Can Mozilla escape a premature endgame for Firefox?

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It's an undeniable fact that most businesses that transact with their customers through the Internet are wrestling with how to build a viable business model for themselves. Even the most successful enterprises are frankly struggling to ensure their long-term survival, and Mozilla is certainly among them. Its principal product is given away for free, and Firefox's lifeline stems from a percentage of revenues from searches generated though -- all of a sudden -- its own hottest competitor in the Web browser field today, Google.

Yesterday's release by Microsoft of Internet Explorer 8, with its visibly demonstrable speed and performance boosts, is bringing speed and performance back into the public discussion of what a Web browser can be. And there, Web users are likely to discover that while Firefox still outperforms IE8, it's chasing competition on the forward end of the racetrack. Google Chrome -- a browser created by many of the same individuals who are also working on Firefox -- will probably lead Firefox 3.5 in performance even as performance becomes the main value proposition for the new edition of Mozilla's browser.

Firefox is getting kicked from behind and the front at the same time. So just how long can Mozilla hang on before something snaps and gives way? This morning, PC World Linux columnist Kier Thomas posited the theory that Firefox may not be able to escape an endgame being planned for it by its own benefactor. "I fear that the Firefox project is a juggernaut that can't stop," Thomas wrote. "It's got too much momentum and is determined to head in the direction it has chosen. In short, I honestly think it's too late. Despite the fact it's not really ready for human consumption, Chrome has won. Firefox is already dead."

Though Firefox brought efficiency back to the browser, the fact that it cannot capitalize on its success to ensure its leadership position may become its undoing.

"The very fact that Firefox was so successful has touched off an escalating arms race in the browser market that's replaced the slow-as-molasses evolution of the IE era with a much more intense rate of change," independent contributing analyst Carmi Levy told Betanews today. "As subsequent versions of Firefox have suffered the same kind of feature bloat that have infected software since the beginning of time, upstarts have arrived on the scene hoping to do to Mozilla what Mozilla did to Microsoft."

As Levy reminded us, "Firefox early adopters jumped the IE ship because they saw everyday use of the upstart browser as a counterculture commentary against the IE juggernaut that for years had dominated the competition-free browser world. At the time, performance- and usability-hungry end-users were so hungry for something -- indeed anything -- that showed real innovation in a stagnant sector that they latched onto the first viable alternative that showed any staying power. That alternative was Firefox, and in its early iterations, it ran circles around the staid and pokey IE."

An up-to-the-minute estimate of global Web browser usage share this afternoon by analytics firm NetApplications gives all versions of Firefox collectively 21% of the world's Web traffic -- at or near its all-time high. A big chunk of that number, Levy said, remains comprised of "not just early adopters, but IT managers, educational institutions, everyday families, and even my mother-in-law, convinced that they should go with Mozilla instead of Microsoft." That number continues to grow, albeit slowly, so Firefox is certainly not suffering from lack of popularity, nor of efficiency or productivity -- indeed, the upcoming version will be Mozilla's fastest and best-rendering browser ever.

But as Microsoft has proven time and again in its history, you don't have to be the leader to win, and you don't have to be the market also-ran to lose.
"Google's arrival in the browser space certainly throws some major wrinkles into the future of Firefox," states Levy. "It's no longer a given that Firefox is the rightful heir to the #2 slot in the browser market. Although it's the product that turned browsers from a foregone, moribund category into the hottest sector since Netscape popularized the concept, it doesn't permanently own its market position, and finds itself increasingly vulnerable to higher-performing alternatives that are just as easy for my mother-in-law to download and install. So, the bottom line is, if Firefox 3.5 doesn't exhibit differentially competitive interface design and bottom-line, real-world performance, it'll be vulnerable to a whole range of agile competitors -- namely Google's Chrome, Apple's Safari, and Microsoft's IE8."

If Firefox can overcome the feature bloat that PC World's Thomas believes is plaguing the product, and could eventually be its undoing, then Levy thinks Firefox can indeed hang on and retain its solid second-place. And it may even have time to do so, he adds, because Google's progress is still in the early stages, not quite ready for prime time. Right now, Chrome is lauded more for its promise and potential than its real-world potency.

"But by the time Google converts that potential into real-world availability, the bar will have moved yet again," concludes Levy. "So it's too early to divine the future relative positions of these players, or to write off the future of Firefox because of something Google may or may not do sometime down the road. It's not necessarily the products themselves that will determine who emerges victorious following the next major browser war, but the processes each player uses to rapidly deploy competitive products and respond to changes in an ever-accelerating product development cycle. With exploding growth in Web 2.0-based online technologies and services, this is one war that can't get started soon enough."

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