Firefox's crossroads: Cutting-edge or mainstream?

Mozilla must make its browser appeal both to enthusiasts who like Google's Chrome and mainstream users using IE today.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
6 min read

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--John Lilly wants it both ways.

Working at Mozilla Corporation since 2005 and as chief executive since early 2008, he helped oversee a remarkable achievement. Mozilla has built the Firefox browser from a largely unsuccessful remnant of the Netscape era of the 1990s into the browser that nearly a quarter of people on the Web use. Now the challenges are different.

Mozilla Corp. CEO John Lilly
Mozilla Corp. CEO John Lilly Stephen Shankland/CNET

First, for new growth, Mozilla must make its open-source browser appeal to an even more mainstream crowd, one that's more interested in working and playing online than in sticking it to Microsoft or being part of a cause. Second, it's got to keep the loyalty of the technically savvy early adopters and Web developers that Google now has been courting with its Chrome browser.

"We have to do both," Lilly said in an interview at Mozilla headquarters here. "We have to be a better browser for your standard everyday user of the Web who uses IE now, but I think we have to redouble our efforts to be good for Web developers."

The world changed for Mozilla when Chrome burst onto the scene in 2008. Mozilla didn't see itself as complacent, but Chrome was a wake-up call that "clarified some of our priorities," Lilly said, including snappy performance.

"It made some things real crisp," Lilly said.

Indeed, in the months after Chrome's arrival, these priorities appeared in Mozilla's Firefox planning: "Observable improvements in user-perceptible performance metrics such as start-up, time to open a new tab, and responsiveness when interacting with the user interface. Common user tasks should feel faster and more responsive." And future versions of Firefox likely will look more like Chrome embracing some of its less obtrusive framing of Web content and applications.

'Web-native' Google
Mozilla's biggest rivals before, Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Apple's Safari, came from companies firmly rooted in the era of desktop computers and operating systems. Not so Google, which not only has Web-based applications such as Google Docs and Gmail to support, but also a browser-based operating system called Chrome OS.

"Competing was hard but at some level simple. Google is much more Web-native," Lilly said.

Watch this: Mozilla's CEO discusses Firefox's next challenge

Google is an unusual rival. Even as Google and Mozilla vie for popularity, they're tight allies in the "Open Web" movement to augment Web standards to today's static pages into tomorrow's applications. And Google almost singlehandedly funds Mozilla by sending back a portion of search-ad revenue that originates from Google searches within Firefox.

In 2007, the last year for which Mozilla has released figures, Google supplied 89 percent of Mozilla's $75 million in revenue. Although the Mozilla-Google revenue-sharing deal is set to expire in 2011, realistically, it's probably safe.

For one thing, Firefox sends a large amount of search traffic to Google--traffic it could easily send to another search engine with the flip of a default setting switch. Second, Google's browser enemy is Internet Explorer, especially the slow and limited IE 6 that's still in widespread use eight years after its release. If Google wanted to cripple Mozilla, the time to do it would have been 2008, when the search-ad deal was up for renewal, but Google renewed it.

New standards
One big part of Mozilla's effort to remain in the vanguard is support for new Web standards.

Mozilla is among those trying to renovate Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) to make it a richer, more capable foundation for programming as well as display. And its significant if not dominant share of usage makes it a major force bringing those "Open Web" technologies to fruition.

"There are still a lot people who think the Web is done--there's this big mission accomplished banner. It's not true," Lilly said. "There are many proprietary technologies, many walled gardens with respect to video and offline technology. There is still is a lot of the Open Web fight to fight," Lilly said. "Getting to Firefox--a quarter of the Web--shows these technologies are real."

One thorny one is Web-based video. Today most online video is sent using Adobe Systems' Flash browser plug-in, which is free; video is encoded with the H.264 standard, which must be licensed. But fees could increase in 2011 with the possibility of new royalties for streaming H.264 video over the Internet.

Mozilla headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.
Mozilla headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Perhaps not coincidentally, Google announced plans to acquire On2 Technologies, which has other video encoding and decoding software--or codec--including a new version under development called VP8.

"If VP8 is an open codec and unencumbered (by patent licensing considerations), it's something we'd implement. That changes the whole landscape," Lilly said.

The first update in a decade to the HTML standard used to describe Web pages is under way, and one major feature is a video tag that builds video directly into the Web rather than relying on a plug-in such as Flash, Microsoft's Silverlight, or Apple's QuickTime. Though Mozilla, Google, Apple, and Opera all like the tag, they don't see eye to eye about what format video should be encoded in, which complicates how well the technology works in practice.

Mozilla and Opera urge use of the Ogg Theora video format, which may be implemented in open-source software without licensing complications, and Firefox has had Ogg support since version 3.5 of the browser arrived earlier this year.

But Apple's Safari has H.264 support built in. Google's Chrome supports both standards, but YouTube supports only H.264. Microsoft hasn't said what it plans to do. So for now, video plug-ins appear unthreatened.

Microsoft in the wings
At the other end of the competitive spectrum is the incumbent. Although Microsoft's browser development crept nearly to a standstill after IE won the first browser wars of the 1990s, there's evidence the sleeping giant is awakening.

IE 8, released earlier this year, attempts to conform to existing Web standards rather than setting its own. And though IE still doesn't support many of the latest technologies to make the Web into an application foundation, Microsoft now is actively engaged in discussions over those technologies and their standardization. Finally, Microsoft is working on Web applications of its own in the form of an online version of Office 2010, giving the company a strong new incentive to improve its technology.

So far, though, Microsoft's effect is more theoretical than actual.

"They've given notice they will engage. We haven't seen them influence it a lot," said Mike Shaver, Mozilla's vice president of engineering. He's eager about the possibility that Microsoft will embrace new Web standards. "They represent a large user base--some by choice, some not. Those technologies mean a lot more when they make it to more people."

Something of a wild card factor in today's browser wars is Apple, which has released a Windows version of its browser. The company rarely ventures out of its home turf of Mac OS X unless there's a strong incentive--releasing iTunes for Windows to boost the iPod business, for example--but evidently deemed Safari for Windows a high enough priority to fund development and support efforts if not much in the way of marketing.

Going mobile
Apple, though, has a big head start when it comes to the new era of mobile browsing that's just beginning to mature with high-powered devices such as the iPhone. Like it, Palm's Pre handset and Google's Android operating system for mobile phones use a browser based on the open-source WebKit project.

Firefox is moving more slowly into mobile, though. Its mobile browser project, called Fennec, is slated to emerge later this year under the Firefox brand name for Nokia's Maemo mobile operating system, and Lilly has said Firefox will be available for Google's Android operating system as well.

"I do more browsing than ever in mobile. The boundaries between desktop and mobile are going to blur," Lilly said. "We will release (Fennec) as a product called Firefox later this year."

Lilly likes to look at the bright side of this fluid landscape. "In most ways the world as a Web user is better than it's ever been. There's real choice, not just from Apple and Microsoft but from Google and Opera," he said.

"We're a unique organization. Compared to open-source projects, we look rather wealthy. Compared to the people we're competing with--Apple, Microsoft, Google--$50 million, $60 million, $100 million in revenue that to them isn't really meaningful," Lilly said. "We're competing in a low-expense, scrappy way."