Wednesday, January 25, 2017

What’s up with Firefox?

Until about five years ago, techies and others who wanted a speedier, extensible, more privacy-oriented web browser on their desktops often immediately downloaded Mozilla's Firefox to use instead of Internet Explorer on Windows or Safari on the Mac.

But those days seem long ago. Firefox is hardly discussed today, and its usage has cratered from a high of over 30 percent of the desktop browser market in 2010 to about 12 percent today, according to Mozilla, citing stats from NetMarketShare. (Various other analytics firms put the share as low as 10 percent or as high as 15 percent.) And Firefox’s share on mobile devices is even worse, at under 1 percent, according to the same firm.

Today, the go-to-browser is Google’s Chrome, which has over a 50 percent share on both desktop and mobile, according to NetMarketShare.

Mozilla Wakes Up

After years of neglecting Firefox, misreading mobile users, and putting most of its chips on a failed phone project, Mozilla says it is working hard to get Firefox off the mat.

“In many ways, we went through a time that you don’t get to survive,” says Mark Mayo, senior vice president for Firefox and a member of Mozilla’s decision-making steering committee. “Somehow we’re not dead… and it feels like we’re picking up speed and figuring out what to do.”

He admits that Firefox has fallen behind Chrome, Microsoft’s Edge, and Apple’s Safari technically, but says the company is executing with total focus on a plan to reverse that. “For several years, we have not been spending the effort we would normally spend on the flagship product,” Mayo concedes. “Firefox didn’t get better along with the competition.”

Why Firefox is Different

Now, he says, the company has embraced the proposition that “it kind of makes no sense to be us and not have the best browser.” That’s because for Mozilla, which is controlled by a foundation of the same name, Firefox is its main product. The two names are inseparable in many peoples’ minds. And an open, vibrant web — as opposed to a world of apps and social media and search controlled by a few companies — is its main philosophical concern.

That last bit may sound like idealistic claptrap, but it’s always been core to Mozilla’s mission. Mayo says he fears that big companies like Google and Apple don’t care whether roaming the open internet is subsumed by launching apps or by the act of searching. But, he says, Firefox does.

“Everyone else builds a browser for defensive reasons,” says Mayo. “We build one because we love browsers.” (...)

The Task Ahead

But building Firefox into a real contender will take a lot more work, and Mayo concedes that even parts of the plan won’t be visible to users until later this year. Still, Mozilla claims that it “aims to pass Chrome on key performance measures that matter by end of year.”

To do that, the company is betting on something called Project Quantum, a new under-the-hood browsing engine that will replace big chunks of Mozilla’s ancient Gecko engine. In an October blog post by David Bryant, head of platform engineering, the company claimed this:
“We are striving for performance gains from Quantum that will be so noticeable that your entire web experience will feel different. Pages will load faster, and scrolling will be silky smooth. Animations and interactive apps will respond instantly, and be able to handle more intensive content while holding consistent frame rates. And the content most important to you will automatically get the highest priority, focusing processing power where you need it the most.”
Another cornerstone for the new Firefox is a project called the Context Graph that aims to use an enhanced browser history to replace navigational search. The idea is to use differential privacy — the same kind of privacy-respecting machine learning that Apple uses — to suggest places on the web to go for particular needs, rather than getting navigational answers from search.

Mayo calls this “navigation by browser, not Google” and declares: “Navigation in the browser has been stagnant for a decade and we’re not going to stand for that.”

by Walt Mossberg, Recode |  Read more:
Image: uncredited