The New Browser Saga

The New Browser Saga

Article from Issue 239/2020
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On August 11, Mozilla CEO Mitchell Baker announced a "significant restructuring" of the Mozilla Corporation. Mozilla is best known for its flagship product, the Firefox web browser. The restructuring is said to include significant staff reductions – the second layoffs of the year.

Dear Reader,

On August 11, Mozilla CEO Mitchell Baker announced a "significant restructuring" of the Mozilla Corporation. Mozilla is best known for its flagship product, the Firefox web browser. The restructuring is said to include significant staff reductions – the second layoffs of the year. Baker's announcement points to the pandemic as a factor in the need for a new start, but commentators wonder if other reasons are behind the change.

When Firefox appeared on the scene in 2004, it was exciting and different – and way better than the Internet Explorer browser, which Microsoft was trying to force feed to the world. Since then, the competition has gotten much better. Chrome has stolen some thunder from Firefox, becoming not just the leading Microsoft alternative, but the leading browser in the world, and even Microsoft has cleaned up its act and cleaned up its code, finally putting ultra-clunky Internet Explorer to rest in favor of the Edge browser.

Firefox has been losing market share for several years, and, as with many organizations, a smaller market ultimately leads to a need to cut overhead. Most of the money for Firefox comes from Google in return for Mozilla making Google the default Firefox search engine. Mozilla recently announced that they are extending this partnership with Google. The terms of the agreement are not public, but it seems likely that, if fewer people use Firefox for Google search, the subsidy will diminish.

Firefox's problems are attributed to old code, lack of focus, and absence of a suitable hardware partner – all of which are true to some degree – but I want to add another factor: People are trendy. Chrome and Chromium came along four years later, and they rode a later wave of excitement. Of course, Google has endlessly deep pockets to make sure their own browsers stay on top of the heap, but I'm glad Mozilla and Firefox are still in the business, stirring the pot.

In September 2019, for instance, Mozilla announced that Firefox would ship with its Enhanced Tracking Protection enabled by default. We can only guess their "search partner" Google was not happy about this. Enhanced Tracking Protection, which blocks third-party cookies and cryptominers, has been around for a while, but making it the default was a bold move that Mozilla called "a major step in a multi-year effort to build stronger, usable privacy protections." Apple includes similar default tracking protection with the Apple-only Safari browser, but Firefox is the first leading browser to roll it out in the general PC space, and it brings up another point that should be of some importance to the open source community.

When you are reading comparisons of Firefox and Chrome, keep in mind that Chrome is not even open source. It is proprietary freeware, with a long-winded "Terms of Service" and links to Google's self-serving and Byzantine privacy agreement, and it benefits from the side deals that Google makes (or dictates) with other proprietary vendors like Adobe. The Chromium variant is Google's open source alternative, but it doesn't receive nearly as much attention from Google, and it isn't what usually gets compared to Firefox.

So for all the lamentations voiced on the Internet about the state of the Firefox browser, I just want to state for the record: I like Firefox. I use it all the time, and it does everything I need it to do. When I click on a video, it plays. When I click on a download link, I get the file. Some reviewers say Firefox is "slow" compared to Chrome. I haven't experienced that. I don't really know how it would perform in a speed test, but it doesn't really matter, because I get what I click on without spending a lot of time waiting. I keep Enhanced Tracking Protection turned on, and I don't worry quite so much (although I do still worry) what kind of hooks Google and other trackers have into me.

Three or four times per year, I come across a website that doesn't interact well with Firefox for some kind of financial transaction or document download. Mostly these are websites that are associated with companies that aren't too enlightened regarding privacy and the free software community. In those cases, I have to try a little harder, but I don't blame Firefox for this lack of support from websites that depend on closed technology.

The Firefox browser still gets the job done, and it provides an important, independent option for users who don't want to tie their browser experience to the weird priorities of Google, Apple, and Microsoft. If you're glad it's still here, keep using it, or it might not be here forever.

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