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Computers

Mozilla CEO resigns, opening the door for more changes for Firefox

Chris Beard will step down at the end of 2019. No successor has been named.

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Chris Beard is on his way out, again.

James Martin/CNET

Mozilla Chief Executive Chris Beard will resign at the end of 2019 after more than five years of leading the nonprofit behind Firefox. His tenure includes the expansion of the organization's focus beyond the web browser and a new priority on preserving our privacy against pervasive online tracking.

He took over Mozilla in 2014 at a tumultuous time when co-founder and former technical leader Brendan Eich resigned amid a political firestorm over his opposition to gay marriage. Beard first came to Mozilla in 2004 during the organization's rise to fame as it successfully challenged Microsoft's then-dominant Internet Explorer. He left in 2013 as chief marketing officer before returning the next year as CEO.

Over the past decade, Google's Chrome has become the dominant web browser, helped by Google's ability to distribute it with its widely used Android smartphone software. Meanwhile, Firefox usage has dwindled despite a massive effort to speed up the browser with an overhaul called Quantum.

Under Beard's tenure, Mozilla ditched a massive project called Firefox OS that sought to counter Android and Apple's competing iOS software for its iPhones. Firefox OS attracted some support among carriers and handset makers, but Mozilla concluded it wasn't successful enough. Curiously, a KaiOS Technologies spinoff project called Kai OS remains in the market.

"We are in an exceptionally better place today," Beard said in an email sent to Mozilla staff and seen by CNET. "We have all the fundamentals in place for continued positive momentum for years to come."

Beard also announced his resignation in a blog post Thursday.  

How exactly Mozilla will build on "all the fundamentals" is unclear. The company has made some forays beyond the browser with a password manager, file sharing, the Pocket app it acquired for bookmarking sites, private network connections and even some advertising.

But nothing fundamentally has reignited the same level of enthusiasm techies had for Firefox when it was challenging Microsoft's slow, insecure, outdated IE. And Mozilla's technology has a tiny presence on mobile phones.

Privacy push

Privacy has a chance to make Firefox more important to techies and mainstream users, though. Many browsers are challenging Chrome when it comes to blocking trackers that monitor our online behavior as we move from website to website. Advertisers and website publishers can offer more lucrative targeted ads by building profiles on our interests, but that same targeting can mean pervasive privacy invasion.

Mozilla has joined Apple's Safari and Brave Software's Brave browsers in trying to block such tracking, and Microsoft's new Edge browser is following suit. Chrome has an answer now, too, but it's only beginning its process and critics say it's too slow.

That'll be a challenge for Beard during his final months, for Mozilla Chair Mitchell Baker, and for whoever replaces Beard. Mozilla has begun a search for Beard's successor.

"I will be ready to step in as interim CEO should the need arise," Baker said in her blog post. Meanwhile, for the rest of the year, "we will continue to develop the work on our new engagement model, our focus on privacy and user agency."

"User agency" may sound like an obscure techno-philosophical term, but it's at the heart of browsers, which in the world of web standards are called "user agents." They act on our behalf, presenting us to websites and online services. The decisions about how to do this best -- including the critical issue of preserving our privacy -- are among the most important in the world of browsers today.

Dwindling number of Firefox users

Meanwhile, the number of Firefox monthly users has declined, gradually and steadily. Over the last two years, it's dipped from about 310 million people to 239 million, according to Mozilla statistics

Firefox may not be as widely used as Chrome, but it still plays an important role in developing the standards that govern the web. Many of us spend hours a day using Microsoft's Windows, Google's Android and Chrome OS, and Apple's iOS and MacOS. Those are proprietary technology platforms.

But the web, at least so far, is an independent technology foundation, and Mozilla plays a significant role in steering it. Chrome is dominant and pushes the web technology agenda, but Firefox's own browser technology, called Gecko, offers another perspective on what's best for websites, the people who build them and the masses who use them.

Originally published Aug. 29 at 8:53 a.m. PT.
Update, 9:50 a.m. PT: Adds more details and background.