Will Google kill Firefox, and will Microsoft save it?

Summary:Microsoft's Internet Explorer team has kept up its tradition of sending the Mozilla team cake when they ship a new version of Firefox. Firefox 4 has just been made available, and the cake duly arrived with the usual inscription: "Congratulations on shipping!

Microsoft's Internet Explorer team has kept up its tradition of sending the Mozilla team cake when they ship a new version of Firefox. Firefox 4 has just been made available, and the cake duly arrived with the usual inscription: "Congratulations on shipping! Love, the IE team,"

Several Mozilla team members tweeted the cake's arrival and posted photos. As Mozilla VP Mike Shaver put it: "The @IE team sent us a congratulations cake. Very classy."

This is actually a tradition. The IE team sent a cake when Firefox 2 was released in October 2006. There was another cake for the release of Firefox 3 in June 2008, and in this case, the photo shows Al Billings holding it. (Billings was on the IE team before joining Mozilla.) The IE cake for shipping Firefox 4 looks very similar.

Although the Firefox and IE browsers compete, Microsoft puts enormous efforts into helping commercial companies who are developing for Windows, but it also wants Windows to be a prime platform for running open source software. In 2006, the director of Microsoft's Open Source Software Lab offered Mozilla help and invited them to a four-day workshop in Redmond. He wrote:

"The lab itself is a 4-day event held in Redmond every week through December 2006; we provide secure office space for 4 people, hardware, VPN access, and 1:1 access to product team developers and support staff."

Today, of course, the market has changed completely thanks to the arrival of Google's Chrome browser. This had made rapid gains, and Firefox's growth has gone into reverse. On Net Marketshare figures based on website monitoring, Firefox's market share peaked at 24.72% in November 2009: since then it has dropped 3 percentage points to 21.74% last month. In the same period, Chrome has grown by 7 percentage points, from 3.93% to 10.93%.

But it would be much better for Microsoft if people used Firefox rather than Chrome. First, Google is offering online applications in competition with Microsoft, and Firefox isn't. Second, Google plumbs its online apps into its Android mobile phone operating system, while Firefox doesn't. Third, Google is the world's most powerful advertising company and a threat to Microsoft's online revenues, which Firefox isn't. Finally, Google's plan for total world domination includes replacing Microsoft Windows with Chrome OS.

But one of life's fun-filled facts is that Mozilla is financially dependent on Google. It collects tens of millions of dollars in return for setting Google as the default search engine on Firefox -- certainly the bulk (around 86%) of the $104 million it says it collected in calendar 2009.

This deal continues until November 2011, and there's bound to be speculation about what will happen after that. Google could save itself up to $100 million a year and perhaps wipe out Firefox as we know it simply by not renewing the deal. Would that be evil?

I suspect Google won't do that because it would give Microsoft the opportunity to step in with a search deal for Bing. Being Firefox's salvation would earn Microsoft $100-million worth of PR and make Google look bad.

Ed Bott at ZD Net in the US has just cast doubt on Firefox's survival in a post headlined: Why Internet Explorer will survive and Firefox won't. His thesis is that Microsoft can match the rate at which Google ships Chrome updates and Firefox can't (though he omits the point that Google more or less enforces browser updates while Microsoft can't even get people off the decade old IE6).

Either way, Apple really wants to see Firefox killed (Steve Jobs certainly implied as much), and Google would benefit massively from Firefox's demise. Microsoft is probably the only one that might, on balance, want to keep it alive…..


Topics: Tech Industry


Jack Schofield spent the 1970s editing photography magazines before becoming editor of an early UK computer magazine, Practical Computing. In 1983, he started writing a weekly computer column for the Guardian, and joined the staff to launch the newspaper's weekly computer supplement in 1985. This section launched the Guardian’s first webs... Full Bio

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