Mozilla explores radically different browser as Firefox leaks share

It's unclear whether a successor to, or replacement for, Firefox would use Mozilla's Gecko browser engine or switch to Chromium, Chrome's foundation

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Al Sacco

Mozilla is trying to come up with a next-generation browser, but according to company executives, seems uncertain whether to retain the current Firefox technology or switch to something else, perhaps the same that powers Google's Chrome.

Last week, Mark Mayo, the head of Mozilla's cloud services engineering team, revealed that a new project, dubbed Tofino, is exploring options for a radical revision of Firefox.

"We're working on browser prototypes that look and feel almost nothing like the current Firefox," Mayo wrote in a long piece on Medium. "The premise for these experiments couldn't be simpler: what we need a browser to do for us -- both on PCs and mobile devices -- has changed a lot since Firefox 1.0."

A small sequestered team of Mozilla developers will work on Tofino for the next three months, at which time they must prove that a new browser is possible. If not, Mayo will kill Tofino and move on.

(The name came from a district on the west coast of Vancouver Island, where the idea originated last summer.)

How different a Firefox successor, or even replacement, might be from the current iteration remains unclear. But Mayo spent considerable wordage implying that Mozilla may dispense with Gecko, the browser engine that has powered Firefox since its debut in late 2004.

Mayo bemoaned the strains that arise when something new threatens the status quo in an organization. "The reason new things at old shops is difficult, mostly, I think, isn't because people are bad, or stupid, or actively sabotage new projects or any nonsense like that. It's largely because doing anything that might conceivably impact the current product creates unavoidable tension," Mayo wrote.

Then he dropped a bombshell that explained the stress. "The prototype we're feeling good about right now is built with Electron and React, not Gecko and XUL, our go-to technologies for building browsers," Mayo said.

Electron, an open-source framework for embedding browser capabilities in apps, relies on Chromium, the also-open-source project that has been the foundation of Google Chrome since that browser's 2008 inception. Meanwhile, React is an open-source JavaScript library maintained by Facebook and others that is typically used to craft or prototype an app's user interface (UI).

A day later, Mayo clarified his comments about Electron and Gecko.

"I should have been clearer that Project Tofino is wholly focused on UX (user experience) explorations and not the technology platform," Mayo said in an April 8 update to his piece. "We are working with [Mozilla's] Platform team on technology platform futures, too, and we're excited about the Gecko and Servo-based futures being discussed."

But Mayo did not commit Tofino to Gecko, or even Servo, the four-year-old Mozilla project aimed at building a Gecko replacement using the Rust programming language, which also traces its roots to Mozilla's research division.

In another post, also on Medium, Mozilla CTO David Bryant, while speaking directly about embedding browser components within apps, trumpeted not Electron -- which targets that aspect of development -- but Gecko, Servo and other in-house technologies.

Bryant hinted that Gecko would survive as Firefox's heart when he pointed to yet another project, labeled Positron, that aims to integrate Electron's APIs (application programming interfaces) with Gecko.

It may be impossible to accurately parse Mozilla's plans for a future Firefox; the Tofino team will be isolated from the rest of Mozilla, a move Mayo cast as one to eliminate distractions, both for the Tofino group as well as the larger Mozilla. That means there's a tight lid on the former's work. But it's not that difficult to come up with reasons for all the activity.

Firefox, which accounts for the vast bulk of Mozilla's revenue, has been in trouble for years, gradually losing share to rivals, particularly Chrome. Since its peak six years ago, Firefox has shed more than half of its user share as measured by metrics vendor Net Applications.

Last month, Firefox dropped to a share of 10.5%, the lowest since May 2006, when it was busy battling Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) amid restarting the moribund browser wars.

Mayo tacitly acknowledged Firefox's troubles when he pointed out that the world is quite different than when version 1.0 appeared. "We're long overdue for some fresh approaches," Mayo said. "[And] it's worth noting that we have a ton of work underway on our flagship product, Firefox, that's all about evolving the browser experience."

Mozilla declined to answer questions about Tofino and the browser engine it may end up using. "We don’t announce planned roadmaps for many of our experiments, including this one, because it is just starting," Jascha Kaykas-Wolff, the company's chief marketing officer, said in a emailed statement. "This is how we work and it is open to all. We will share what we learn as we go, as experiments turn into projects and even products."

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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