Why Firefox's future lies in Google's hands
As Mozilla celebrates its fifth birthday, Stuart Turton investigates the challenges that lie ahead for Firefox
Firefox has just turned five, and it’s doubtful anybody outside of Redmond begrudges Mozilla’s celebrations. The open-source browser now accounts for 25% of the global market, according to figures from Net Applications, and has brought a radical rethink in what we expect from a browser.
However, as Mozilla blows out the birthday cake candles, it might also be reflecting on the curse of getting what you wish for. Its success has forced rivals to raise their game, and the past two years have seen Microsoft, Apple and Opera close the features gap significantly.
“They’ve been forced to improve their browsers, and they have resources at their disposal that Mozilla doesn’t,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group. “It was a different ball game when it was Mozilla against Microsoft, everybody was on its side. Now that there are alternatives, it’s going to be harder.”
It was a different ball game when it was Mozilla against Microsoft, everybody was on its side. Now that there are alternatives, it’s going to be harder
Not least because of Google, which with the release of Chrome now stands as both benefactor and rival to Mozilla. Google is the default homepage when Firefox first opens, and the default search engine when users type something into the “awesome bar”. The deal, which runs until 2011, was worth $66 million to Mozilla in 2007, accounting for 88% of the foundation’s revenues that year (the last year for which it had published accounts). But now Google is a competitor as well as a partner, is it really wise for Mozilla to be so dependent on the search giant?
“I don’t see any reason why Google wouldn’t want to have a similar relationship with Mozilla after 2011,” Mike Shaver, Mozilla’s vice president of engineering told PC Pro. “I don’t see any signs that the value of Firefox placement will be lessened in that time: we’re continuing to grow quickly in terms of market share and user reach.
“We have other relationships with eBay, Amazon, Yahoo, and Canonical, which provide some revenue today, although not on the scale of our Google relationship. We’ve always structured our finances to emphasise long-term sustainability, so we’re definitely intending to be a force for good on the web, for some time to come,” he said.
But, as Shaver notes, that investment exists only so long as Firefox retains its market share, and with Google signing deals with PC makers to make Chrome their default browser, it’s possible that Firefox’s growth may be stymied.
However, experts believe that politics will prevent Google from pulling the plug on its Firefox funding. “I think Mozilla would suffer in a big way [if Google pulled the deal], but the branding hit for Google would be huge as well,” said Professor Sandeep Krishnamurthy, director of business programs at the University of Washington, Bothell, who wrote a paper on the future of Mozilla. “It would be regarded as the evil corporation shutting down a non-profit. Not what it wants – that cute, cuddly image is paramount for Google.”
According to Krishnamurthy, the real danger to Mozilla lies with smartphones, which are becoming an increasingly popular way of accessing the web. Apple, Google and Microsoft all create smartphone operating systems packaged with their own browsers and Cloud-based services. Mozilla’s mobile browser, Fennec, isn’t due for release until 2010, and even then it will need to offer compelling features to make people switch from their bundled browser (presuming they’re even allowed to, of course – the iPhone App store blocks rival browsers, for instance).