Microsoft staffer riles Firefox faithful by telling Mozilla to embrace Chrome

Debate: Does Mozilla have more influence as a Chrome rival or ally?

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Stephen Shankland
3 min read
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Mozilla should concede defeat to Chrome and adopt Google's browser technology, a Microsoft executive suggested Friday, provoking rebuttals over the weekend that Firefox's independence is now more important than ever.

Chrome is built atop Google's Chromium open-source software project, which lets anyone else use the code for their own projects, modify it and offer their changes back. With Chrome's dominance and Google's heavy investment in improving it, plenty of browser makers do just that. Chromium-based browser makers include Opera, Vivaldi, Samsung, Brave -- and most recently, Microsoft, which is rebuilding its Edge browser on Google's browser tech.

Mozilla should join up, too, tweeted Kenneth Auchenberg, a Microsoft program manager who works on web developer tools.

"Thought: It's time for @mozilla to get down from their philosophical ivory tower. The web is dominated by Chromium, if they really *cared* about the web they would be contributing instead of building a parallel universe that's used by less than 5%?" He made it clear the viewpoint was his personal opinion, not Microsoft's position.

Mozilla is indeed in a sticky situation, trying to improve the web when it comes to things like openness, privacy and new standards. That mission is harder with declining influence, though, and Firefox now accounts for 5 percent of web usage, according to analytics firm StatCounter. But without independent efforts like Firefox, and to an extent Apple's Safari, the web will stop being an independent software foundation and become whatever Google says it is.

And plenty of people don't like that one bit. Indeed, Mozilla defenders see the nonprofit's mission as even more important with Chrome's dominance.

"I couldn't disagree with you more. It precisely *because* Chromium has such a large marketshare that is vital for Mozilla (or anyone else) to battle for diversity," tweeted web developer Jeremy Keith in a response. "'Building a parallel universe'? That *is* the contribution."

Mozilla declined to comment, saying the tweet thread speaks for itself. Microsoft didn't comment on the thread. Google didn't respond to a request for comment. Plenty of others voiced their thoughts in the tweet discussion, though.

"If Mozilla retaining control over their own engine means web tech advances slightly slower than if they fell in with Chromium instead, I'm OK with that," said web developer Peter O'Shaughnessy. "I think the web needs their perspective, safeguarding & diversity even more than it needs $newWebFeature a few months quicker."

Riding on Google's road map

And Mozilla wouldn't necessarily have better influence if it pushed its agenda using a Chromium-based browser, added programmer Kornel Lesiński.

"If Mozilla doesn't have power to change the Chromium-dominated web, why would Mozilla have power to steer the Chromium project itself? They would be along for the ride on Google's roadmap," Lesiński tweeted.

Chris Peterson, a Firefox technical program manager, made a similar point, wondering how likely it'd be that Google's Chromium team accepted a change that enabled Mozilla's tracking protection technology.

And from a practical standpoint, switching to a Chromium foundation would be expensive and risky, said Brendan Eich, a Mozilla co-founder and now chief executive of Chromium-based Brave.

Forking software is expensive

Maintaining an independent "fork" of Chromium without a team the size of Microsoft's Edge effort would incur a "huge cost," Eich said. "They would have to increase burn [spending] to avoid Firefox dropping faster while the new thing comes up," he added.

Auchenberg got an earful, but the debate isn't over. He raised some followup points -- for example, arguing that the web today is a monumentally complex application foundation that's "incredibly expensive" to support, and that he'd like Chromium itself to be run through an "open governance" process. But his further views will have to wait for a blog post he's planning.

"Given the great spawned debate, I'm taking a step back to reflect a bit more before publishing more on this topic," Auchenberg told CNET. "I think it's an important debate we as the web community need to have, but it has to be in a more [reflective] and less emotional way."

First published Jan. 28, 2:21 p.m. PT.
Update, Jan. 30, 9:01 a.m. PT: Corrects headline to reflect that Auchenberg isn't an executive.

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