Why Firefox Isn’t Doomed

This has been a rough year for Mozilla and its Firefox team. Once the darling of the Web and the champion of the oppressed against Microsoft and Internet Explorer, Firefox is facing stiff competition from its primary benefactor and backlash from users. Chrome also seems to be the preferred browser of Web developers. Naturally, this means speculation about the future of Firefox.

Has Firefox had better years? Absolutely. Does this mean that Firefox is “doomed”? Not so fast.

Google Will Probably Renew

Let’s start with Firefox’s potential revenue problem. If Google doesn’t renew, Mozilla could be facing a big money problem… in a couple of years. If Google were to pull the plug on Mozilla, it’s not as if the organization would run out of money the next morning.

But, this doesn’t seem like it’s a situation that Mozilla will need to face anyway. I’d be surprised if Google doesn’t renew its partnership with Firefox. Why? Because Google still derives plenty of value from the partnership, and there’s little reason to pull the plug on Firefox and invite anti-trust accusations and community ill-will. The money that Google passes to Mozilla may be a big deal to Mozilla, but it’s chump change for Google. It’s probably worth it to Google to re-up for a few more years just to avoid looking like a bad guy.

While Google might prefer the world to use Chrome, they’re better off if users run Firefox instead of Internet Explorer or Safari. They’re certainly better off than if Firefox strikes a deal with Bing. Even if Firefox’s market share has slipped a few points, it has a hefty following. Putting Bing on by default would do wonders for Bing adoption.

Comeback in 2012

When you look at the major players here, Mozilla is the only organization that I fully trust with my data and a commitment to the open Web. If Firefox is doomed, I’m afraid that would not say a great deal for the future of the Web.

The transition from Firefox’s standard release cycle to its new-and-maybe-improved release cycle has been a bit rough. Lesson to companies and projects everywhere: version numbering actually does matter if you let it, and messaging really is important.

The Mozilla folks really should have gone with a point release naming scheme instead of jumping from 4 to 5 to 6 to 7 and 8. Sure, Chrome has always done big version number leaps, but Chrome has never really made a big deal out of updates. Google Chrome just silently updates in the background and users rarely have a clue what version number they’re using. The other problem, of course, is the rapid release cycle’s effect on add-ons, and the stability perceptions. I’m not convinced that Firefox is any less stable (or more) than it was a year ago, but the perception now is “if there’s a bug, it’s because of the release cycle.”

But Firefox overcame the perception problems that it had versus Internet Explorer to gain a huge chunk of the market. I’m convinced that Mozilla can stage a comeback in 2012.

If you look at the roadmap for the next few releases of Firefox, Firefox is poised to address a lot of the complaints that users have had this year. And Firefox will be targeting Chrome users for migration to Firefox. Add-ons, for example, will be assumed to be compatible between releases.

Mozilla is also doubling down on developer tools to compete with Chrome and offer a better Web developer experience. Web developers go where the better tools are, and while that’s been a great strength for Chrome in the last few years, don’t assume that Firefox can’t catch up or surpass Chrome.

Google has been able to muscle its way past Firefox in record time, but the company also has enormous resources and advertising advantage over Firefox. If Mozilla is smart about partnering with Google competitors, it may still be able to gain the upper hand.

Seem unlikely? Before you count Firefox out, remember that Mozilla is the organization that successfully challenged Microsoft for a big chunk of the Web and clawed its way to more than 25% of the browser market. Considering Microsoft controls nearly 90% of the desktops and ships IE by default, that’s no small accomplishment.

Even if Firefox remains third in the market, that’s a far cry from “doomed.” We’ve come a long way from a Web that is hostile to any browser that isn’t Microsoft Internet Explorer. Firefox can easily thrive with 20% of the market. But I wouldn’t count Team Mozilla out just yet, and though I’ve had my share of frustrations with Firefox I’m not ready to throw in the towel. When you look at the major players here, Mozilla is the only organization that I fully trust with my data and a commitment to the open Web. If Firefox is doomed, I’m afraid that would not say a great deal for the future of the Web.

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