Has Firefox Lost Its Edge?

Monday Jan 16th 2012 by Matt Hartley
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Once an emerging darling, the open source browser is now beset by a troubling handful of issues.

Firefox is a web browser with some very strong roots. Its history dates back to when Netscape was battling for users against the almighty Internet Explorer.

Back in those days, web sites actually had small banners on them stating which browser the site was best rendered in. Those were simpler times, and despite some hefty odds, Netscape did pretty well against the much more powerful Microsoft corporation.

As Netscape's popularity declined, the evolution of what would become the Mozilla Suite began. The developers sought to decrease the perceived bloat factor by introducing what was then called "Firebird." After some legal snafus, the Firebird browser was then renamed Mozilla Firefox. From version 1.x to 3.x, Firefox was an unchallenged 2nd choice browser that quickly ate up the market share of pre-installed browser competitors. Well, it was largely unchallenged until Google elbowed into the browser market with its own offering.

Chrome on Linux

Despite the past success of Firefox, Google Chrome has been catching up to it ever since the browser made itself available to OS X and Linux users. The addition of these other platforms, in my opinion, put Chrome into a position to compete directly with Firefox on a level playing field.

Like many past Firefox enthusiasts, I was content with Firefox on the Linux desktop until Mozilla released Firefox 3.0. The entire 3.x series made Firefox painful to use on every distro I tried it on. During this period, I found that the problems I was experiencing were largely only affecting Linux users. And this was showing little chance of being corrected anytime soon.

While I was dealing with this nightmare, the new Google Chrome browser was receiving solid reviews on the Windows desktop. This led Firefox users such as myself to try out Chrome to see how it compared.

Needless to say, the experience was fantastic. Chrome was faster and simply provided a better browsing experience. Unfortunately for those of us using Linux, we had to wait a bit before having access to Chrome natively on our own desktops. But once it was finally available, Firefox users – me included – jumped ship without looking back.

Firefox 5.0 and beyond

During the period I was getting used to using Chrome as my primary browser, Firefox 5.0 came along. Said to be the first within Firefox's new rapid release program, v5.0 didn't offer up anything compelling that made me want to switch back. Quite the opposite, actually, since the add-ons I had used previously hadn't been updated in time for the 5.0 release.

Meanwhile on Chrome, I had zero issues with my add-on compatibility despite the browser maintaining a similar release schedule. This would become a common theme of frustration, as Firefox's add-on pages are littered with comments indicating many add-ons are no longer working.

To make matters worse, even after the developers tried to update their extensions, another Firefox rapid update came along and broke the compatibility again. It's really unfortunate as I am left feeling like I should avoid updating my browser. Obviously, this is a security mishap waiting to happen.

However, the desire to bypass this annoyance remains. It's no wonder Firefox is losing their once famed user-base.

Firefox slips in the market

There have been various news stories published claiming that Firefox is losing its market dominance to Chrome. The motivation for people making the switch likely has to do with the fact that Chrome appears to be faster, at least with some commonly used websites. While I would say that both browsers appear to be running with roughly the same performance these days, the damage done against Firefox's speed reputation isn't likely to heal anytime soon.

On the flip-side of the coin, it's common knowledge that Firefox is considered more trustworthy than Chrome. While both browsers offer private viewing modes, only Firefox is believed to be truly 'safe' to use from a privacy standpoint.

Then again, it appears that Mozilla may be using Firefox to access more of your data in upcoming releases. Could this issue cause another downtick in Mozilla's overall market share?

Firefox support remains strong

Considering how Firefox has managed to drop the ball with perceived performance and now potentially user privacy, one may find themself wondering: how Mozilla can recover from all of this?

Well as luck would have it, Firefox is going to see support in two very important areas. The first area is in the enterprise space. Finally, we see Mozilla taking steps to making Firefox more "enterprise-friendly" with extended support releases of the browser.

The idea behind this move is that enterprise users are more likely to embrace Firefox, if only critical updates are pushed to their browser. Think of Ubuntu LTS, as an example of how this sort of concept might work.

The second area where Firefox has great support is with funding. Mozilla will continue to receive massive amounts of funding from the same people that brought us Chrome. The reason why Google is spending this kind of cash on Mozilla is not totally clear. The general consensus is that Google wants to promote both Firefox and Chrome in an effort to keep Internet Explorer on the ropes. And this translates into a huge win for everyone but Microsoft.

Firefox can win users back

There is no question in my mind that Firefox could make improvements to potentially win many of their departed users back. And thanks to the additional Google funding, Mozilla now has the extra resources to make this happen. The real question is how long it's going to take for Firefox to see the decentralized apps like Chrome already enjoys?

Another huge question is when will Firefox updates stop breaking the legacy extensions that current users are having to do without just to keep their browser current? If these two issues can be addressed, and we bundle the new enterprise focus mentioned above, I believe that Firefox could become relevant once again.

The comedy of this whole situation really comes down to this - no matter which of the two browsers mentioned in this article you use, Google wins. Because for them, the browser is merely a window to get you logged into their products and services. So in reality, Firefox is actually a mirror image of what Chrome is designed to do. Get users to Google based products and keep them there.

Chrome privacy issues are immaterial

By now, I realize that many of you are waiting for me to acknowledge Google Chrome's privacy issues. To be ultimately clear, I understand this is an issue. However, I would point out that running Firefox isn't really going to offer any additional privacy in the grand scheme of things. If Google remains a consistent destination, then I think the browser you choose matters very little. Think I am wrong? Ask a casual Google user to show you their Google Web History sometime.

You might escape the ad-tracking, but you're still tracked and your privacy is still at risk. Regardless of the browser one chooses to rely on, if you're using Google services already, you're gaining very little privacy or security by being concerned over which browser you happen to use at the moment.

The main takeaway here is this. Firefox can regain some of their users but for them to do so, they will have to seriously differentiate themselves from Chrome. At this point, this simply hasn't happened just yet. Then again, we have yet to see what Mozilla is planning to do with the sudden influx of Google cash they received. Perhaps, just maybe, Firefox will finally overcome the issues listed above and get their backsides out of the mud once and for all.

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