in the “other” category.

statcounter browser ww monthly 200901 202209 Statcounter

Figure 1: Mozilla’s Firefox browser has declined steadily in desktop market share during the past decade.

statcounter mobilebrowser ww monthly 200901 202209 1 Statcounter

Figure 2: Firefox’s mobile usage is so small it is included in the “other” category.

Mozilla has all sorts of excuses as to why this has happened. It’s not clear that they stand up to serious scrutiny, however.

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Take, for example, this assertion in Mozilla’s report: “Browser choice on desktop computers has been thwarted for many years, and it has never truly existed on mobile devices.” The first part of that sentence might accurately describe Microsoft and IE back in the day, but it fails to account for the rise of Google Chrome. Google released Chrome for desktop operating systems in 2008 (originally just for Windows XP), and in 2012 launched Chrome for Android and iOS. Almost immediately it took off.

One way to explain this rise, as Mozilla does in its report, is to point to the privileged position operating system vendors Microsoft, Google, and Apple (not to mention Samsung and BlackBerry) gave their browsers. As the report suggests, “When the dominant operating systems (Microsoft and Apple) decided to offer their own browsers bundled with every computer’s operating system, the opportunities for independent browsers dwindled.” Except, of course, that they didn’t. Google trounced every incumbent OS/browser provider on that provider’s home turf.

The report tries to apply the same logic to mobile, claiming that “the situation worsened with the development of mobile smartphones with proprietary and closed operating systems (Google and Apple), and with connected devices (Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook)—with each operating system bundling its own browser.” The bundling is true. The effects of that bundling, however, don’t prove Mozilla’s point. They prove the opposite.

Yes, Apple’s Safari is strong on iOS devices, presumably because users find it more cumbersome to switch. On desktops, it’s Google’s Chrome by a landslide (perhaps because it’s easier for consumers to download and install Chrome on their desktops). It’s also true that, at least in Apple’s case, “For consumers who seek and use alternative browsers, many platforms make it difficult or impossible to: (1) delete the operating system’s bundled browser; and/or (2) remove it as the operating system default.” I’ve definitely experienced this with iOS.

Yet I, and most others, still find ways to install and default to Chrome. Even on Apple’s or Microsoft’s home turf, Google trounces alternatives.

Mozilla tries to land the argument that Google’s and Apple’s relatively strong browser positions lead to lower innovation and lower quality, but it’s hard to accept such reasoning when it has been Mozilla’s Firefox, particularly in mobile, that has limped well behind these browser leaders. In fact, throughout Mozilla’s report, the organization seems to be lost in a sea of arguments that it wishes were true in theory, even if they’re demonstrably false in practice.

In summary, instead of making billboards, reports, and arguments about browser competition, Mozilla would do well to build a better browser. Consumers like me choose Chrome precisely because it delivers a consistent, high-quality experience across desktop and mobile. Mozilla stumbled badly in critical ways a decade ago and continues to pay for those missteps, but making pleas to regulators won’t fix the problems that made them uncompetitive in the first place.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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