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Amid abandonment and failures, ​is Firefox the walking dead?

Firefox OS is dead. Mozilla is giving up (again) on its Thunderbird e-mail client. And, the Firefox web browser's market share continues downhill.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
(Image: CNET/CBS Interactive)

Once upon a time I was a big Firefox fan.

Firefox 1.0 was a world better than the decrepit Internet Explorer 6 in 2005. A decade later it's a different story. Mozilla and Firefox are the zombies, and IE -- alongside its Windows 10 browser cousin Edge, are alive and well.

How did Firefox go from being a popular, open-source web browser to the unpopular program it is today? It happened a little something like this.

It's been getting slower and klutzier release after release. I run all the major browsers and Firefox can't compete. I like Google Chrome the best today, but I think it could stand some improvement and competition.

Unfortunately, Firefox is no longer a competitor.

This isn't just my opinion. The federal government's Digital Analytics Program (DAP), shows that Firefox has dropped in popularity from 11 percent in March to 9.7 percent in December. That's far behind, Chrome, with shy of 42 percent, and all varieties of IE with 22.2 percent.

In short, fewer and fewer people like Firefox.

It's not simply that Firefox is slow and prone to bugs. Mozilla, Firefox's parent organization, seems to be falling apart at the seams.

I date Mozilla's collapse to Brendan Eich, Mozilla co-founder and creator of JavaScript, being forced out as CEO in June 2014. Nine days after being named CEO, Eich went from Mozilla's savior to a pariah. Eich's donation of $1,000 to the campaign supporting California's anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 in 2008 led to a bloody internal fight. Eich eventually backpedaled from his position, but it was too little, too late.

Since then Mozilla has drifted both with its goals and its technology. Firefox, the web browser, became an after-thought. Mozilla's leadership put its focus on Firefox OS, its smartphone operating system rival to Apple's iOS and Google's Android.

It failed -- badly.

By early December, the word was out. Mozilla was giving up on Firefox OS. Ari Jaaksi, Mozilla's senior vice president of connected devices, explained (perhaps as he was packing his desk): "Because we were not able to deliver the best user experience possible, we decided to stop offering Firefox OS smartphones through carrier channels."

Oh, in theory, Firefox OS will live on as Internet of Things (IoT), but that won't save Mozilla's bacon.

Neither will Thunderbird, a once popular e-mail client. Mozilla is trying, for the second time, to kill off Thunderbird. While web-based e-mail is now much more popular than clients, many old-time Mozilla fans aren't happy with Mozilla booting Thunderbird to the curb.

Equally damaging was when Mozilla alienated its loyal developer community by deprecating XPCOM and XUL, the foundations of its once popular extension system. Mozilla also annoyed its users by quietly deploying Suggested Tiles, a built-in commercial ad system.

Three months later Mozilla killed the unpopular program.

Mozilla also replaced its profitable Google ad deal with three different search engine deals: Yahoo, Yandex, and Baidu. How much does Mozilla make from these deals? We don't know. Mozilla isn't saying.

We do know, however, that Yahoo is in a world of hurt thanks to its many mistakes.

Ironically, in its latest financial report for 2014 but just released earlier this month, the Mozilla Foundation has its best financial year ever. The foundation increased its revenue from $314 million to more than $329 million. In the bank, Mozilla has $266.5 million in assets. Of course, this was all before Mozilla turned away from Google and to Yahoo for its main revenue stream.

While Mozilla may be cash-rich, it's hard to see where it goes from here. It's grand plan for the future, Firefox OS, is a dead operating system walking. The Firefox web browser continues to bleed both users and developers.

Mozilla and Firefox will continue to stumble forward, but it's both a zombie group and product. It's only a matter of time until both expire once and for all.


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