Mozilla executives address Firefox's challenges

While the company has managed to get nearly a quarter of the browser market, "it is a daunting space to compete" in, say the executives. That said, they say there is still a place for Firefox.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
3 min read

CARLSBAD, Calif.--Although it has managed to grab nearly a quarter of the browser market, Mozilla now finds itself in an unenviable position--competing against Microsoft, Apple, and Google all at the same time.

Speaking at D: All Things Digital on Thursday, Mozilla's Mitchell Baker noted that the company didn't set out with that in mind.

"That's not the business model you are going to pick," Baker said. "It is a daunting space to compete with the three giants of the era."

That said, Baker and fellow Mozilla executive John Lilly said there is still a place for Firefox.

"We've just got to be us," Lilly said. "Mozilla has always been about scratching an itch."

Another challenge, Lilly said, is that people don't perceive the browser as something that changes their Web experience. "Most people just think it's this pane of glass," Lilly said. Three quarters of people use the browser that comes with their computer, he said.

But browsers are important, Lilly maintained.

"We spend more time with our browser than we do in our cars," Lilly said. "The real truth, I spend more time with my browser than I do with my family."

Mozilla's John Lilly and Mitchell Baker (far right) speak with Walt Mossberg on the complexities of the browser business. Ina Fried/CNET

When describing modern Web browsers, Lilly didn't include Internet Explorer 8, despite agreeing it is better than past versions of the Microsoft browser.

"You can't run complex Web apps well," Lilly said.

Given that, Mossberg asked why IE isn't doomed, then.

"Bundling has certain advantages," Lilly said.

Baker echoed that. "What's easier for Microsoft and Apple is distribution," Baker said.

As for former backer Google now being a competitor, Baker acknowledged it's a challenge.

"It feels complex," she said. "We still actually have a good relationship with Google."

They noted Google is helping Firefox add geolocation features to the browser. "Competing with big companies is not new," Lilly said. "Google is a different kettle of fish," he acknowledged, given its deep understanding of the Web.

Lilly said that Google is focused on offering a clean interface to the Web. "Our point of view is that the browser can do more," he said. "We've got to compete on the merits."

Pressed on whether he would be happier if Google had stayed out of the browser fray, Lilly said: "It would be easier." But, he added that the competition has spurred Mozilla to move faster.

Going for-profit, Baker said, isn't really an option for Mozilla.

"We are only successful because we are different," she said, noting that that is the reason people contribute to Firefox. "Without that we are totally dead."

As for mobile, Lilly noted that the company waited for the environment to change

"How many people before the (Apple) app store had ever installed anything on their phone," he said. "We needed that to change."

Lilly said they also didn't want to scale back the experience.

"We didn't want to do a Firefox mobile," he said. "We wanted to do Firefox."

The company has been working on one and is coming out first for Linux, specifically Nokia's Mimo variant. Next up after that would be Windows Mobile, with Lilly again getting a dig in at Microsoft, saying it didn't have a real browser.

The one place Lilly said Firefox isn't headed right now is Apple's iPhone.

"iPhone is not a hospitable environment for us," he said. "Apple has said no browsers."