Mozilla three years later: Is Firefox in a better place?

After Mozilla lost its co-founder and CEO in 2014, we posed 10 questions about its fate. CNET senior reporter Stephen Shankland finally got some answers.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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  • Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Stephen Shankland
8 min read
Mozilla created a hulking mecha suit named Mark 57 to rally its troops around the important Firefox 57 version due this November.

Mozilla created a hulking mecha suit named Mark 57 to rally its troops around the important Firefox 57 version due this November.


Three years ago CNET addressed whoever might step into Mozilla 's then-empty CEO slot and asked 10 questions about the future of the nonprofit organization behind the Firefox browser.

It was a chaotic time, with Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich quitting after a controversy over his stance on gay marriage, and Google 's Chrome increasing its threat as the browser of choice for consumers. Firefox, created out of the ashes of Netscape to challenge the dominance of Microsoft Internet Explorer and help advance the web, looked down for the count.

Now, with successor CEO Chris Beard firmly locked into his turnaround plan, we have some answers to our questions.

Mozilla faces some of the same challenges it did three years ago, like competing with Chrome and finding a foothold on your phone. But plenty has changed: Mozilla scrapped its Firefox operating system project to power mobile phones, renegotiated the deals with companies like Yahoo that supply its revenue, and launched a major engineering effort to speed up its web browser. That effort culminates in Firefox 57, due Nov. 14.

To assess Mozilla's progress, here's a new look at those questions from three years ago.

1. How do you get people to really care about Mozilla's mission?

Mozilla has stuck to its mission -- broadly, to make the web a better place for individuals and not just the playground of "megacorps" like Facebook , Apple and Google. Most people use Firefox because it's a handy browser, though, not because it empowers us in some way. Mozilla understands this, which is why making Firefox 57 a faster, better, more secure browser is at the top of the priority list. When Mozilla attracts more of us to its products, it gets more leverage to pursue its mission, even if most Firefox users don't know they're helping.

That said, Mozilla is trying to make more people care. "Convince your friends to use Firefox," Mozilla exhorted web developers in July. The suggested sales pitch is not just more speed, but more privacy and more freedom as well. And it cooperated with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who portrayed NSA document leaker Edward Snowden in the film "Snowden," for a video about online privacy.

Mozilla is also working on a membership system that would let you pay to get benefits from the nonprofit organization. Details are unclear, but one possible benefit is Mozilla could represent your interests more strongly when taking its case to politicians. Want to fight the Trump administration's attack on net neutrality ? Don't like it when politicians think they can magically enjoy the benefits of encryption , like privacy, without drawbacks, such as criminals hatching plots? Then a membership roll could let Mozilla try to be more persuasive with politicians.

That, in turn could make Mozilla more popular with the techno-activist crowd. As an added perk, maybe members would also get discounted access to online services that agree with Mozilla's philosophy of technological openness and personal privacy.

2. Does the Brendan Eich CEO debacle mean it's time to dial down Mozilla's crusading rhetoric?

Evidently not. Just building a fast browser is important, but Mozilla is touting Firefox also with billboards that say "Big browser is watching you," with the word browser written in Google's bright primary colors as a hint about who Mozilla thinks you should be worried about.

Mozilla has ramped up its political activity too, rounding up 42,000 signatures to defend net neutrality, filing friend-of-the-court briefs in legal cases, speaking out against President Donald Trump's appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general because of his stance on encryption, and joining in a broad tech industry criticism of Trump's immigration ban. "By slamming the door on talented immigrants -- including those already legally in the United States and those seeking to enter -- the ban will create a barrier to innovation, economic development and global impact," Beard said in a blog post in January.

3. Is it time to bite the bullet and release an iOS version of Firefox?

Yes, indeed. Apple forces other browser makers to rely on its own core browser software, a fact that irked Mozilla. But Beard decided Mozilla needed to go where Firefox's users are active.

Mozilla CEO Chris Beard

Mozilla CEO Chris Beard

James Martin/CNET

"Our users were using Android and iOS devices, but we were sitting out the iOS game because we couldn't get our full technology stack there," Beard says. "But we're not doing anyone any good sitting out the fights. If we can't bring 100 percent of our game, we can at least bring 50 percent of it."

Mozilla actually has two browsers on iOS now. The second, Focus, is a stripped-down app designed for quick trips to the web for information like a recipe, restaurant menu or movie listings. It's more aggressive about blocking advertisers that want to track your behavior, too.

4. How will Mozilla take on Google's Chrome?

With speed, speed and more speed. Mozilla has been burning down the bugs to try to make dozens of little parts of Firefox faster, and major new elements are designed to make the browser faster at formatting websites and displaying them on your screen. It's all part of a bigger effort called Project Quantum that culminates in the release of Firefox 57.

Forcing Google into an unconditional surrender is impossible, but it's not the point.

"We don't need to get 40, 50, 60 percent of of the browser market on desktop. That's strategically not our goal. We believe that 15 to 20 percent is a meaningful long-term position," Beard says. But to sustain that, Mozilla must "neutralize" Chrome's performance advantage.

Here's where Mozilla is not challenging Chrome, though: banning ads, which Chrome will start doing in some cases in 2018, or aggressively cutting down on the way ads track our behavior online so advertisers can target ads they think each person will be interested in. For that, you'll have to look to extensions like Adblock Plus, tracking blockers like Ghostery, and rival browsers like Brave.

5. How do you get Firefox OS into rich countries?

Firefox OS initially had been aimed at low-end phones, particularly in developing markets that Apple's iOS and Google's Android penetrated deeply. History overtook this challenge when Mozilla ditched Firefox OS the face of Google and Apple dominance. There were some efforts to produce higher-end Firefox OS phones, but they all died with Firefox OS.

6. What if Firefox OS' low-end market weakens its leverage?

See above.

7. Are you worried that Google is your sugar daddy?

At the end of 2014, Mozilla threw out its global search deal with Google under which Firefox would by default send our search queries to the search giant. All those searches are profitable for Google, since the company can show ads alongside the results. That's how Mozilla got most of its money.

The new search deal made Yahoo the default in the US, Baidu the default in China and Yandex the default in Russia. Later, Google picked up searches in some parts of Europe.

"We shifted from Google as our 98 percent revenue partner, and the single global default, to three or four major search partners and 61 smaller ones," Beard says. "You'll see our financials later this year. You should be expecting a significant bump again."

On top of that, Mozilla is looking for new ways to bring in money. Selling memberships to Mozilla loyalists is one possibility. Acquisition is another -- buying the developers of the Pocket service and app for storing and finding websites means a bit more revenue. One person familiar with Mozilla's plans says the emerging technology division, created by Beard in 2016, puts a priority on the potential for new revenue.

8. What will you do if Dart gets popular?

Mozilla can indulge in a little self-congratulation here. Dart is a programming language Google hoped would make programming better for people building complicated websites. Google developed the language behind closed doors, though -- not a great way to appeal to rival browser makers who prefer to work more in the open. And it's complicated enough for the web to have just one programming language, JavaScript.

Dart fizzled. At the same time, browser makers, including Google, have been working hard to modernize JavaScript. Maybe Dart will resurface in Google's mysterious Fuchsia software project, but at least on the web, it's not an issue Mozilla needs to worry about.

9. Should you try harder to resurrect the Do Not Track effort?

Mozilla worked hard on Do Not Track, a technology that would've let us set our browsers to tell publishers and advertisers we don't want our behavior tracked. Ultimately, the advertisers didn't have much reason to cooperate, and the effort faltered.

But browsers are getting more aggressive about blocking trackers, especially when a third-party advertiser uses them on a publisher's site. Firefox blocks all ad tracking technology by default when you view websites with its private-browsing mode, and Mozilla's Focus browser for Android phones and iPhones does, too.

But Mozilla could be more aggressive. It could, like browser rivals Brave and the next version of Apple's Safari, block third-party ad trackers by default. Blocking trackers can make online life tough, breaking some websites, but with Do Not Track dead, it's the best path forward for Mozilla.

10. Can you fight Apple's, Google's and Microsoft's ecosystems without becoming an ecosystem?

Mozilla hasn't dented the dominance of what it calls the megacorps. Indeed, they've grown more powerful than they were three years ago. The web remains the most compelling alternative to Google's Play Store and Apple's App Store, but on phones we're more likely to use an app than a browser. And the web is no guarantee of openness. Plenty of services disparaged with terms like "lock-in" and "walled garden" run on the web. Think of Facebook publishing newspaper articles, for example, or the fact that Twitter doesn't let you search for tweets in search engines like Google's.

Mozilla might try to dent these powers with its possible membership program, getting a louder voice and maybe steering people toward services that aren't run by the tech giants. It doesn't seem like the sort of thing that'll strike fear into the hearts of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg or Google CEO Sundar Pichai, but maybe it'll help credible alternatives survive against the megacorps.

Taking on Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon requires a vast suite of interlinked technology products and services. Having just a browser limits Mozilla's leverage to keep the internet open.

But the idea of Mozilla launching an interlinked suite of online services like email, mapping, shopping, news publishing, file storage, social networking and video streaming? Not gonna happen.

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