A hungrier, more aggressive Mozilla

Mozilla is at a crossroads as it seeks a new CEO; and it needs to become a hungrier, more competitive company if it hopes to increase Firefox's market share.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Mozilla's Firefox was born during a time when Microsoft's Internet Explorer had grown so fat and lazy that hacking off a massive chunk of its market share was almost a moral duty, one with a built-in fan club. "Anything but IE" was the mantra for some, and Mozilla delivered with aplomb.

Rediscover the Web...with Chrome?

That was then, this is now, and "now" is bound to be much, much harder.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes correctly notes that "the five years ahead of Mozilla will be far tougher than the five years that's behind the company." The reason? Mozilla is no longer the white knight riding to users' defense.

Or, rather, it's not the only one.

Google Chrome is much better funded by a company with a serious financial interest in seeing it succeed. Unlike Microsoft, which saw IE development as an afterthought or necessary evil, the browser is Google's lifeblood. It can afford to invest massive resources into making an innovative, lightning-fast browser. And it is, as the development of Chrome 6 shows.

That open-source community that made Firefox such an impressive experience? It's now equally enamored of Google Chrome, or getting there. Chrome matches Firefox's open-source bonafides, and raises the bar with an expansive view of what the browser can and should do. That's red meat for the open-source crowd, and it doesn't bode well for the more conservative Mozilla.

Indeed, this is essentially the argument that Firefox co-founder Blake Ross makes on Quora, which has sparked a reexamination of Mozilla's chances:

"I think the Mozilla Organization has gradually reverted back to its old ways of being too timid, passive and consensus-driven to release breakthrough products quickly," Ross wrote.

What to do? Glyn Moody argues that Mozilla may need to fork the Firefox project, releasing a lighter-weight competitor to IE9, Chrome, and Firefox. That's certainly a valid option.

But I believe Mozilla needs something even more fundamental, one made easier by John Lilly's imminent departure as Mozilla CEO.

I'm a huge Lilly fan, and have been an advocate of both Mozilla and its foundation approach to development over the years. I think both were appropriate for the past 5 to 10 years of Firefox's development.

But Mozilla needs a harder edge to it now, one that Lilly could have provided had he opted to stay. The browser is no longer simply a tool for browsing soccer scores or checking on the latest pie recipes. It's ground zero for the future of the Web and, indeed, the future of computing. Period.

The table stakes for competing in such a world are much higher than when Mozilla first raised its "and liberty and justice for all" call to arms. That's no longer sufficient. Users won't adopt Firefox because of high-minded slogans. They're going to opt for the browser that works best and is easiest to obtain. Google has distribution. Microsoft has distribution. Mozilla's download page...? It's not enough.

This is particularly true in a world where mobile is increasingly setting the pace and, as TechCrunch posits, Google Android gives it an unfair advantage over Mozilla's steadfast Switzerland approach. This isn't helped by the fact that more mobile browser development is happening around WebKit, which Android and others use, than Mozilla's Gecko engine.

Android claims nearly 10 percent of the global smartphone market, according to new Gartner data, and claims 46 percent of U.S. mobile ad requests.

How is Mozilla going to compete with that?

For starters, it must see itself as a competitor, not as some altruistic provider of Web browsers to benefit humanity. It needs teeth, even as it maintains the ideals of the open Web. (Guess what? Google has those same ideals.)

In its search for a new CEO, Mozilla should be looking for someone more like Marc Benioff and less like Gandhi. Much of its former competitive advantage--community, open source--is increasingly shared by Google, a competitor with its entire business at stake.

Indeed, perhaps Google offers clues as to the right model for how Mozilla should view itself and compete.