Ten years in, Firefox fights on -- now against Google and Apple

Microsoft is no longer the foe. Mozilla CTO Andreas Gal is using the Web to try to force Android and iOS to become more open. He knows Mozilla's Firefox OS is in for a long battle, though.

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6 min read

Andreas Gal took over as Mozilla chief technology officer in April 2014.
Andreas Gal took over as Mozilla chief technology officer in April 2014. Mozilla

For Mozilla, the last decade has been like Hercules slaying the hydra: cutting off one head meant two others sprang into its place.

But instead of fighting mythical beasts with a sword, it's been fighting the computing industry's dominant powers with its Firefox Web browser.

Ten years ago this week, when Mozilla released Firefox 1.0, the foe was Microsoft. With Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser vanquished, though, two more foes have emerged: Apple and Google.

Instead of just taking on a browser, Mozilla now is competing against two operating systems, Apple's iOS and Google's Android. Mozilla's alternative is Firefox OS, a browser-based operating system. The goal remains the same, though: give people choice about what technology they use on the Internet and give them control over their data.

"What iOS and Android have in common is they're jails. They are very shiny, but once you join these ecosystems, you're really caught in them," Chief Technology Officer Andreas Gal said Monday.

Consumers have been buying smartphones and tablets in droves, but Mozilla is trying to warn them that the new mobile technology means new lock-in risks. Rent a video on on iTunes or buy a book on Google Play? Don't expect to seem them anywhere else. Buying Angry Birds for iOS doesn't get you rights to use Angry Birds anywhere else. Even when it's possible to export data -- as with email, browser bookmarks, photo libraries, word-processing documents and calendar entries, for example -- it's technical difficulties deter mere mortals from doing so. The more Android and iOS mature, the more of people's lives they involve.

iOS dominates the high end of the smartphone market, Android dominates the larger remainder, and Mozilla hopes Firefox OS will pry their jaws open by claiming some of the low-end market where people only now are moving up from basic feature phones, Gal said.

It's an immense challenge for at least three reasons. First, where Microsoft a decade ago was complacent about the Web and its browser, Google and Apple are fiercely competitive. Second, with hundreds of millions of people using smartphones now, programmers are building apps that run natively on Android and iOS instead of more broadly on the Web. Third, Firefox's share of usage on personal computers has been slipping in recent months, and its share of usage on mobile devices is vanishingly small.

According to Net Applications, which measures individual users' daily Internet usage, IE is the top PC browser, with 58 percent share, followed by Google's Chrome at 21 percent and Firefox at 14 percent. StatCounter, which measures on the basis of page views, not users, gives Chrome the top spot. Across both PCs and mobile devices, StatCounter shows Chrome at 42 percent, IE next at 13 percent, and Firefox in third place with 12 percent.

Firefox OS foothold

Gal, who took over as CTO during the tumultuous departure of Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich amid a political controversy around the gay-marriage rights, knows it won't be easy, but he says Mozilla is committed.

"It's a long journey. It's the 10th anniversary of our effort to take down Microsoft," Gal said. "I don't know how many years it'll take to take down Android and iOS, but it'll be more than one."

One sign of success: Firefox OS phones are now for sale in 24 countries, including big markets like Brazil and India. The first phones went on sale in July 2013, and now there are several models for sale from manufacturers including Alcatel, ZTE and LG Electronics. The cheapest models cost about $33 with no contract.

Unlike other challengers to iOS and Android, "we are the only ones who managed to start getting a foothold," Gal said. "For US consumers this is often less visible since we're focusing on developing countries. There are billions of people looking up to upgrade from a feature phone to smartphone in the next couple years. They are outside Europe and the US."

The mobile market developed rapidly, but the mobile Web is catching up with the ability to use phone features such as text messaging, accelerometers, battery sensors, and near-field communications chips. And for Web developers, sites that work on mobile devices with small screens and no mouse are getting easier to build and more common.

"Three or four years ago, the mobile Web was simply not ready. The main reason we saw the emergence of the proprietary platforms of iOS and Android is that back then the Web was not competitive with apps on mobile," Gal said. With that much better now, "the main technology challenge we are facing today is the massively monopolistic shape of the marketplace that makes it difficult for anyone else to enter."

Technology tools

Mozilla is a technology organization, and it's fighting to maintain its relevance with improvements to Firefox. Here's a look at some of the technologies it's working on:

  • WebGL. This technology for 3D graphics on the Web opens the door for advanced, hardware-accelerated games. Hardware acceleration provides not just fluid animations but also cuts battery consumption over alternative approaches. It got its start in Firefox but now works in Chrome, IE, Apple's Safari and Opera Software's Opera.
  • WebRTC. This technology for real-time communications brings Skype-like audio and video chat to the browser. Chrome, Opera, and Firefox have it, but Safari and IE are holdouts -- though the IE team is edging closer with its ORTC technology that could point converge in the future. With WebRTC, you can chat with somebody else by sending them a Web address -- no worrying if they're a Facebook friend or Skype contact. WebRTC also brings data communication channels useful for multiplayer games.
  • asm.js -- Browser programs are written in the JavaScript programming language, and with asm.js, the browser is optimized to run a subset of JavaScript really fast. It's a good way to get game developers to bring software like physics engines to the Web. That's just what Unreal has done. "With asm.js, you are so close to the metal [running without the overhead of high-level computing layers] that the performance is indistinguishable from if you had implemented native code," Gal said. Though other browser makers aren't necessarily supporting asm.js as directly as Firefox is, they're moving in that direction with the effect that asm.js-coded software is steadily improving everywhere, Gal said.
  • SpeechRTC. Mozilla encourages contributions from outsiders, and Andre Natal from Brazil has helped bring speech recognition to Firefox OS. That paves the way for voice control commands like "call Frank" and, ultimately, services like Google search or Siri. Mozilla hopes to make SpeechRTC a standard in the future.
  • Electrolysis. In 2008, Chrome led the way to browsing with a multiprocess architecture. Safari and IE followed suit, and with a project called Electrolysis, so is Firefox. With that approach, the core browser software runs separately from the content of individual Web pages. That brings performance advantages, since the overall browser keeps ticking even if an individual page is slow or crashes, and security advantages, because the content of a Web page where attacks take place can be confined with fewer powers over a computer. The flip side is that Web pages take up more memory and, in Firefox's case, browser plug-ins like AdBlock Plus and LastPass are slow or broken. Firefox began Electrolysis years ago but put it on hold; it's now switched on by default in the raw "nightly" build of Firefox and gradually headed toward mainstream release. One reason it's back on track is that Mozilla figured ways to share some resources across browser tabs so memory consumption isn't as severe.
  • Daala. Mozilla was forced to use support H.264 video compression because it's dominant in the market, but the technology is encumbered by patents, something that's anathema to Mozilla's push for an unfettered Web. In the future, Mozilla hopes people will embrace its rival Daala technology instead -- something that he promeises will have better performance not just than H.264 but also than its successor, HEVC/H.265, which is just entering the marketplace now.

Gal took over from Eich, the man who hired him to work on JavaScript performance improvements and, later, the Boot to Gecko (B2G) project that would become Firefox OS. Eich's departure was a big deal, but there's also plenty of continuity, since the CTO job relies on many others.

"They are are big shoes to fill, but there's a lot of talent at Mozilla I can rely on," Gal said. "There are dozens and dozens of technology experts. We're still around."