Departing Firefox chief takes shots at doomsayers

Mozilla's flagship browser has 'fierce momentum,' says Johnathan Nightingale as he announces his exit after eight years

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Mozilla's head of Firefox took shots at doomsayers this week, calling those who wonder whether the iconic browser long ago peaked "dead wrong."

Johnathan Nightingale, whose title is Vice President of Firefox, also announced that he is leaving Mozilla at the end of March. Nightingale has been at Mozilla since 2007.

"Mozilla today is stronger than I've seen it in a long time," Nightingale wrote in an email to Mozilla employees, which he also posted on his personal blog. "Our new strategy in search gives us a solid foundation and room to breathe, to experiment, and to make things better for our users and the Web."

Nightingale's reference to a new search strategy was about Mozilla's switch late last year from relying on Google for most of its income to striking deals with several search providers, including Yahoo in the U.S. and Canada. In 2013, the latest year reported, Mozilla generated 97% of its $314 million in revenue from its search partnerships, approximately $275 million from Google alone.

Mozilla is "executing better than we ever have," and "Firefox today has a fierce momentum," Nightingale said, citing Mozilla's own data.

"We're seeing the shift in our internal numbers, while we wait for the rest of the world to catch up," Nightingale wrote. "January's desktop download numbers are the best they've been in years. Accounts are being counted in tens of millions. We're approaching 100 [million] downloads on Android."

Jonathan Nightingale, Vice President of Firefox Mozilla

Jonathan Nightingale, Vice President of Firefox, is leaving at the end of March.

Even so, Nightingale predicted that outsiders would view his departure, and his optimism about Mozilla's future, through gloom-tinted glasses.

"When this news gets out, I imagine someone will say something stupid," Nightingale said. "That it's a Sign Of Doom. Predictable, and dead wrong; it misunderstands us completely."

But there have been good reasons for the bleak appraisals of Firefox's future.

Because browser makers don't disclose the number of active users on a regular basis, outsiders rely on data from various metrics firms, including U.S.-based Net Applications and Irish analytics vendor StatCounter, to make sense of the browser market.

That data has portrayed a dramatic downturn in Firefox's fortunes.

In the last 12 months, Net Applications' user share for Firefox -- analogous to the portion of all those who reach the Internet via a desktop browser -- has plummeted by 34%, ending January with an 11.9% share. Since Firefox's peak of 25.1% in April 2010, Firefox has lost 13.2 percentage points, or more than half its peak user share.

Google's Chrome has snapped up the bulk of the user share Firefox once had. In January, Chrome's share was 23.5%.

StatCounter has tracked a similar, if not as drastic, decline. As of January, Firefox's usage share -- a measurement of how active each browser's users are on the Web -- stood at 18.7%, for a 41% decline since April 2010.

Chrome's usage share last month was a record 51.7% according to StatCounter.

Nightingale's contention that Firefox downloads were up last month doesn't necessarily contradict the data from Net Applications and StatCounter: Because those companies' numbers represent fractions of the whole, Firefox's downloads could be climbing even as its share slumped or stalled if rival browsers were being downloaded and used in even larger numbers.

But the most recent data from the metrics firms does hint at a slightly stronger Firefox on the desktop.

According to Net Applications, last month's Firefox user share was flat compared to December 2014, for instance, the first time since August that the browser had not declined by a notable amount, perhaps indicating a turn-around was in the works.

Meanwhile, StatCounter's January usage share for Firefox was up seven-tenths of a percentage point from the month prior, and down only two-tenths of a point from a year ago.

Yet Mozilla is at a precarious point because Web browsing is increasingly shifting to mobile devices, where the non-profit has little to show for its efforts.

By Net Applications' calculation, Firefox's mobile user share -- the browser is available only on Android and Mozilla's Firefox OS mobile operating system -- was under 1% in January. Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome accounted for 43.2% and 26.7%, respectively, with another 15.7% attributed to Google's stock Android browser.

Mozilla has said it will develop an iOS version of Firefox that will run on Apple's iPhone and iPad, but the project, which was touted in December, has not yet resulted in a browser suitable for even the most cautious public testing.

Also on Wednesday, Mozilla's CEO Chris Beard announced that Mark Mayo will succeed Nightingale. Mayo, who joined Mozilla in 2011, will lead a newly-formed group that combines Firefox's team with the one responsible for developing Mozilla's cloud services. Mayo had headed the latter team for the last four years.

Saying that Firefox "turned a corner" in the last year, Beard added that Mozilla has big plans for the browser. "Recently we have been exploring how we can integrate client software on desktops and mobile with cloud service approaches to evolve what Firefox can do for people," Beard said. "We now have a much stronger foundation from which to build, grow and pursue our mission."

For his part, Nightingale said he has no immediate post-Mozilla plans. "No, I haven't been poached by Facebook," Nightingale said. "I don't actually know what my next thing will be. I want to take some time to catch up on what's happened in the world around me. I want to take some time with my kid before she finishes her too-fast sprint to adulthood. And I want a nap."

Firefox user share over last three years Data: Net Applications

Firefox's desktop user share has been in a steady decline since mid-2013, and as of last month, stood at 11.9%, less than half of Chrome's and only a fifth of IE's.


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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