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Speedy new Firefox Quantum browser has people flocking to it

Lots of us are installing the overhauled browser, but it'll take a busy 2018 to turn that into a real recovery for Mozilla.

Nearly a month after releasing its new and faster Firefox Quantum browser, Mozilla says there's evidence the years-long overhaul has paid off.

Firefox downloads by users of Google Chrome, the dominant web browser today, increased 44 percent compared with a year earlier, Mozilla said Tuesday. A total of 170 million people have installed Firefox Quantum, with millions more arriving daily.

And perhaps as important for the nonprofit organization, Firefox usage on mobile devices has picked up as a result -- even though many of the big Quantum changes haven't yet arrived on Android-powered phones and won't arrive on iPhones because of Apple restrictions. On Android and iOS devices, Firefox installations jumped 24 percent, Mozilla said, and installations of its privacy-centric Focus browser increased 48 percent.

"I'm pretty excited by the halo effect on mobile," Firefox Senior Vice President Mark Mayo said. Mozilla is used by more than 100 million people daily, but most of those are on personal computers. Phones, though, are where we're spending more and more of our online time.

Mark 57, a Firefox-themed takeoff on an Iron Man suit, served as Mozilla's Quantum mascot.

Mark 57, a Firefox-themed takeoff on an Iron Man suit, served as Mozilla's Quantum mascot.

Mozilla

Attracting more of us to Firefox is crucial to Mozilla's future and to its efforts to keep the internet healthy: useful, private, open to anyone and not dominated by individual companies. For example, Mozilla has advocated for protecting website privacy with encrypted network connections and for the endangered principle of net neutrality. Having more users on board gives Mozilla more muscle -- and more money, since its main revenue source is sending our search queries to search engines like Google that pay Mozilla.

Mozilla can't declare victory, though. Converting a download spike into a sustained increase in daily active users will take more work. "We'll need to absolutely kill it for all of 2018 to see real change there," Mayo said. "I intend to do just that."

Speed boost, compatibility hitch

Firefox Quantum, version 57 of the open-source browser, is about twice as fast the version 52 that arrived in March. Mozilla plans more major changes, too, such as a technology called WebRender that should speed up the process of painting a website as pixels on your screen.

"We already have more users on the new system, with more usage hours than we've had in a couple years," Mayo said. People are using Firefox Quantum about half a billion hours each day.

There have been expected rough spots with the change to a new extensions system that lets people customize the browser with tools like password managers and ad blockers. Mozilla scrapped its seminal extensions technology in favor of one it calls Web Extensions, modeled on Chrome's technology.

"The add-ons breakage was ... lower than we feared," Mayo said. About a third of us have Firefox extensions, but Mozilla wants to increase that to about two-thirds, he said.

"The rebirth of a vibrant extensions ecosystem is probably the most important thing we wanted to see happen with Quantum," Mayo said.

Yahoo lawsuit

Quantum also introduced a change that's big for Mozilla's business: a switch from Yahoo back to Google for searches launched from Firefox's address bar. Three years ago, Mozilla scrapped Google as the global search engine partner and switched to Yahoo in the US for a five-year deal, but terminated the deal two years early -- on Nov. 10, four days before the Quantum launch.

On Dec. 1, Yahoo -- now a part of Verizon's Oath division -- sued. "Mozilla's termination ... is a breach of the plain terms of the parties' contract," the suit said. "Yahoo has suffered and will continue to suffer competitive injury to its business and reputation."

Mozilla's revenue increased 24 percent in 2016 to $520 million. Most of it came from deals with Yahoo and other search engines.

Mozilla's revenue increased 24 percent in 2016 to $520 million. Most of it came from deals with Yahoo and other search engines.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Mozilla made the change "based on a number of factors, including doing what's best for our brand, our effort to provide quality web search and the broader content experience for our users," Denelle Dixon, Mozilla's chief business and legal officer, said in a blog post announcing Mozilla's countersuit.

It's Yahoo that breached the contract by not fulfilling search-engine work it committed to, Mozilla said in its countersuit. Mozilla also seeks to force Yahoo to continue with payments it says are required to deliver Firefox Quantum progress.

Promised payments

"Yahoo's refusal to pay ... would cause irreparable injury to Mozilla. The payments are key to financing the new upgraded version of Firefox, any disruption of which will cause lost market share and lost business goodwill," Mozilla said. Mozilla's 2016 revenue was $520 million, most of it from search deals.

Yahoo dropped the ball in its search work, and Mozilla paid the price, the nonprofit said. By mid-2016, only 23 percent of US Firefox users hadn't actively switched away from Yahoo as the default search option, Mozilla said.

Under former Chief Executive Marissa Mayer, Yahoo promised innovation in search, but Mozilla negotiated payments from Yahoo in part to compensate for the risks of betting on Yahoo, the suit said. Troubles started soon, with Mozilla raising concerns just two months after the agreement went into effect, and worsened in the later years.

"Mayer ultimately was unable to execute her vision for the future of Yahoo, as the company's turnaround efforts stalled and search was no longer treated as a key growth area or innovation opportunity," Mozilla said in the suit. "Yahoo did not meet its contractual obligations and ... it was one of the significant factors that contributed to the decline of Firefox usage."

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