A Look at Mozilla Firefox

The NYTimes Technology section has a 3  page story on Mozilla and its most important product, the Firefox browser. This story is notable for 3 reasons. First, it acknowledges the signifigance of Mozilla’s Firefox which has a)become the most popular Open Source software with more than 300 million downloads and b)  wrested 25% of the browser market share and growing from Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. These are no small feats given that when Mozilla was introduced in 2004, IE had 95% marketshare.

Second, the NYTimes  finally acknowledges in  public what Microsoft had attempted to do with IE – stifle browser innovation by making no functional improvements to the IE browser for over 5 years. Here is the NYTimes phrasing: “In the years after Netscape’s demise, Microsoft essentially stopped improving Internet Explorer, and the browser quickly became vulnerable to security threats, an explosion of pop-up ads and other annoyances. Firefox was faster, safer and blocked pop-ups. It also offered some compelling innovations, like tabs, which allowed users to have multiple pages open inside a single browser window. Word of its virtues spread quickly….” In the IT Trade Press this brazen attack on Web browsers and Web functionality is a taboo topic, rarely if ever mentioned.

Third, it examines the relationship between FireFox and Google – a “patron” of Firefox which has now introduced its own competitive browser, Chrome. Google pays for being the default search engine on installation of Firefox. That agreement goes until 2011 and  brings in over 88% of Mozilla’s annual revenues of nearly $75million. So the relationship between the two is “rich” given that Google’s Chrome now competes with Firefox.

The article goes on to describe the key people behind Firefox and the need to adopt to the new competitive marketplace with Apple Safari, Google Chrome, Opera and Internet Explorer all vieing for browser market share. But here, the author, Miguel Helft, makes a blunder – “The rise of Firefox unleashed a new wave of innovation and competition among browser makers. Microsoft and Apple, which makes the Safari browser, have narrowed the gap with recent upgrades. That makes it less likely that people will take the trouble to seek out and install Firefox.” This statement implies that Internet Explorer is near to keeping pace with the 4 major browsers – Apple Safari, Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Opera’s Opera. Far from it, the just released IE8 browser trails the top four browser by a wide margin:
Speed of browser: Depending on usage IE is 2 to 8 times slower than other browsers
Size of browser and download: more than 50% bigger and slower than all other browsers
Compliance with standards: IE8 trails badly in HTML, CSS, DOM, and JavaScript compliance. Even to this day, developers have to pay the “IE Tax” write hacks and chunks of code that work around Microsoft’s omissions or proprietary implementations in IE. The “IE Tax” is not insignificant as it can add 20 to 40% more time on a Web development to insure that a site works in IE.
Incorporation of new features: Microsoft is trailing badly on new HTML 5 compliance while all the others have added 5-6 key HTML 5 features including geolocation, support for canvas and SVG, etc. IE’s JavaScript engine is way behind all the other browsers IE has also been a late follower on providing features like pop-up blockers, use of tabs, and support for E4x, SVG and rationalization of DOM, etc.
The simple fact of the matter is in browser support, Microsoft has shown a reluctance to give its browser a full set of features and top of the line performance. Perhaps this is for fear that its PC desktop Windows franchise would be adversely affected. Perhaps it is sheer neglect … but Microsoft is way behind in the biggest Web software arena – delivering an effective browser for desktop, mobile phones and other “smart” devices

So Mozilla has flourished because Microsoft offered a lot less in its browser – and still does. It took an Open Source operation not vulnerable to Microsoft’s willingness “to cut off all the oxygen” by pricing at zero [as it did against Netscape] to make the browser market a competitive situation again. For a long time Mozilla [and Opera in Europe] did this alone.

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