Firefox fights back

Inside Mozilla, CEO Chris Beard and his team are preparing to outmaneuver Google’s Chrome browser. The battle begins in November, with their release of Firefox 57.
Mozilla

Hundreds of Mozilla employees met a very different version of the Firefox mascot this June as they packed into a Hilton conference room in San Francisco for an all-hands meeting.

Gone was the blazing-orange fox snuggling a blue globe, the image that's represented Mozilla's scrappy browser since 2003. Instead, Firefox Senior Vice President Mark Mayo opened the event with a drawing of a fox in menacing mecha armor, named Mark 57 — the same way ever-improving Iron Man suits are named.

The message isn't subtle: Firefox 57, a massive overhaul due Nov. 14, is ready for battle. Its main rival is Google's Chrome, which accounts for 54 percent of browser usage today as measured by webpage visits using PCs, tablets and phones. Apple's Safari has 14 percent, while Firefox has 6 percent, according to analytics firm StatCounter. Chrome lured thousands of us away from Firefox after it debuted in 2008.

But Firefox 57 could be the version that gets you thinking about returning — and maybe about saving the web, too. Mozilla began testing Firefox 57 on Wednesday, the culmination of more than a year of engineering work.

"It's going to add up to be a big bang," Mozilla Chief Executive Chris Beard promises, speaking at the company's Mountain View, California, headquarters. "We're going to win back a lot of people."

Those are bold words considering Firefox's challenges. Chrome is the most-used browser not only on our PCs, where Mozilla maintains a foothold, but also on our phones, where Firefox is a rarity and Safari holds a distant second place. At the same time, browsing itself is under threat as we tap apps instead of use the web to hail an Uber car or post a photo on Instagram. And three years ago, Mozilla lost its co-founder, technical leader and chief executive, Brendan Eich, in a high-profile political firestorm over gay marriage. With a new browser called Brave, Eich's now a competitor.

There's a long way between the Firefox 57 overhaul and the "droves" of new users that Beard, who just celebrated three years at Mozilla's helm, expects. Even those who invested years at Mozilla think so.

"Some of the stuff they're doing from a technology perspective is amazing," says Andreas Gal, who became CEO of startup Silk Labs after leaving the Mozilla chief technology officer job in 2015. "I just don't think it makes a difference."

Rising from the ashes

For inspiration, Mozilla's 1,200 employees can look 15 years back into history. Firefox rose from the ashes of Netscape, the internet pioneer that Microsoft helped kill by bundling its Internet Explorer browser for free within Windows. Mozilla stripped away Netscape Navigator's cruft in 2002 and launched Firefox 1.0 in 2004 — Beard, now 44, was there for those seminal days.

Firefox didn't push aside the overwhelmingly dominant IE, which at the time accounted for 95 percent of browser usage. But Firefox still triumphed as millions of internet users made it a force to be reckoned with. No wonder the Firefox 1.0 launch made a big impression on Beard.

You may not care which browser you use, but the popularity of Firefox has helped keep browsers competitive and build the web into a foundation for online innovations over the last decade. Are you a fan of Google Maps, Facebook, Twitter or YouTube? That's partly thanks to Firefox. Mozilla's mission is to keep the web vibrant enough for the next big innovation even as companies offer mobile apps instead of websites, dump privacy-invading ads on you or try to confine your activity to their own walled gardens.

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An earlier Mozilla superhero poster warned Google and Apple about Firefox OS — a phone software effort that ultimately fizzled.

"There are people who make hardware, people who make software, people who make websites. They want to give you an experience that you like enough to pay for and to keep coming back, but they're about running their business. They represent themselves," says Mitchell Baker, Mozilla's executive chairwoman and co-founder. "We like the browser because we can represent you."

Beard, Baker and other senior Mozilla managers gave me an exclusive look at all facets of Mozilla's recovery effort — everything from frank admissions of Firefox's recent failures to disclosure of a possible membership plan to make money while flexing its political muscle around issues like encryption and net neutrality. In its bid to reclaim lost relevance, the nonprofit organization is also counting on software beyond the browser, financial growth that should help it survive, and even online services that challenge Google's search power.

The membership plan could amplify Mozilla's voice. You'd get services from Mozilla, not just a browser, and the nonprofit would get your membership fees and firm backing — something akin to what the National Rifle Association or the AARP enjoy.

To Mozilla, each tap or click on a webpage in Firefox is more than you browsing the internet. It's a statement that you'd prefer a more open future where online services can start up on their own. The alternative, as Mozilla sees it, is a future where everyone kowtows to Apple's app store, Google's search results, Facebook's news feed or Amazon's Prime video streaming.

That's why Mozilla bought billboard ads saying "Browse against the machine" and "Big browser is watching you," a jab at Google.

But the noblest mission in the world doesn't matter if your software is lame.

Meet Mark 57

Last year's Firefox upgrades helped Mozilla stem the flight of its users to Chrome, stabilizing the number of daily active users at a bit more than 100 million. With bigger changes in store, Mozilla promises to give Chrome a run for its money when Firefox 57 arrives.

"It will be night and day," Beard promises.

Improvements within a project called Quantum are responsible for much of the difference. One part, Stylo, accelerates formatting operations. Quantum Flow squashes dozens of small slowdown bugs. Quantum Compositor speeds website display. And Firefox 57 also will lay the groundwork for WebRender, which uses a computing device's graphics chip to draw webpages on the screen faster.

"You can do user interface and animation and interactive content that you simply can't do in any other browser," says Firefox chief Mayo, speaking from his office in Toronto — over video chat technology Firefox helped make possible.

It all adds up to a very different engine at the core of Firefox. That kind of speedup can really excite web developers — an influential community key to Firefox's success in taking on IE back in 2004.

The top priority is speed. We all get subconscious pleasure with a browser that's fast and smooth at loading websites, clicking buttons and opening and closing tabs. If your browser stutters while scrolling or makes you wait a long time for a page to appear, you're more likely to dump it. Speed improvements in recent months already have had an effect, Mozilla says, stopping a steady stream of defections from Firefox to other browsers.

It's too soon to tell how much faster Firefox 57 will be, but in one broad browser test called Speedometer, Firefox performance jumped significantly. Comparing the June 2016 version of Firefox with the version expected this August, Firefox performance increased 38 percent on MacOS and 45 percent on Windows, says Jeff Griffiths, Mozilla's Firefox browser product leader.

Speed is key to one of the core parts of Mozilla's mission: building a healthy web. A decade ago, browser innovation meant web programs surged in performance, paving the way for much more powerful websites. Quantum could fuel a new performance race and drive a new web revolution.

Joining the speed boost is a very different look called Photon. "If Quantum is how we make Firefox faster, Photon is how users will know about it," says Nick Nguyen, Mozilla's vice president of Firefox product. He promises "a sleek and modern user experience, buttery-smooth animations and crisp interface elements for all resolutions."

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Mozilla's headquarters are in Mountain View, California, a Silicon Valley city that's also home to Google.

Aaron Robinson

There are plenty of interface changes. The title bar across the top of the browser will become dark. Gone are Firefox-only features like a special box just for launching internet searches or the menu with a grid of little icons. You'll be able to zero in on particular settings with a preferences search tool. Firefox will switch to a touch-friendly mode as soon as you tap your PC screen. A new "page action" menu in the address bar handles tasks like bookmarking pages, sharing website addresses or saving pages to Mozilla's Pocket service. And brace yourself — Photon ditches Firefox's curvy tab shape in favor of the rectangular style in Microsoft's Edge browser.

When done well, cosmetic change like the new Photon interface can make software easier to understand and use. Even the best of changes often make us howl, though.

Change is hard

Mozilla is also developing artificial intelligence technology to spot any problems that might come from all the changes. The team trained an AI to learn what correctly rendered websites look like so it can raise the alarm when something looks wrong, Mayo says. Regular old humans also test the new tech, too.

It's the kind of tool that could help Mozilla programmers work faster. Changing software is easier if programmers can find out fast whether they messed something up. It's a bad idea to ship a browser that breaks websites: it frustrates us and, worse, the developers that Mozilla can't afford to alienate.

But another change in Firefox 57 will break a venerable part of Firefox — the extensions technology that lets you customize the browser. For example, with extensions you can block ads, protect your privacy, download YouTube videos, translate websites and manage passwords. Extensions were a key advantage back when Mozilla first took on IE in 2004, but Mozilla is switching to Web Extensions, a variation of Chrome's customization technology.

The change paves the way for real improvements like a snappier response when you click your mouse or close a tab. But thousands of extensions will be left behind unless their authors build new versions for Firefox's new foundation.

"This transition is very painful for extension developers, and many existing extensions won't take this hurdle," says Wladimir Palant, a developer with Firefox's most-used extension, AdBlock Plus. Programmers had to start working with Firefox's replacement before it was mature enough to use, he says. Google's Hangouts extension is another casualty.

Change is hard but necessary, Beard argues. "If you try to make everyone happy, you're not making anyone happy," he says. "Large organizations with hundreds of millions of users get defensive and try to keep everybody happy. Ultimately, you end up with a mediocre product and experience."

Mistakes were made

Will it be enough? Some are skeptical.

Even if a browser is twice as fast as Chrome, uses half the memory and suffers half the security holes, it may not be enough to get you to switch, says Silk Labs' Gal. Especially when Google Calendar, Gmail, Google Docs and other major sites tell you things will work better if you switch to Chrome.

Mozilla executives are more optimistic, though they're candid about the problems that led to today's difficulties.

"Firefox didn't keep up with the market and what people really want. A lot of hardcore Firefox fans are now happy Chrome users," Beard says. His biggest job is to reconnect with those users the way he did as chief marketing officer in Firefox's earlier days, back before he left for a stint at venture capital firm Greylock Partners then returned to take the CEO job.

One is Katelyn Gadd, a game programmer who's worked on both Chrome and Firefox. "Using [Firefox] always feels like being a step behind," she says. "It seems like a lot of technical baggage from the 2000s makes it harder to improve Firefox than it is for the Chrome or Safari development teams."

A big problem: Mozilla concentrated on new features for web programmers while losing focus on the ordinary folks using the browser, Mayo says. On top of that, "we just got complacent."

Firefox OS distraction

The company also suffered a multiyear distraction trying to build Firefox OS, its own rival to Apple and Google phone software. It made some progress with wireless carriers, but after years of work, Beard decided Firefox OS was a bust and shut the effort down in February 2016. Ultimately, 50 people were laid off, though Mozilla rehired most of them in new positions.

One relic of Mozilla's mobile software remains in Beard's conference room: a poster with an earlier Firefox superhero illustration and a warning in German to the biggest phone powers: "Achtung, Apple — Vorsicht, Google," Firefox OS is coming to liberate smartphones.

Eich's departure left a big hole, too. He's a titan of the browser world, inventing the JavaScript language that makes websites interactive and helping chart Firefox's course. Co-founder Baker says she had "a long and fruitful partnership" with him. After he left, she and Mozilla itself were "unanchored," Baker says, sitting beneath a framed version of Mozilla's red T-rex mascot and sporting her trademark asymmetric bright-red hairstyle.

"No one has the particular skill set of Brendan," but Mozilla now has hired a group of people who do, she says. "We're past that."

Some who've worked there might need more convincing. At job recruiting site Glassdoor, only 42 percent would recommend Mozilla employment to their friends, and the CEO approval rating is just 28 percent. Both figures have trended downward over the last year and a half.

Firefox is stable and Mozilla is poised for growth now, Beard says. Negotiating new deals with search engines including Yahoo, Google, Baidu and Yandex helped propel Mozilla's annual revenue from $330 million in 2014 to $421 million in 2015. Mozilla gets paid because the search companies can show ads after we perform searches from within Firefox, and Mozilla can choose the default search engines where 100 million of us send our queries.

Mozilla hasn't shared its 2016 results yet, but Beard says Mozilla will benefit from "a significant bump again in our core financials." You might not be keen to pore over the tax forms where Mozilla reveals all that data, but more money means Mozilla can fund its Firefox overhaul and pursue new projects you might care about.

Politics and membership

Firefox is free, but you might pay Mozilla for something else: membership. This new option could increase Mozilla's sales while changing what you expect the organization will deliver to you.

"You'd pay money to be a member because you'd get real value from the service or products," says Denelle Dixon, Mozilla's chief business and legal officer.

She won't commit to pricing or perks yet, but some options could be recommending online content Mozilla members might want to see, hosting events and establishing forums for discussion, she says.

Beard mentioned other possibilities, too, like Mozilla negotiating discounted pricing on behalf of its members. Mozilla won't say what that might cover, but think of something like cloud storage services from a company that respects your privacy. Mozilla also could offer online services at a discount since it's a nonprofit — likely services tied to Mozilla-focused concerns such as privacy, security and control over your data.

Memberships could also bring more leverage to Mozilla's work to influence its political agenda.

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Mozilla's San Francisco offices has a pillar with the Firefox browser logo. It's engraved with the names of thousands of contributors.

Aaron Robinson

"Right now we have hundreds of millions of users, and that gives us a certain influence," Beard says. "Maybe [membership] would be more powerful to say we represent the concerns of our members, and these are the issues we want to advance."

Mozilla has long used Firefox to pursue priorities bridging technology, politics and society like programming literacy and net neutrality. But it's more serious now. Dixon leads a team of eight people who spend their day lobbying politicians and their staff in Europe and the US.

In the recent US debate over net neutrality, the idea that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally so big players can't dominate, Mozilla delivered more than 42,000 signatures defending the idea. Mozilla is also trying to stop government efforts to weaken privacy-protecting encryption, reverse what it sees as overly broad copyright restrictions in Europe and speak against President Donald Trump's immigration ban efforts, which "impacted everything we do as an organization and everything we care about," Dixon says.

"We are tiny but mighty," says Dixon, speaking in Mozilla's San Francisco offices, which are tucked into the historic Hills Brothers Coffee building by the Bay Bridge. Pedestrians walking in the entrance see a column with Firefox's glossy logo at the top and thousands of names of Firefox contributors and volunteers, engraved below.

Mozilla is willing to buy influence, too — particularly in mobile, where it's so weak. One option is paying partners to distribute Firefox on their phones. "We're going to have to put money toward it," Dixon says, but she expects it'll pay off when Mozilla can share revenue from the resulting search traffic.

But her colleague Mayo thinks it's time to rethink the mobile web more profoundly. "The existential threat on mobile is that you don't need a browser," Mayo says. "We're no longer motivated by replacing the default browser. We're more motivated by how the hell do you surf web pages on a mobile device?"

Flexing muscle

If you were launching a tech startup, you'd kill for more than 100 million people using your product daily, eight million of them on phones. But for Mozilla and Firefox, it's a step backward.

Net Applications' NetMarketShare service shows a decline in the percentage of individuals using Firefox: Over the last three years, it dropped from 16 percent to 12 percent on PCs — though to be fair, it also recovered from an 8 percent low point last August.

Usage translates into an ability to shape the web, either by introducing new tech like Web Assembly for fast web-based games or by vetoing others like Google's Native Client that sought the same goal. "It's hard to argue today that Mozilla has the ability to influence the web anymore just because Google is so dominating," Gal says.

But Mozilla will use Firefox to challenge Google's cash cow, search. Mozilla acquired the makers of Pocket this year, a service that lets people save websites and discover others, for undisclosed terms. Not only does that discovery service bring in money, but it helps Mozilla's ambition to offer an alternative to Google search results through a new way to present websites you might be interested in.

"We think that's ripe for disruptive innovation," Beard says of online search.

Pocket data will figure in a coming service called Context Graph to anticipate sites you might want to see, offering suggestions based on what you're looking at and not by what you explicitly search for. Context Graph will present websites to you that other people doing the same thing have found useful, Nguyen says.

Another challenge to Google's search dominance comes through Mozilla's decision to invest money in German browser maker Cliqz, which tries answering search queries itself instead of sending you to a search engine results page.

Ad blocking? Nope

Online ads fund big sites like Google and Facebook, but there's plenty not to like about them. Ads and accompanying behavior tracking can infringe privacy, slow websites, drain your battery and even deliver network attacks.

Mozilla worked hard promoting a technology called Do Not Track that would have let us put blinders on the prying eyes of website publishers and advertisers. Advertiser opposition stalled the effort, though, so ad trackers remain widespread. Mozilla more recently started blocking trackers when you're using Firefox's private-browsing mode.

But Eich, after quitting Mozilla, has one-upped Mozilla here with aggressive privacy protections in the free Brave browser. It blocks some trackers in regular browsing mode and blocks the ads, too — though the long-term plan is to supply ads of its own using privacy-protecting technology.

Why didn't Mozilla stand up for its users this way? Because most still don't use ad-blocking plugins, Beard says, and he doesn't want to blow up ad-dependent sites.

"Brave is a very interesting experiment," Beard says, "but you need to find an alternate economic model for content on the internet in order to really bring about a lasting change."

Eich sees things differently. Mozilla is "almost entirely dependent on search-ad revenue," through search partners. Instead of Mozilla leading the charge, "Apple is our biggest ally for privacy," Eich says.

Mozilla has tricks up its sleeve, though. Firefox now can be retooled to load the parts of sites we want to see and let the ads trickle in afterward, Beard says. Firefox's new extensions technology also should open new avenues for ad blocking, Mayo says.

The farther future

In the last three years, Beard's job was "taking Mozilla apart and remaking it as a modern organization," Baker says, adding that he's now at least about 90 percent done.

But it's been rough. Mozilla engineers track progress on sites like arewefastyet.com and areweslimyet.com. Someone snarky added arewereorganizedyet.com with a big "NO" and a list of more than 30 purported reorganization dates.

But Mozilla management is comfortable enough to try to build the future of computing beyond just browsers. For that reason, Beard launched an emerging technologies division that now has more than 60 employees. Some parts of Firefox 57's Quantum project are harvested directly from this group, but a lot of its work is farther afield.

One example is virtual reality and augmented reality. Mozilla helped pioneer the WebVR technology that makes it easier for VR creators to bring their realms to many VR devices. And it founded the A-Frame technology designed to make it easier to create those WebVR realms.

"We want Mozilla to have the same mission and same role in those places" as it has on the web today, says Sean White, the senior vice president leading the emerging technologies work and a researcher who got his start in VR way back in 1993. He's wearing the standard Silicon Valley two-piece suit of hoodie and T-shirt — in this case one with crossed wrench and screwdriver atop a heart.

Also on his division's list: speech recognition, the Rust programming language to make software more secure from attack, and the Web of Things project to endow real-world objects with web addresses.

It shows Mozilla coming out of crisis mode, Beard says.

"With Firefox OS, we had been so focused that we underinvested in more forward-looking things," Beard says. "Where's the world going in the next five or ten years, and how do we get ahead?"

For that to be relevant, Mozilla first must restore Firefox's fortunes. That'll be tough given the browser's slide into Google Chrome's shadow and Mozilla's failure to influence the mobile market. So Firefox 57 is a crucial product.

"Mozilla made a huge mistake by letting Google leapfrog them with Chrome," says Sebastian Peyrott, a Buenos Aires, Argentina, programmer who moved to Chrome. "They had the advantage and they were not quick enough to improve Firefox."

But Beard says improving Firefox is exactly how Mozilla is reclaiming its relevance.

"Mozilla didn't just survive. It's gotten to a better place," Beard says. "We're back and we're ready for the fight."