Mozilla CEO says new Firefox browser delivers 'a big bang'

Three years after taking over the organization behind the Firefox browser, Chris Beard talks about fighting the megacorps and taking on Chrome with Firefox 57.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
11 min read
Mozilla CEO Chris Beard

Mozilla CEO Chris Beard in his Mountain View, California, office.

James Martin/CNET

Chris Beard grabbed hold of Mozilla's reins during a rough time.

In the spring of 2014, Mozilla was trying to take on the two mobile software superpowers, Google's Android and Apple's iOS, with its own Firefox OS . At the same time, its Firefox browser for PCs was losing users to Google's Chrome browser. If that wasn't hard enough, the nonprofit organization was rocked to its roots when co-founder Brendan Eich quit the CEO job after a highly visible gay-marriage controversy.

So Beard, an early Mozilla executive, was tapped to help pull the organization through the crisis.

A quiet executive who can pause for an uncomfortably long time as he carefully considers how he'll answer a question, Beard, 44, doesn't hesitate in showing his passion for Mozilla's software and mission. He first joined Mozilla in 2004 when the browser team had just 10 employees, and he led Firefox marketing and other projects for years. He left in 2013 for a stint as entrepreneur-in-residence at venture capital firm Greylock Partners. After Mozilla's management cataclysm, he left a new startup to return to Mozilla's Mountain View, California, headquarters. His interim CEO appointment soon became permanent. Beard says he knew he had to take on the job.

"I saw a real risk in Mozilla not surviving," Beard said in an exclusive interview. "I also knew how important Mozilla is in the world. I knew how much potential there was."

During his three-year tenure, Mozilla ditched Firefox OS, started overhauling Firefox, revamped financially critical partnerships with online search companies, made its first acquisition and invested in new areas like virtual reality .

His job now: Get us all to care about Firefox again. Usage of the browser has dwindled in recent years -- though Mozilla says it's now stable with more than 100 million daily users -- and competition is fiercer than ever, with Chrome leading the market. Beard is ready for the fight, readying a new version of Firefox that's due in November and that aims to persuade us that the web is better independent, not under the control of Google and a handful of other tech giants.

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"Where we've been successful in the past is more as a provocateur -- an agent of good representing the people," he said. "Just being that opposing force in the ecosystem can bring about good. It would be crazy to go up against Google or Apple or Facebook . But we have a role to play to keep the system a little more honest and a little more open."  

Beard talked about Firefox 57 and what the future holds, including a membership plan that could give Mozilla fans new services and benefits -- and bring new revenue to the organization.  

Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.  

Q: Hundreds of millions of us use Firefox, but people aren't as familiar with Mozilla. Give me the big-picture view.
Beard: At the end of the browser wars [of the '90s], the last man standing was Microsoft . Then Microsoft laid off the browser team. It was like in fantasy stories where the evil emperor comes to power through some deceptive means, the blue skies go away and all the demons and trolls suddenly take root. There weren't a lot of exciting things happening on the web or the internet at that time.

Mozilla's purpose rolled out of the situation. Who's going to stand up and try to do something about this? We could do something better than IE [Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser] and we could help the web and the internet achieve its potential.

Our mission at the time, when Mozilla really came together, was to promote choice and innovation in the face of that environment. The approach was to excite people -- to give people a product that showed what was possible -- and at the same time, bring about a better ecosystem. We now frame it in terms of ensuring the internet is open and accessible to all, it's healthy, and it's good. Mozilla's an organization that's all about ensuring that individual people have a better online life and a better online experience. They're in control of their experience.

You succeeded in the IE battle by reigniting browser competition and moving browsers forward with pop-up blocking, tabs, and other performance and security features. But that was then. Who's the evil empire now?
Beard: At the time, no one thought Microsoft was going to just roll over. When we launched Firefox 1.0, even after we achieved some success, we often heard, "You guys are crazy. The 800-pound gorilla is going to crush you." We don't have the audacity to take credit for the Cambrian explosion of the web. Back when Firefox launched, there wasn't YouTube or Twitter or Facebook.

Then you saw the rise of mobile platforms. We were hyper-focused on the web battle and late to embracing mobile. Now one or two companies basically control what you can do, what you can publish and what you can consume. And that is counter to the promise of the internet.

We've certainly seen a lot of what was predicted in dystopian science fiction futures where large corporations amass incredible control over people's lives. I call them the megacorps. Good luck dealing with the internet and not touching Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook or Amazon. It's impossible.

Is it the Chrome browser or Google more broadly?
Beard: It's the browser, but also the thought of any one company being between you and anything. You can't actually interact with your friends, your family, your employer, your school, your government without going through a specific company who has full control over what happened with the flow of that information.

Do you need to expand your thinking beyond a browser and explore web properties to compete?
Beard: No. That's dangerous. Where we've been successful in the past is more as a provocateur -- an agent of good representing the people. Just being that opposing force in the ecosystem can bring about good. It would be crazy to go up against Google or Apple or Facebook. But we have a role to play to keep the system a little more honest and a little more open.

You were in on the ground floor with Firefox but left after the IE fight. After Eich resigned, why did you come back?
Beard: I had two primary motivations. One was emotional. This was Mozilla. I'd been intimately involved, but I saw a real risk in Mozilla not surviving. The second reason is that I also knew how important Mozilla is in the world. I knew how much potential there was. We weren't at that point a data-driven, agile, modern product development engineering organization.

You have a new brand. You just did your first acquisition. Should we reconsider what Mozilla is beyond just a browser?
Beard: Mozilla is evolving. I think of it as a trilogy. The middle book didn't go so well, but hopefully it ends quite well -- you're probably thinking of Star Wars. It's more getting back to our roots. The root is not about the browser. The root is how do we help the internet be good for people, individually and collectively.

People embraced Firefox a decade ago because it was fast and had features that they liked, like tabs and pop-up ad blocking. Is that your agenda again -- doing good by delivering a product people are happy to use, as opposed to one we use despite its shortcomings?
Beard: You want people to eat a healthier diet. You can either force people to eat the vegetables or you can make food that tastes really great that's made out of organic food and locally sourced produce. The second is a lot harder to do, but that's what we need to do. You have to create products and product experience that people want, and not just want but love.

Firefox didn't keep up with the market and the expectations and didn't maintain a real view of what people really want. A lot of people who were hardcore Firefox fans and who believed in the mission and the purpose are now happy Chrome users. Chrome ultimately delivered a better product experience for them, and that trumped the other benefits Mozilla provided. That's not lost on me at all.

Firefox is our starting point. We need to come back and make sure it's in good stead. There is a meme around the world that says the desktop is dead. But individuals are still using desktop computers for content creation, for e-commerce, for a lot of in-depth experiences.

Are you past the existential crisis?
Beard: We have roughly 100 million-plus people every day check in for Firefox updates. Our monthly active users is three times that. Our goal this year is to grow.

If you compare Firefox today with what was shipping three years ago, there are a lot of really positive things, from responsiveness to crash rates to security. We're gonna win back a lot of people. They're coming back now, and they're going to come back in droves.

Secondarily, we're going to grow. This is where things like the Focus browser [for phones ] and Context Graph [a website discovery tool] comes in. We have three other mobile-first experiments: Prox and Paths and Flint.

From a business standpoint, we are very stable. You should be expecting a significant bump again in our core financials. When we launched the new search strategy at the end of 2014, that was a big shift for us. 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.

Firefox 57 is going to be a big proof point for you in November. How different will it be from a year ago or 2015?
Beard: It's going to add up to be a big bang.

Firefox 57 [brings] a significant user-interface refresh that takes advantage of all the new hardware optimizations and accelerations, which we believe will be pretty exciting. It has the first elements of Quantum to really supercharge the browser engine. It has the first pieces WebRender and Stylo [faster core browser components]. We've seen a lot of people telling us, "I switched to Chrome four years ago, because Firefox was so slow and bloated. I tried Firefox today, and wow, you guys are faster." Things are moving. The releases right after will have even more pieces that will accelerate that.

Mozilla's headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Mozilla's headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Even with the number of Firefox users stable on personal computers, it's tough to be relevant without mobile.
Beard: The web has not really done well on mobile generally. We have a Firefox browser on all the major mobile platforms. We have 30 million [monthly] users and growing.

Our first step was to put the browser on the phone. Just like everyone else, our approach was to map the desktop to the mobile device. That's been part of what's held back the web on mobile. So we're taking some shots at unlocking web content in a way that really fits the mobile environment. One of the experiences is a more AR-based one. There's another one that's tied to helping people find and discover content around them. And there's one that's tied to content based on interests.

These mobile-first experiences are similar to how we approached Focus [based on] how people were actually using the browser on mobile devices — to just open it up and grab a piece of content. It was about giving you the ability to get to web content really fast on your terms, then throw it away when you're done with it and not have to worry about all the tabs and the history -- all the cruft that comes from a full browsing experience. The uptick for Focus was significantly steeper than the uptick for a browser.

In the political arena, Mozilla spoke against Jeff Sessions as attorney general because he wants back-door access to encryption. You were active in agitating against the Trump immigration agenda. What's changed now?
Beard: Three years ago, we started being more vocal and more active in this space. We built a policy organization and some advocacy muscle. We spent the last three years developing relationships with global governments. We have relationships with elected officials and more importantly with career public servants in the EU in Brussels, in Washington and in Latin America.

We're not political. We're not for or against any particular candidate or administration. We're for or against particular policies.

You've talked about Mozilla membership. How would that work?
Beard: I'm not saying that suddenly Firefox is going to cost money. That's not the plan. But should we be thinking about how we engage with people just a little bit differently? For example, REI [outdoor products retailer Recreational Equipment Inc.] is a co-op, but they're experts and they have great products at a great price. You become a member and now you're tied into it. Or the Sierra Club -- members have a very close association with the environment.

There are probably two parts to it. One part is we have people today who donate money to support our foundation programs around digital literacy, open science and open news. We have people who join mailing lists to learn more about how to get involved with advocacy programs. We have people who use Firefox as a browser, and maybe aren't aware of all the other things. How could you connect that all into a more integrated experience? Maybe when you install Firefox you're invited to learn more and get more involved, maybe get some form of publication.

There's another side as we start to look at products that we could potentially offer. Some of them start to look like services, exploring the freemium models. There'd be a free level always, but also some premium services offering.

What kind of services?
Beard: We're exploring that now.

So, you could use this membership to advance a political agenda? You'd say that you've engaged with your user base and they love net neutrality or whatever. Can you take that to your lobbying effort?
Beard: That's much more effective constituency power you're able to bring to the the fight. Similarly, there's an economic power aspect. Maybe you're able to go block-negotiate commercial terms on something or offer services in a way that others can't otherwise. This is where the co-op models come to bear.

This is a deeply theoretical, experimental area. As I think about the next five to 10 years, I think there's something in this space that we should be seriously considering. So we're doing some initial research and explorations and design discovery now, because ultimately I believe that this could be one of the ways in which we create even more lasting value and power in the world.

What does success look like for you a year from now?
Beard: A year from now we've grown Firefox in market share and mind share and positive resonance with people -- it really is increasingly loved. One or more new explorations growing out of Firefox have taken root. Things like Context Graph -- we see the first expressions of it that connect with people. One or more of our mobile experiments has connected, And there's some path that could lead to opening up the mobile system a little bit.

Second would be in our exploration of new areas. We've made traction in our core investments: Rust and Servo and WebVR and A Frame and AR and Deep Speech. Those things will achieve more interest and have built expanding communities of collaborators around them.

Last, we have a much clearer view of what the next five and 10 years look like, and we start to plot out that path and carve out some positions. Is that VR? Is it AR? Is it AI? Is it speech interfaces? In a year you'll see we have very clearly planted seeds.

Mozilla didn't just survive. It's gotten to a better place. We're back and we're ready for the fight, just in the nick of time. With the market forces and the government forces, having an organization like Mozilla actually standing up for the people -- that feels pretty timely. That's why I'm here. It's pretty clearly why most of Mozilla is here. We have a lot of passion and heart, and heart goes a long way.

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