Firefox fail: Layoffs kill Mozilla's push beyond the browser

The nonprofit is cutting about 50 people after struggling to extend the influence of its Firefox web browser for PCs.

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So much for Mozilla's quest to bring Firefox to new and different places.

The nonprofit organization told employees Thursday that it is eliminating the team tasked with bringing Firefox to connected devices, according to people familiar with the situation. The cuts affect about 50 people. Ari Jaaksi, the senior vice president in charge of the effort, is among those who are leaving. Mozilla had about 1,000 employees at the end of 2016.

Mozilla confirmed the cuts to the gadget group Thursday.

"We have shifted our internal approach to the internet-of-things opportunity," Mozilla said in a statement, "to step back from a focus on launching and scaling commercial products to one focused on research and advanced development, dissolving our connected devices initiative and incorporating our internet-of-things explorations into an increased focus on emerging technologies."

The layoffs greatly curtail the nonprofit organization's ability to make Firefox relevant again. Once a dominant choice for internet browsing, it has long been overshadowed by Google's Chrome. Mozilla tried to take the web technology powering Firefox to other devices, but struggled to get acceptance. Its shrinking influence comes at a time when more people are browsing the internet on their phones -- an area where Firefox is particularly weak.

Ari Jaaksi, head of Mozilla's connected devices effort

Mozilla

Jaaksi didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Unlike what motivates most tech companies, Mozilla's agenda isn't to make money but instead to push for an improvement in the web experience. Even if you don't use Mozilla's software, anyone who's used the web has benefited from Mozilla's role developing new technologies and keeping the browser business competitive.

Mozilla's great triumph was pushing back against Microsoft's dominant but stagnant Internet Explorer browser a decade ago, but it has struggled over the last few years. Firefox is virtually absent from phones and tablets, which account for more and more web activity worldwide. Firefox's share of usage in January dropped to 14.9 percent on personal computers and 6.8 percent on all devices, according to web analytics firm StatCounter.

Software from Mozilla's connected device team, which was based on the same core technology as Firefox, never caught on widely. Its biggest success was inclusion in Panasonic's 4K TV, but in September, Jaaksi said on a mailing list that Mozilla concluded "Firefox OS TV was a project to be run by our commercial partner and not a project to be led by Mozilla."

The connected devices work already was a remnant of a more ambitious project, Firefox OS, which Mozilla hoped would offer an alternative to Google's Android and Apple's iOS to power phones. Firefox OS showed some early promise, attracting a number of business partners, but one year ago, Mozilla killed the Firefox OS phone project and pared back to just connected devices.

Other connected devices projects included projects to track personal schedules, check air quality, monitor your home while you're away and promote security and privacy for networked gadgets.

Some internet-of-things work will continue in the emerging devices team, but it's directed at projects that could become useful in the longer term, not specific devices and designs.

For example, Project Vaani aims to build voice interface technology similar to Amazon Alexa, but ultimately -- through the related Project Pipsqueak -- without sending data to internet servers, in keeping with Mozilla's efforts to improve privacy. Another project, Voicebank, aims to amass the huge quantity of speech samples necessary to train the artificial intelligence systems that perform voice recognition.

A team working on Mozilla's DeepSpeech AI effort has been moved to the emerging technologies group, sources said.

Although Mozilla has struggled with new technology initiatives, it hasn't become impoverished. Its most recent tax forms showed revenue of $421 million last year largely through partnerships with Yahoo in the US, Yandex in Russia and Baidu in China.

Some affected employees are getting new roles in Mozilla, but those losing jobs get severance and job-hunting benefits, Mozilla said. Although about 50 people are affected by the cut, some might stay at Mozilla since they can apply for new positions, some of which Mozilla opened early to ease the pain of the layoffs.

And overall, Mozilla is hiring. "People are the reason why we can get anything done -- this isn't lost on us -- and we did not make this decision lightly," Mozilla said.

First published Feb. 2, 9:17 p.m. PT.
Update, 9:54 a.m.: Adds details about emerging technology work from Mozilla.
Update, 11:43 a.m.: Adds details about other connected device projects.

Update, Feb. 3, 2017, at 12:20 p.m.: Clarifies that Bertrand Neveux, director of the connected device group's software, resigned the week before the cuts took place.

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