Failfox: How Serious is the Mozilla Crisis?

Popzazzle | Sunday, 7 November 2021 |

"Mozilla has become the corporate version of your local pub's self-styled "nice guy". Spends all his time trying to drape himself in virtuous veneer, but the harder he tries, the emptier the pub gets."

Firefox default browser

Let's face it. The Mozilla story is now in its pre-meltdown phase. I reckon we're about two chapters away from the scene where all the toys start flying out of the pram and former allies are roundly lambasted for choosing better browsers. Okay, maybe just one chapter. When Mozilla hits the buffers at Bigtime Central station, we can make one pretty safe bet... The blame will, as far as Mozilla is concerned, rest with everyone but Mozilla.

The brand's core product - Firefox browser - was a raging success in the 2000s, gaining a huge market share on the back of some aggressive marketing and a generally low bar for browser performance. In 2009, Firefox was second only to Internet Explorer and was still on the attack, continuing to close the gap on IE through the course of the year.

But when the faster, slicker and prettier upstart Google Chrome really found its feet in 2010, Firefox's share went into rapid decline. Chrome's soaring adoption saw it fully subordinate Firefox in 2011, and then Internet Explorer in 2012, to become the leading web browser. Firefox's share has been on a steady and consistent downward path ever since.

But what's most notable about Firefox's fall from favour is the post-2019 period, which has different dynamics from the 2010 to 2019 period. Between 2010 and 2019, Chrome was the chief destroyer, impacting not just Firefox, but the whole browser market. Firefox was positioned as a more ethical and transparent option than Chrome, and was losing its userbase due to the sheer seductiveness of the Google browser's performance and more stylish design.

But the period after October 2019 saw Chrome's share consistently fall, and there was no notable recovery until 2021. Even then, Chrome's recovery was only brief, and its share is back in decline as I write. So from 2019, the seductive overtures of Chrome could no longer be optimistically cited as the reason for Firefox's continued plunge. Almost certainly, the threat to Firefox's userbase was now coming from browsers trading on Firefox's main adopted values... Privacy and ethical virtue. Where do you go when your only selling point is your ethics, and rivals with better-performing products start yelling about ethics too?

As Mozilla is now discovering, the answer is nowhere. There is nowhere you can go.

Although Firefox only lost about 50 million users between 2019 and 2021 (I know, ONLY!), and it's lost far more than that before, the real concern for Mozilla is that the browser's market share is now critically low and it can no longer sustain this rate of defection.

So things are now red-alert desperate, and Mozilla has to engage damage-limitation mode. And OMG is Mozilla trying to engage damage-limitation mode! The problem is that the more damage-limitation tactics the brand deploys, the more criticism it gets. Mozilla so passionately wants to be seen as the people's friend, but it's just not. Its browser has turned into a control-freak box of spyware and spam, and its publicity wing wants to be the voice of progressive politics but sounds more like the clickwalled reaches of an Explain Like I'm Five thread.

Mozilla has become the corporate version of your local pub's self-styled "nice guy". Spends all his time trying to drape himself in virtuous veneer, but the harder he tries, the emptier the pub gets.

Perhaps the clearest sign of the trouble Mozilla now faces has come in places where Firefox has previously enjoyed almost universal support. The hard core of Firefox users who have stuck with the browser despite its attributes, rather than because of them, is now beginning to break down. These are people who have for long seen the danger of a browser development monopoly, which results in one surveillance capitalist collective effectively owning the internet.

Such voices of resistance, prominent in the Fediverse and on platforms such as Hacker News or pockets of Reddit, have recognised the threat that a browser-development monopoly would pose to freedom on the web. They've supported Mozilla Firefox primarily as a means to prevent the Chromium project becoming a completely unchallenged root browser source outside of Apple. Many voices in these communities have expressed disgruntlement with Firefox in the past, but have stuck with it regardless. Now, however, they're starting to hit the road. Firefox is now exceeding the tolerance threshold of the anti-Chrome freedom fighter. And for that to happen, the browser has to be pretty damn bad.

Of course, there's an argument that a browser with only three-point-something percent market share is insignificant opposition to Chromium's monopoly anyway. And therefore Chromium is already a monopoly outside of Apple, so why bother suffering Firefox's evermore annoying and invasive clunkfest any longer?

This ethos of resignation has now started to infiltrate the once staunch Firefox preserve of GNU/Linux. In 2021, the Chromium-based Vivaldi has replaced Firefox as the default browser in Manjaro Cinnamon, and other Linux distros have started to push Chromium or even Google Chrome ahead of Firefox.

It's admittedly, at present, hard to imagine a hardcore Libre distro like Trisquel dropping its Firefox-based ABrowser in favour of a Chromium-derivative. But who would have imagined Manjaro waving Vivaldi through the door? And if a critical mass of Linux distros dump Firefox for one of the ravenously hungry Eth Tech alternatives (whose palm-greasing capacity is rapidly growing, let us note), the likes of Trisquel may not have much choice but to follow.

Even if Mozilla's development stream retains enough income to stay technically competitive, no Linux package manager can force users to tolerate Firefox. If core users' tolerance levels continue to plummet as they have in the past two or three years, the straight choice for Linux packages will be: lose Firefox or lose users and donations.

The various brands' palm-greasing capacity might come across as little more than a chucklesome posturing league at present, but it will quickly become a real factor for Mozilla if rival Eth Tech brands outgrow it. Can you imagine the likes of Brave passing up on an opportunity to outbid Mozilla for a prestigious OS browser default? Power is a heavily compound process, and once the scales tip, it's virtually impossible to prevent them tipping further.

So what's the actual problem with Firefox as a browser, specifically? Well, its comparative performance and behind-the-curve design has been a problem for over a decade, and is the reason why it lost its footing in the first place. It's also woefully inferior to Chromium in terms of native JavaScript and individual cookie control. Chromium allows targeted deletion of individual cookies, and per-domain management of JavaScript. Firefox allows neither without separate software.

But more recently, Mozilla has shown a persistent inability to reconcile its need to make money in the face of Firefox's decline, with the values of Firefox's core userbase. A core userbase typified by a mature-minded knowledgable who understands tech and values privacy and choice.

Definitely NOT the sort of person to whom you can pitch an ad bar as a some kind of improvement. And yet that's exactly what Mozilla recently tried to do. When everyone laughed at Mozza's intelligence-insulting attempt to integrate the feature by consent, the company immediately switched it on behind users' backs. That sums up Mozilla as it's now perceived. And more indicative still of the low to which Mozilla has sunk, the ad bar didn't even appear to be their own idea. It looked to be heavily inspired by Brave's... let's say, organically-questionable "search suggestion" priorities.

Even before the ad bar made its grand entrance, things were bad. The userbase still tasted the bitterness of the Pocket outcry, the obsessive "telemetry" (which is clearly collected as a marketable commodity), the calculated deprecation or concealment of countless user controls, data harvesting via Cliqz, and latterly the Normandy backdoor. And the privacy policy?...

"At Mozilla, we believe that privacy is fundamental to a healthy internet..."

... In MASSIVE words... Followed, by over 2,000 (very much smaller) words on all the different ways they default to spraying your data at Cloudflare, Pocket, Google, Microsoft, Yandex, Comcast, NextDNS, Acoustic, AdMarketplace (like, who?), Adzerk (like, who?), various Certificate Authories, and generally just mine as much data as it's possible for an open-source browser to mine.

There's a limit to what an intelligent userbase will put up with in the name of opposing Chrome, and Firefox had hit that limit. But the ad bar was a new level of disaster, provoking an almost unprecedented response from the help site, which pushed Mozilla into publicity-management mode. I often think that if some of these tech companies spent as much time developing new product ideas as they do trying to manage negative commentary, or lobbying for (their own) human rights, or spouting their virtues, or trying to armchair-manage the whole of social bloody media, they would be sensationally productive.

But Mozilla still hasn't grasped that it can't lift a finger without pissing off another group of supporters. Hot on the heels of the ad bar catastrophe, the very latest Firefox update is being criticised for more spam, namely VPN ads, plus a new home page that begs users to set up a "Firefox Account", and a time-limited, "ha ha you had it but now you lost it again" colour theme feature that prompted this particularly choice comment in the Fediverse...

"Absolutely fuck all the way off, #firefox."

The org just doesn't see how patronising and disdainful its organised ration and user-disempowerment tactics look from the outside.

I can barely remember the last time I updated Firefox and didn't find the new version more annoying than the last. And I can even less well remember the last time I updated it and found something new that I actually wanted. And Mozilla wonder why they have to nag, spam and beg people to update...

Mozilla is still a financially viable organisation, but one wonders how much longer it can aimlessly drift through time jigsawing other providers' ideas into the increasingly grim user experience of Firefox, being worked from the back by Google, and unleashing childishly simplistic nuggets of advice like this upon the Twittersphere.

Google Chrome has shown its first real signs of vulnerability over the past two years, and under good management a re-invented Firefox would have been well placed to take advantage - especially given the continued rise in concerns about surveillance culture. That companies like Brave have been able to exploit that vulnerability to the further detriment of Firefox, shows the scale of the problem at Mozilla.

Despite the irreverent tone of this post, I would love to see a re-invention of Firefox as a stick of fast, beautiful, stylish, innovative dynamite, and I know I would not be the only one to scream its praises in such an event. We want and need Chromium to have powerful competition with rising market share. But I fear that Mozilla's arrogance is now an immovable object, and that the brand will not begin an analysis of its own shortcomings until long after the toys have been thrown, and the doors have been closed.
Bob Leggitt
Post author Bob Leggitt is a print-published writer and digital image creator, multi-instrumentalist, twice Guitarist of the Year finalist, web page designer and software developer.
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