Firefox and the 4-year battle to get Google to treat it as a first-class citizen

Web monoculture is well and truly alive when Google cannot be bothered to make a full-featured cross-browser mobile search page.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

It has been over five years since Firefox really turned a corner and started to morph from its bloated memory-munching ways into the lightning-quick browser it is today.

Over that time, memories of web page artefacts and irregularities have more or less disappeared if you are using it as your desktop browser. As for its mobile experience, well, it's a WebKit-centric world out there, and you need look no further than Google to see how Firefox is relegated to inferior versions of pages.

Buried in Mozilla's issue tracker is a bug that kicked off in February 2014, and is yet to be resolved: Have Google treat Firefox for Android as a first-class citizen and serve up comparable content to what the search giant hands Chrome and Safari.

After years of requests, meetings, and to and fro, it has hit a point where the developers of Firefox are experimenting by manipulating the user agent string in its nightly development builds to trick Google into thinking that Firefox Mobile is a Chrome browser.

Not only does Google's search page degrade for Firefox on Android, but some new properties like Google Flights have occasionally taken to outright blocking of the browser. Over the past couple of months, I have been using Firefox Mobile as my primary mobile browser and happened upon Google Flights, and although I wasn't blocked, it did fail in places -- at the time of writing, though, it seems the site is fine.

As for Google's flagship search page, Firefox users get an inferior version that does not even have the tools bar that allows users to narrow searches down by date. I find it hard to believe that in 2018, the world's most visited web page cannot find the small amount of time and resources it would take to deliver a comparable page to non-WebKit browsers, even if they do make up a minuscule amount of its visitors.

"We are focused on providing a great experience for search across browsers, and continue to work to improve this for all users," a Google spokesperson told ZDNet.

"Firefox uses the Gecko engine, which requires us to do extensive testing on all of our features to ensure compatibility, as it's different from WebKit (which is used by Chrome, Safari, UC, Opera). We've done this for Firefox desktop, but have not done the same level of testing for mobile."

It is worth pointing out that Firefox on iOS and the Firefox Focus browser both use the OS-provided WebKit-based renderers on iOS and Android, and so do not suffer from these problems.

Google told ZDNet it is in the process of testing a "new experience" for Firefox users that will take care of the issues.

One would certainly hope so, lest the European Commission take an interest in why Chrome's main desktop browsing competitor is held back on the one platform that allows third-party rendering engines, and is owned by Google.


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