With Microsoft's decision to switch to Chromium for its Edge browser, Mozilla's Firefox remains the only major browser developer that still maintains its own alternative engine. In a world dominated by Google, can Firefox remain competitive?
Last week, Microsoft announced it was throwing in the towel on its EdgeHTML development effort and switching to the open-source Chromium engine. That's a big win for Google, which maintains that codebase and uses it as the core of Google Chrome. It's arguably a big win for Microsoft's enterprise customers, too, who can now count on having a standards-compliant browser that works with all their modern web-based apps.
You know who was not among the winners? Mozilla, makers of the Firefox browser.
In a doom-and-gloom-soaked post on the Mozilla Blog, CEO Chris Beard criticized Microsoft's decision even as he acknowledged that it "may well make sense" in business terms even as it poses an existential threat to the non-profit Mozilla:
We compete with Google not because it's a good business opportunity. We compete with Google because the health of the internet and online life depend on competition and choice. They depend on consumers being able to decide we want something better and to take action.
If one product like Chromium has enough market share, then it becomes easier for web developers and businesses to decide not to worry if their services and sites work with anything other than Chromium. That's what happened when Microsoft had a monopoly on browsers in the early 2000s before Firefox was released. And it could happen again.
Unfortunately, Mozilla's relationship with Google is... Well, let's just say it's complicated. Yes, Firefox competes with Google in the browser market, but Google also literally pays to keep the lights on at Mozilla.
Two weeks ago, Mozilla released its annual report, including audited financial statements for 2017. In that report, it acknowledged that "[t]oday, the majority of Mozilla Corporation revenue is generated from global browser search partnerships, including the deal negotiated with Google in 2017 following Mozilla's termination of its search agreement with Yahoo/Oath...."
In fact, more than 89 percent of Mozilla Corporation's $562 Million in income in 2017 came from search engine royalties, and almost all that appears to have come from Google. (Yandex is the default Firefox search engine in Russia and Baidu is the default in China. Google is the default in the United States and other developed markets.)
That fact is, tellingly, listed under the "Concentration of risk" heading in the Mozilla 2017 financial statement (PDF).
The current search-engine contracts run out in November 2020, less than two years from now. If Google decides to end that search relationship or change its terms in a material way, the financial impact would be devastating on Mozilla. With $514 million in cash on hand and $421 million in annual expenses, it would only be able to operate for about 15 months without cutting another search deal.
Unfortunately for Mozilla, most of the market forces that forced Microsoft Edge to give up on its independent browser engine apply equally to Firefox.
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Despite excellent reviews, the Firefox Quantum browser, released in late 2017, hasn't been able to steal any significant usage share on desktop platforms. Depending on which source you look at, Firefox continues to be stuck in the high single digits as a percentage of overall browser usage.
In the latest figures from the US Government Digital Analytics Program, for example, Firefox accounted for exactly 8 percent of traffic from Windows PCs and Macs, compared to 8.44 percent for Microsoft Edge and 7.9 percent for Safari. That comparison is even worse than it appears, because Edge can't even be installed on devices running MacOS or versions of Windows other than Windows 10, and the desktop version of Safari runs only on the Mac.
If you look only at mobile operating systems, Firefox is a non-starter, with one-half of 1 percent of web traffic as measured by DAP, which is slightly less than Amazon's Silk browser. Part of the problem might be that Google treats Firefox as a second-class citizen, as ZDNet's Chris Duckett reported in July 2018:
"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."
That's the same problem that Microsoft's engineers cited as their primary reason for giving up on EdgeHTML. I've heard that the overwhelming majority of the time and energy that EdgeHTML developers spent over the past three years has been on fixing compatibility problems with sites that didn't work properly because they were only tested on WebKit and Chromium-based browsers.
Can Mozilla afford the technical costs of maintaining the only rendering engine and browser code base that isn't based on WebKit or Blink (Google's Chromium-based fork of WebKit)?
The brutal nature of competition in the modern technology landscape suggests that Mozilla's mission of providing an alternative to the Google monoculture is admirable and probably doomed to failure. The big question is whether Google will continue to pay royalties to keep Mozilla afloat after 2020. That might happen, just as insurance against potential antitrust action.
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