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Revenge of the browser wars

Netscape-1.0N.pngThis week, the Mozilla Foundation announced major changes. As is the new norm these days, Mozilla is responding to a problem that existed BCV (before coronavirus) but has been exposed, accelerated, and compounded by the pandemic. But the response sounds grim: approximately a quarter of the workforce to be laid off and a warning that the company needs to find new business models. Just a couple of numbers explain the backdrop: according to Statcounter, Firefox's second-position share of desktop/laptop browser usage has dropped to 8.61% behind Chrome at 69.55%. On mobile and tablets, where the iPhone's Safari takes a large bite out of Chrome's share, Firefox doesn't even crack 1%. You might try to trumpify those percentages by suggesting it's a smaller share but a larger user population, but unfortunately no; at CNet, Stephen Shankland reports that usage is shrinking in raw numbers, too, down to 210 million monthly users from 300 million in 2017.

Yes, I am one of those users.

In its 2018 annual report and 2018 financial statement (PDF), Mozilla explains that most of its annual income - $430 million - comes from royalty deals with search engines, which pay Firefox to make them the default (users can change this at will). The default varies across countries: Baidu (China), Yandex (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and Ukraine), and Google everywhere else, including the US and Canada. It derives a relatively small amount - $20 million or so in total - of additional income from subscriptions, advertising, donations and dividends and interest on the investments where it's parked its capital.

The pandemic has of course messed up everyone's financial projections. In the end, though, the underlying problem is that long-term drop in users; fewer users must eventually generate fewer search queries on which to collect royalties. Presumably this lies behind Mozilla's acknowledgment that it needs to find new ways to support itself - which, the announcement also makes clear, it has so far struggled to do.

The problem for the rest of us is that the Internet needs Firefox - or if not Firefox itself, another open source browser with sufficiently significant cloud to keep the commercial browsers and their owners honest. At the moment, Mozilla and Firefox are the only ones in a position to lead that effort, and it's hard to imagine a viable replacement.-

As so often, the roots of the present situation go back to 1995, when - no Google then and Apple in its pre-Jobs-return state - the browser kings were Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator, both seeking world wide web domination. Netscape's 1995 IPO is widely considered the kickoff for the dot-com boom. By 1999, Microsoft was winning and then high-flying AOL was buying Netscape. It was all too easy to imagine both building out proprietary protocols that only their browsers could read, dividing the net up into incompatible walled gardens. The first versions of what became Firefox were, literally, built out of a fork of Netscape whose source code was released before the AOL acquisition.

The players have changed and the commercial web has grown explosively, but the danger of slowly turning the web into a proprietary system has not. Statcounter has Google (Chrome) and Apple (Safari) as the two most significant players, followed by Samsung Internet (on mobile) and Microsoft's Edge (on desktop), with a long tail of others including Opera (which pioneered many now-common features), Vivaldi (built by the Opera team after Telenor sold it to a Chinese consortium), and Brave, which markets itself as a privacy browser. All these browsers have their devoted fans, but they are only viable because websites observe open standards. If Mozilla can't find a way to reverse Firefox's user base shrinkage, web access will be dominated by two of the giant companies that two weeks ago were called in to the US Congress to answer questions about monopoly power. Browsers are a chokepoint they can control. I'd love to say the hearings might have given them pause, but two weeks later Google is still buying Fitbit, Apple and Google have removed Fortnite from the app store for violating its in-app payment rules, and Facebook has launched Tiktok clone Instagram Reels.

There is, at the moment, no suggestion that either Google or Apple wants to abuse its dominance in browser usage. If they're smart, they'll remember the many benefits of the standards-based approach that built the web. They may also remember that in 2009 the threat of EU fines led Microsoft to unbundle its Internet Explorer browser from Windows.

The difficulty of finding a viable business model for a piece of software that millions of people use is one of the hidden costs of the Internet as we know it. No one has ever been able to persuade large numbers of users to pay for a web browser; Opera tried in the late 1990s, and wound up switching first to advertising sponsorship and then, like Mozilla, to a contract with Google.

Today, Catalin Cimpanu reports at ZDNet that Google and Mozilla will extend their deal until 2023, providing Mozilla with perhaps $400 million to $500 million a year. Assuming it goes through as planned, it's a reprieve - but it's not a solution - as Mozilla, fortunately, seems to know.

Illustrations: Netscape 1.0, in 1994 (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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