Reasons Why Firefox Could Become a Top Browser Again

For the web browser, 2011 was an astonishing year. Google fundamentally changed our perception of what a web browser is and what it should do. According to StatCounter, Chrome gained 42.5 percent market share or 11.59 points, while IE lost 19.0 percent or 7.35 points, and Firefox lost 21.4 percent or 5.4 points. (For the remainder of this article I will only consider data provided by StatCounter, as it is the most comprehensive browser market share data set that is freely accessible.) You can love or hate Chrome, but there is little denying that Google's Chrome strategy, a combination of rapid browser development, convenient software delivery through silent updates, backwards compatibility, quick security fixes, and high-profile advertising, is working quite well.

Many people have asked me about the current browser environment and which browser would be the most stable alternative, especially for business use. When I ran the numbers, there was a surprising result that looked especially interesting for Mozilla. Before we look specifically into Firefox, let's first look at the status quo of the browser market with a six-month outlook.

IE sinks, Chrome climbs, Firefox lands

IE will surrender another good portion of market share in March and drop to about 34.8 percent. In fact, Sunday, March 18, was the first day Chrome surpassed IE in market share. Remember, IE has held the leadership since 1996. This is the first time a non-IE browser has captured the popularity crown in 16 years. Microsoft continues to ignore the shares held by Windows XP and Vista users and focuses on gaining share in the HTML5 market with IE9 and IE10. Losing market share is the obvious result that may be hurting Microsoft substantially in the long term. Firefox will climb slightly to just above 25 percent, while Chrome will jump to almost 31 percent and set a new record for six-month and 12-month gains (7.3 points and 12.6 points, respectively).

What makes these market share number matrices particularly interesting is that if we assume that the StatCounter reflects reality to a certain degree, market share trends evolve over time. There may be occasional hiccups, but the market share curves have been rather predictable for a period of about six months over the past four years. The reason is that major changes in browsers take time to trickle down to users, resonate with them and change their behavior. StatCounter's charts show that the delay appears to be about six months. Terrible misses never result in sudden drops in market share but in accelerating declines over time. Big improvements may impact a decline, but we are witnessing gradual changes rather than sudden peaks. A notable exception is the use of massive advertising campaigns that helped Microsoft on two occasions in 2010 and 2011, which resulted in temporarily halting market share losses.

 

2011: A catastrophic year for Firefox

Depending on your view, 2011 was rather difficult for Mozilla. It began with an unnecessarily long delayed launch of Firefox 4. Then it continued with several missteps, such as the alienation of business users and a rather confusing product strategy. Finally, it ended with the implementation of a rapid release cycle, which was ineffective on a market level until the end of August when Firefox 7 was launched. Interestingly, our chart shows that a slowdown of market share losses began with Firefox 7.

In early 2011, Mozilla had to contend with a quickly improving Chrome, a much more aggressive Microsoft, and a user base that was willing to change its browser in the blink of an eye. Suddenly, Firefox was not the young and dynamic rebel browser anymore. It had become old and stale. While Firefox 4 (which was already dated when it arrived in March of 2011) seemed to be the problem for Mozilla in 2011, the market share chart indicates that the accelerating downturn had already began sometime in the fall of 2010 – the time when Firefox was originally scheduled to launch. At that time, Chrome was on its sixth version, had transitioned to a rapid release cycle, and had brought massive speed improvements via its V8 JavaScript engine.

In 2011, when Firefox dropped from nearly 31 percent to just over 25 percent of market share, the drop seemed to reflect an amplification of the delay of Firefox 4. If Mozilla had introduced Firefox 4 in October of 2010, then 2011 may have turned out differently. In addition, in 2011 Mozilla had to catch up with its browser development, rediscover its philosophy, and put a much more effective roadmap in place. That roadmap came with Firefox 5 and the rapid release cycle. Approximately nine months later, it appears that this release cycle is getting better every month, and Mozilla is gradually eliminating delays. For an overview of all major changes in the browser in 2011, as well as plans for 2012, check out this page.

2012: Reasons for Mozilla to be optimistic

If you look at my market forecast for web browsers, you will notice these key predictions:

1.     Chrome continues to climb in 2012, but it will slow down and end the year at about 37 percent market share.

2.     IE will continue to fall and accelerate its decline, as Windows 8 will be unable to compensate for IE market share losses immediately. IE could drop as low as 25 percent this year.

3.     Chrome will pass IE in market share in May or June 2012 at around 33 percent.

4.     Firefox has stabilized, will continue to stabilize, and will enter a growth phase by July 2012 that could take it toward 28 percent market share.

5.     As a side note, there is also a good chance that Safari will reach 9 percent market share in the first quarter of 2013.

Of course, such predictions can always be struck with doubt. I don't claim that I will be spot-on, even if this growth model allowed me to forecast Chrome's six-month growth within 1 point market share since March of 2010. I am, however, somewhat confident that this model has substance, at least as far as StatCounter's numbers are concerned. This growth model is based on a set of assumptions and a foundation Mozilla has created that can be extremely effective to gain back market share. Let's look at a few major drivers.

1. New Features

The 2011 and early 2012 Firefox product roadmaps were, quite frankly, a mess. It appears that the departure of former product director, Mike Beltzner, hit Mozilla pretty hard and left a gaping hole that brought massive feature delays and some improper priorities, such as when certain features needed to be delivered. It's not perfect yet, but the roadmap looks much better than it did six months ago.

New features in Firefox can be categorized as those that are catch-up and those that are actually new and provide a unique selling point for Mozilla. The current Firefox 11 has such a catch-up feature: the Chrome data migration toolset that enables users to migrate bookmarks and browsing history. For those who want to switch back to Firefox, this feature is a big deal. (Firefox would have needed this feature with Firefox 4.) Additional catch-ups include SPDY and web apps integration, as well as the silent update feature, both of which will not be available until the middle of the year. Once the silent update feature works, we will have a much more competitive Firefox in place, because we know that mainstream users do not want to be bothered with updates. As controversial as this feature is, it will have a huge impact on the mainstream market. Mozilla's release tracking provides a good overview of what features to expect in which version.

Truly new features are those that can give Firefox an edge and provide reasons for users to reconsider Chrome and give Firefox a new shot. The Windows 8 Metro interface falls into this category. The Home Tab, which is not really a tab but a "home" application, will give Firefox a unique look and feel. The UI update will return Firefox's identity. There are also the redesigned "new tab," memory improvements via the upcoming incremental garbage collector, and IonMonkey – Mozilla's new JIT for SpiderMonkey. There are early previews available for download, and even if they are still shaky, they are already about 10 percent faster than what the current FX11 builds (at least on my test system).

If Mozilla can deliver on its roadmap, it will have a browser that can easily run with Chrome by the middle of the year and may even have an edge by the end of the year. I have not seen much from Google lately that would point to any major changes for Chrome this year. Google's pace to introduce new features in 2011 appears to have slowed down considerably in 2012. Perhaps the focus is more on consolidating Chrome on multiple platforms by transitioning the interface to the GPU-accelerated Aura desktop manager as well as Chrome OS.

Given Google's resources, Mozilla should always anticipate change. However, what makes Mozilla different in 2012 is that it is actively driving change – not merely reacting like it did in 2010 and 2011.

2. Philosophy, Fanboys and ESR

Back in 2011, I had the distinct feeling that Mozilla had forgotten what it was, where its humble origins were, and what had made Firefox successful. Especially disturbing were those comments that business users do not matter and a constant effort to attack other browser makers over their intentions. Remember the note that Mozilla would drop Firefox version numbers and that it really did not care what users would think about it? There appeared to be constant distractions at the product management level that may have been led by good intentions but harmed the product in the end by ignoring those who have made the browser a success – its users.

That situation has quite obviously changed. Features that have not matured in discussions inside Mozilla are not discussed prematurely in public anymore. There is restraint in approaching users and those who help promote the browser. There are new community and grassroots marketing campaigns that go back to Mozilla's origins and portray the browser as one without corporate interests but with users in mind. The newsletter has been made much more engaging and is being sent out much more regularly. Mozilla has also returned to hiring celebrities to promote the browser. These are all good things that will help reshape the image of Firefox, which was dangerously close to turning into another bully  in 2011. This year, Firefox and Mozilla are much more approachable again.

What has not changed much is the fanboys base. The communication with Firefox users reminds me of those with AMD supporters in the early 2000s and Nvidia fanboys around 2005. I personally enjoy these trends, because they provide a good idea of community interest and a level of enthusiasm that is supporting a brand or a product. As far as Mozilla is concerned, the fanboys are alive and well, and they do not hesitate to support their browser in public discussions. As Mozilla's problems in 2011 worsened, I noticed disappointment among Firefox users, but it seems that there is still a very loyal user base that can drive the message of Firefox, which is critical for Mozilla on its road of recovery. It is an asset that Microsoft, for example, does not have.

We should not forget Firefox ESR. Provided to business users, ESR versions are supported for nine six-week release cycles. With some effort, Mozilla was able to keep business users within the fold. It is believed that a considerable number of business organizations dumped Firefox last year, but those who stayed are likely to remain and not switch to Chrome. The longer release cycles may be a reason for more companies to consider Firefox in the future. Business users are very valuable, as they do not switch browsers as often as consumers.

3. Alternative and Funding

Those who have been reading my browser columns know that I have been preaching the significance of platforms for the browser market. IE and Chrome are not just browsers anymore but are platforms that drive a corporate strategy. For Google, Chrome is capturing and driving advertising revenues across search and cloud services. For Microsoft, IE is driving a new app model for itself. Chrome and IE are critical for the future success of both companies. They deliver very distinct messages, and despite their similar look, they excel in very different feature sets. For example, Chrome integrates SPDY, which makes the browser especially fast on Google servers. IE has a phenomenal GPU acceleration capability that will drive rich web apps under Windows 8.

Mozilla has a disadvantage in this battle, as there is no Firefox platform. While Chrome and IE have transformed into platforms, Firefox has remained a browser, or, if we want to be a bit more dramatic, an "app." This entire platform argument may change with the introduction of B2G for mobile devices, but there is no way around the problem that Mozilla does not have a desktop OS through which it can push its browser.

However, Firefox is much more capable than Chrome in graphics acceleration, and it is superior to IE9/10 in JavaScript acceleration. Firefox offers a decent set of features similar to what Chrome possesses (such as WebGL, Sync – and SDPY in the not too distant future), which makes it an attractive alternative to Chrome for those users who – for whatever reason – do not want to use it. (My colleague, Daniel Bailey, who published this comparison last year, tells me that the gaps have not changed significantly since then.) Switching from IE9/10 to Chrome under Windows 8 will force users to make more compromises in a performance view than Firefox, thanks to its better graphics backend, which gives Mozilla an interesting advantage when Windows 8 is introduced (if we assume that Google does not bring up its graphics acceleration support).

A huge problem for Mozilla has been funding. How do you compete with Google and Microsoft, both of which have a license to print money? Fortunately, Mozilla secured nearly $1 billion in funding from Google over the next three years, which nearly triples its monetary resources. There should be plenty of opportunity to apply that money to develop products that can compete with its rivals.

Conclusion

I take any market share predictions with a grain of salt; so should you. Don't pin me down and complain if Google does not hit 37 percent by the end of this year. These numbers are trend markers that reflect a currently existing trend and dynamic. However, I feel very confident about the stabilizing numbers for Firefox, and I believe that a market share low is being crossed at this time. The product itself looks much stronger and is steadily improving, while we are not hearing much from Chrome or IE that could hurt Firefox improvements. Mozilla has its communication process under control, more resources, and an opportunity to take advantage of a scenario in which the battle between Google and Microsoft will get increasingly bloody. Right now, Firefox is the recovering underdog, which is a much better position to play than the sinking ship to which we compared the browser in 2011.

I would recommend those who wonder which browser to choose in 2012 to stay with Chrome for now, consider IE10 for Windows 8, but keep a close eye on Firefox for the long term. By the end of the year, Firefox will be a different product and a powerful contender.

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    Top Comments
  • xerroz
    Long live Firefox. I refuse to surrender my privacy to Google
    38
  • sonofliberty08
    i still love my firefox gal...... even somtimes she lag on javascript :)
    25
  • A Bad Day
    Glares at IE-only websites

    Look, you lazy website operators. IE6 no longer has a 97.34% market share. 2003 has flown past quite a while ago.

    And for those who can't even code their websites to work on IE7 or god forbid, IE6, you deserve to burn.
    16
  • Other Comments
  • xerroz
    Long live Firefox. I refuse to surrender my privacy to Google
    38
  • Anonymous
    I don't see Firefox doing much of anything. I think their user base is what it is. Chrome looks to be the bigger mover. IE users are hard to sway from any other browser. You will always have those that just accept what they get. As long as IE is bundled with Windows. Many will just use IE.
    0
  • Dacatak_08
    You can use Chrome without surrendering your privacy to Google.
    It's called SRWare Iron: http://www.srware.net/en/software_srware_iron_chrome_vs_iron.php
    2