Wednesday, November 18th, 2020

Firefox Was Always Enough

There are many concerns about Mozilla right now, and reason to be concerned. While I am no longer with Mozilla, it’s still a place that supported me for many years; I believe in Mozilla and want the project to succeed.

Mozilla’s one product

It’s not always clear from the outside, but Mozilla has always made the bulk of its money from selling the preferred placement of a search engine in Firefox. That’s been Google in the U.S., except for a brief stint with Yahoo.

Firefox was forked from the now-defunct Mozilla Suite in 2002, an experimental project by Blake Ross, Joe Hewitt, and David Hyatt. By 2003 all three had left for other companies.

Firefox went on to great success, peaking at 30% of browser marketshare and hundreds of millions of users. Firefox is Mozilla’s one product, greatest success, and the reason Mozilla still exists.

The pursuit of revenue diversity

Throughout the entire ten years I was at Mozilla, we were always concerned about “revenue diversity”.

It’s uncomfortable to get most of your income from your competitor. For many years Google added insult by advertising Chrome on those very search pages.

But to be clear: the money always kept coming! On a per-user basis it even increased over the years. There was never a collapse of search-deal revenue.

But Mozilla is going through some problems: there was a major layoff in January 2020, and I myself was part of 25% of the workforce laid off in August 2020. The latter was blamed on a Covid downturn, but I believe Covid only accelerated layoffs that were otherwise inevitable.

And the money is still coming in! Mozilla is still getting more money than it did when its marketshare had peaked. It’s still getting enough money to pay for a large staff.

The answer is clear to me: if Mozilla wants to improve its financial position, then it needs to increase the number of Firefox users. That’s always been the right focus, and it’s still the right focus.

Founders and vision

I remember when Brendan Eich was briefly the Mozilla CEO. It was noted that a founder has a special place and ability as a leader. We never got to find out, but there was some sense to it: a founder has particular authority, without getting that authority through consensus-building. If you bring in a decisive outsider they will probably fail, lacking the authority (and probably the wisdom) to guide the company. If you bring in or promote someone appropriate for a more mature company, then the company may be operated well but the choices made will be more conservative.

The problem? Firefox’s founders are all long, long gone. Brendan and Mitchell are Mozilla’s founders. This isn’t to say that the people that founded Firefox had entirely unique perceptions or abilities, but a founder has a unique ability to advocate for a vision. To be heard…

Firefox vs. Platform

When I joined Mozilla there were two large groups:

The Firefox Group would be the ones responsible for things like tabs, bookmarks, history, the URL bar, your profiles, cookie management, data sync and backup, etc. (Ironically these parts were called “chrome” before Chrome even existed.)

Platform built Gecko, made the renderer, implemented new Web APIs, handled networking. Firefox was always the only meaningful consumer of this platform, but Platform didn’t think of itself as simply serving Firefox’s needs.

Platform was the dominant group, the ones who called the shots, while the Firefox frontend developers were just trying to keep up.

Later the two groups would be combined into the singular Firefox group, which I think was an important organizational improvement. But the underlying tensions of these two perspectives still persisted…

What is Firefox for?

At some point I took to asking people in Mozilla: what is the purpose of Firefox? This was during Firefox 3 days when optimism for the product was low.

I expected a few answers, like to give the users of Firefox a great experience, or to give us a delivery vehicle for our principles of autonomy and privacy, or to keep the web relevant and vibrant in people’s lives.

And I did get all those answers, but also one I didn’t expect: Firefox exists just to give Mozilla a seat at the table when the web is defined.

To explain: the web, and much of the internet, is based on standards, maintained by places like W3C, WHATWG, ECMA, and the IETF. These standards can help protect users, maintain privacy, expand the web platform, make technology more widely accessible, give people autonomy, anonymity, security. Or a standard can work against all those principles.

The standards don’t just apply to Firefox users. They affect all browsers and many devices that aren’t even browsers. So if Mozilla can positively affect these standards it can benefit everyone.

One good way to get a seat at the table is to be an important implementor. Standards are sometimes created with no implementations, but these usually don’t go anywhere. With that lesson learned, browser implementors have a lot of weight, both about how things are standardized and where attention is directed.

With this in mind the argument is: Firefox has to be popular enough that Mozilla has at least a veto over problematic points of standards, and the ability to vigorously advance positive standards.

This is a real thing at Mozilla. It still is to this day, even if exact kind of influence Mozilla is trying to apply has changed.

This is terrible for Firefox.

Firefox was never enough

Mozilla was never going to be happy building a great browser that its users loved. And don’t we all try to do the thing that makes us happy? If you don’t think a great browser will make you happy, then…

And what is a better browser? Remember what was really cool in Firefox? Tabs! That was so long ago… but why were tabs great? What are they for? I wish I could tell you that Mozilla was filled with competing pet theories and solutions based on those theories. It was not. (But it’s not too late.)

I see four visions for advancement of browsers:

Quantitative improvement: The browser is window onto websites, and we should make it the best window it can be. Faster, lighter. Everything it is now, but more. (See Servo)

All encompassing: The web hosts most of our desktop applications. It should host even more of them, it should host mobile applications, it should be the universal platform. More APIs. More ways to package and present sites. (See Project Fugu)

Technological pessimism: The internet is terrible and we should make it less terrible. We need better privacy. Better security. More process isolation, more sandboxing. Less APIs and more restrictions on those APIs. (See Unfck the Internet or Brave)

A better browser: The browser is used to… browse. To manage tasks, multitask, remember history, manage navigation, get us back to where we want to go. It’s an information tool. Browser should have better tab and task management, easier recall, tools to capture and move information. (See new browsers like Vivaldi, Shift, and up and coming things like [Amna or The Browser Company)

Chrome started out very focused on quantitative improvement but seems to be expanding towards all encompassing.

When I started at Mozilla it was focused on all encompassing (culminating in Firefox OS). But Firefox was frankly underwater quantitatively, and Quantum represented a bit of a pivot to quantitative improvement. Now it’s focused on technological pessimism in the form of a security and privacy emphasis.

I don’t have a read on Edge, and as far as I can tell Safari isn’t into anything. Small upstarts seem interested in filling the better browsing vacuum, and I wish them luck, but it’s a hard market.

An organization with a love of the web and an understanding of the technology underneath the web could do something great. If only Firefox could be enough for Mozilla.

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This is the personal site of Ian Bicking. The opinions expressed here are my own.