June 16, 2024

Mikayla Macfarlane

Serving technology better

The fall of Firefox: Mozilla’s once-popular web browser slides into irrelevance

4 min read
The fall of Firefox: Mozilla's once-popular web browser slides into irrelevance

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When the Netscape browser suite source code was open-sourced in 1998, it was a desperate move. 

Although Netscape and the Department of Justice had been successful in the courts at battling Microsoft’s Windows and Internet Explorer (IE) illegal monopoly, it didn’t matter. Netscape, once the most popular web browser of all, was doomed. As for the code, as Jamie Zawinski, an early Netscape employee, pointed out, “You can’t take a dying project, sprinkle it with the magic pixie dust of ‘open source,’ and have everything magically work out.”

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Still, the code was there, and the Mozilla Project sprang up to turn it first into a universal internet client, and then into a pure web browser, Firefox, in 2002. That same year, well over 90% of internet users were using IE. 

Still, Firefox was on its way. First, Netscape loyalists and open-source and Linux fans moved to it. Over time, it gained a mass following. By the summer of 2010, Firefox reached its high point of 34.1% of the market. 

It’s been all downhill since then. 

Historically, it’s been challenging to get hard data on which browsers really were the most popular web browsers. True, many companies claim to have good numbers, such as NetMarketShare and StatCounter, but their numbers are massaged. 

The US federal government’s Digital Analytics Program (DAP), however, gives us a running count of the last 90 days of US government website visits. That doesn’t tell us much about global web browser use, but it’s the best information we have about American web browser users today.

And the top web browser is, according to the DAP’s 5.27-billion visits over the past 90 days, just as you’d expect: Google Chrome with 47.9%. Firefox, with only 2.2% of the market, is sliding into irrelevance. 

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Safari with 36.2%, thanks to the iPhone’s popularity in the States, and Edge with 8.3%, are both more popular than Firefox. At least IE totally dropped off the list in 2022.

There’s nothing new about Firefox’s decline. In 2022, Firefox dropped to 2.6% from 2021’s 2.7%. In 2015, when I first started using DAP’s numbers, Firefox had an 11% market share. By 2016, Firefox had declined to 8.2%. It had a slight bounce upward by 2018 to 9%.

Chrome’s numbers are actually even bigger than they first appear. Its open-source foundation, Chromium, also powers Microsoft Edge. Except for Mozilla Firefox, all the other web browsers that matter, such as Opera, Vivaldi, and Brave, run on top of Chromium. None of those other browsers, by the way, have any market share to speak of.  Altogether they come to a mere 0.8% of DAP’s numbers. 

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So what happened? Well, the rise of Chrome, for one thing. As Hiten Shah, CEO of Nira, a cloud security company, observed, Google fundamentally reinvented the browser. In 2008, Google started creating an entirely new operating system for a cloud-based open web with its own extensions and applications. 

To make that happen, Google “poached” top web browser developers from Firefox, such as Ian Hickson, Darin Fisher, Pam Greene, and Brian Ryner. Both Microsoft and the Mozilla Foundation were caught flat-footed. Neither have caught up. 

Eventually, Mozilla figured it out. The keyword here is “eventually.”  In 2017, almost a decade after Chrome appeared, then Mozilla CEO Chris Beard admitted, “Firefox did not keep up with the market and what people really want. A lot of hardcore Firefox fans are now happy Chrome users.” 

Many once true-blue Firefox fans aren’t happy with Firefox’s current state. One user recently listed numerous complaints, which I’ve heard over and over again from other Firefox users. These include constant removal of features, bad coding paradigms, poor memory management, and hidden telemetry. In short, Firefox simply doesn’t work that well anymore for developers or ordinary users who just want to use their browser, thank you very much.

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Mozilla also has a frenemy relationship with Google. Mozilla only stays in business because Google pays Mozilla hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties annually. According to Mozilla’s 2022 financial report, of Mozilla’s $593 million in revenue, $510 million comes from Google. Mozilla still asks for donations and claims to be “Internet by the people, for the people” and that it seeks to “counterbalance the entrenched tech companies.” The numbers tell a different story. This grates on some users 

For example, the Mozilla CEO, Mitchell Baker, earned $6,903,089 in 2022, a raise of $1.3 Million. According to Comparably, the average Mozilla executive compensation is $213,745 a year. In Silicon Valley, those numbers aren’t outrageous, but Firefox’s market share continues to circle the drain.

Many users would rather those funds be spent on improving Firefox and not on executive salaries. Or, investing in side issues such as artificial intelligence (AI). 

I’d love to see Firefox rise from the ashes as its first name, Phoenix, had hoped for. I fear, however, that this time, Firefox is doomed to disappear. 

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