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Firefox: An endangered internet species?

Even with another infusion of cash from Google, you have to wonder just how long Firefox will survive as a viable, mainstream web browser.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

I've been using Mozilla's Firefox browser since it was still in beta. In 2004, for a while, it was my favorite web browser. Not because it was open-source, but because it was so much better and more secure than Internet Explorer. That was then. This is now. Firefox is in real danger of dying off. 

Firefox had a great run, but beginning in 2012 with Firefox 11, the once innovative browser began a sharp decline in quality. Over the years, things continued downhill. 

Oh, Mozilla and Firefox still produced important work. You need to look no further than the JavaScript, Rust, and WebAssembly languages. They were also champions of security and privacy. Projects such as embracing DNS-over-HTTPS (DoH) and overall security improvements were great, but users didn't care.

With the arrival of Google's Chrome browser, users turned from Firefox to Chrome as their favorite browser. Every year or so, I look at web browser popularity, and every year, Firefox's market share shrinks. By July 2012, Firefox was retreating from its all-time high mark of 23.75%. By March 2020, according to the US federal government's Digital Analytics Program (DAP), which gives us a running count of the last 90 days of US government website visitsFirefox had dropped to a mere 3.6%. As of Aug. 14, 2020, only a few months later, it's shrunk down even more to a paltry 3.3%.

Firefox is on its way to irrelevance. 

Making matters even worse, Mozilla's just had its second round of layoffs. First, Mozilla laid off some of its most senior staffers. These weren't office drones. They were top developers. Then, in August, Mozilla laid off almost a quarter of its staff.

As technology writer Matthew MacDonald put it, "Mozilla has gutted the MDN [Mozilla Developer Network] team." Firefox's security and development teams have also been hard hit.

This is bad. In January. Mitchell Baker, Mozilla Corporation CEO and Mozilla Foundation chairperson, said it let people go because of declining interest in Firefox, and thus reduced earnings, and that Mozilla was looking for more revenue from "sources outside of search" but "this did not happen."

It still isn't happening. According to Mozilla's latest annual report, the majority of its revenue is still generated from global browser search partnerships. This includes the deal negotiated with Google in 2017

In the most recent layoff, Baker blamed the coronavirus pandemic. I suspect it has far more to do with the continued decline of its search partnership. 

True, Mozilla has just admitted that its new Google search partnership will give it from $400 million to $450 million per year. In return for the cash, Google search remains Firefox's default search engine provider until 2023 at an estimated price tag. 

But will Mozilla actually make that much dough? I doubt it. According to its last publicly available numbers, in 2018, the Mozilla Corp made  $435.702 million from royalties, subscriptions, and advertising revenue. 

Almost all of that is from its Google search deal. I can't believe, though, that Google is paying Mozilla a flat fee. It must be tied to some sort of performance metric. And with Firefox's market share growing ever smaller, Mozilla's revenue must be shrinking. Otherwise, why would it let go of so many of its staffers?

Despite this, Baker assured onlookers that Mozilla would "ship new products faster and develop new revenue streams." These include its bookmarking app Pocket; its virtual rooms Hubs; and its $4.99-a-month Firefox VPN.

Excuse me if I don't buy any of these new revenue sources. There are already many successful bookmarking programs (Evernote, Flipboard, and Instapaper), virtual meeting rooms (Zoom, Slack, and Teams); and VPNs (NordVPN, PureVPN, and Hotspot Shield). Do you see any room there for a new money-making service? I don't. 

Firefox will live on in one way or the other. It's open source after all. But Firefox as an important browser, or Mozilla as a significant open-source developer hub? No. I can't see it. Those days are done. Firefox is officially on my endangered species list. 

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