Is Firefox doomed?

Ed Bott's March 22nd ZDNET post "Why Internet Explorer will survive and Firefox won't" answers the question yes. "So long, Firefox. It was nice to know you," he writes about the browser's future. Well, I don't agree with that. But Bott makes another prediction that rings right. If so, the new browser wars will make the 1990s skirmish between Microsoft and Netscape look like kids fighting with sticks.

Bott puts Firefox's future in context of a new platform war, as the computing market transitions from the PC era to the cloud connected device era. I riled some Betanews readers regading this transition with February 9th post: "The PC era is over."

"We're not in a post-PC world yet, but the transition is well under way," Bott writes. "Successfully making that transition involves building a platform that can scale from handheld devices to workstations, from tiny smartphone screens to tablets to wall-sized displays."

The New Platform Players

He's absolutely right. Presently, only Apple has a scalable operating system. HP will make an end-to-end play later this year when it starts shipping WebOS on laptops, as well as smartphones. Google's Android is a contender, but it's fragmented all to hell. There's Android 2.x for smartphones and 3.x for tablets. Meanwhile, Google is preparing to release Chrome OS -- so that's three different operating systems. Then there is Microsoft, which really needs to pull together an end-to-end device and PC operating system strategy with Windows' next release. It's not there now.

Bott rightly observes about the challenge: "Microsoft isn't going to accomplish that goal by tweaking the classic Windows interface. Anyone who's used a Windows 7 tablet PC knows that a bigger Start button and taskbar aren't enough."

Apple, Google and Microsoft all take a platform approach to cloud connected mobile devices, and HP is headed that way. Research in Motion and Nokia also have mobile platforms, but their browser strategies are underwhelming compared to Apple and Google, and increasingly Microsoft. Opera also is ramping up a broad platform for browser-based apps.

Right now, the browser is the platform, despite all the hype about apps. Google understands this, which is one reason Chrome development is so brisk on the PC. Google released Chrome 1.0 in December 2008. Version 10 released about two weeks ago -- that's 10 Chrome iterations in about two-and-a-half years. "Google is setting a blistering pace and defining a world where a browser is simply a piece of plumbing that you refresh every few weeks," Bott writes. He's certainly right about that.

March Madness for Browsers

Microsoft fought (and won) the browser wars with Netscape in part fearing the browser would become plumbing, like Windows, and replace the operating system. That's exactly what Google is driving today and Apple to a lesser degree (because its focus is more about mobile apps). The new browser wars has come and competition is fiercer than ever; it's not just about Google building a browser OS. Because of the amazing number of browser announcements this month, I asked Betanews readers: "Which browser do you use?" -- and posted some of your responses. It's March Madness for browsers:

That all happened just this month.

"I'm convinced that we'll see an alternative shell for Windows 8, written in HTML5 and intended for use on tablets," Bott writes. "It will use Internet Explorer's rendering engine, which has already proven to be wicked fast, without needing any of its old-school user interface."

But that sounds oh-so 1998 to me and quite believable -- that with a new browser war underway; new platform war, really -- that Microsoft would once again use browser-OS integration as means of thwarting competition. With Google clearly building a Chrome platform, and the post-PC era dawning, a Windows browser user interface would be reasonable competitive response.

Putting Down the Firefox?

"Where does that leave Firefox?" Bott asks. "It doesn't have an app ecosystem or a loyal core of developers. Extensions? Those were worth bragging about in 2005, but in 2012 the story is apps. Businesses and consumers will want to use the same browser that powers their installed apps. In the PC space, that means Google or Microsoft. It doesn't leave room for a third player."

There's a contradiction in Bott's reasoning. He proclaims Firefox's doom because Mozilla doesn't have a strong platform for apps. Yet, the context of his post is the new browser war. So is it the browser or apps? It could be both where apps use the browser rendering engine. What about Apple, which iOS gains millions of new users by the month? If there's only room for two mobile platform competitors, why wouldn't it be Apple and Google?

But none of those questions address Firefox's future. Internet Explorer's long slow decline shows that a browser with loyal users and large install base has lasting power. Also, in reviewing NetApplications monthly data on browser usage share, Chrome and Safari have mainly gained share from IE, not Firefox. February 2011 browser share compared to two years earlier:

  • Internet Explorer: 56.77 percent down from 66.92 percent
  • Firefox: 21.74 percent down from 23.29 percent
  • Chrome: 10.93 percent up from 2.64 percent
  • Safari: 6.36 percent up from 3.15 percent
  • Opera 2.15 percent -- flat

In the early battle for users, Firefox 4 handedly beats Internet Explorer 9. The two browsers released about a week apart. As of March 26, IE 9 usage share was 1.78 percent (in 12 days), according to NetApplications. By comparison, Firefox 4 had 3.64 percent usage share (in just 5 days) -- or twice as much in less than half the time.Please see my follow-up post to this one for more perspective.

Firefox has several key strengths that are sure to keep it a player, regardless of increased platform competition among Apple, Google and Microsoft:

1. Firefox is the only purely open-source option. Internet Explorer isn't open anything. True, Chrome and Safari are based on WebKit, which is open source, but with lots of commercial developer baggage. There is a huge Firefox following philosophically committed because of Mozilla's open-source approach.

2. Firefox users are fiercely loyal. No further explanation needed.

3. Mozilla isn't Apple, Google or Microsoft. For many people worried about Big Brother, that's reason enough to choose open-source Firefox.

4. Mozilla offers a fairly unified PC and mobile browser strategy. Even Google can't make such a claim. Android's browser is based on WebKit, but it's not Chrome. Firefox and Opera are the only browsers offering fairly consistent user experience (and that includes data sync) on PCs and cloud connected mobile devices like smartphones.

5. Firefox has a robust and committed developer community.

So what do you think about Firefox's future? Is it doomed as Bott prophesies? Please respond in comments, or email joewilcox at gmail dot com.

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