Mozilla’s claims of Firefox Quantum success aren’t confirmed by user stats

The browser developer says uptake of Firefox 57 are ‘super encouraging,’ but any increase in use still appears minimal.

firefox logo 2017

Mozilla on Thursday touted Firefox Quantum, the browser upgrade launched one month ago, as its biggest release ever and said early adoption metrics have been "super encouraging."

But preliminary browser measurements taken by the U.S. government show only a small increase in Firefox's domestic usage since Quantum debuted on Nov. 14.

That did not deter Mozilla, however.

"In less than a month, Firefox Quantum has already been installed by over 170 [million] people around the world," Nick Nguyen, the company's top Firefox executive, wrote in a post to the firm's primary blog. "We're just getting started and early returns are super encouraging."

While there's no reason to doubt Nguyen's 170 million Quantum installations, he failed to mention how the browser acquired such a huge user base so quickly. Unlike brand new software, which must start from zero installs, Quantum is, all branding aside, also the next iteration of Firefox, the November result of its every-six-week refresh. Mozilla may now label the browser as "Quantum," but it's also Firefox 57.

Like all Firefox upgrades, Quantum/57 was distributed through Mozilla's long-standing automatic download and upgrade service, which retrieves each new version in the background and then installs it at the next launch. In other words, it had a big leg up at the start. Unless users rejected it in catastrophic numbers, the vast majority of copies of Firefox 56 would have been updated to Quantum within days of its release.

The 170 million figure actually fits within a rough assessment of Firefox's global user base.

According to analytics vendor Net Applications, 11.4% of all browser users ran Firefox during November. Using that user share figure, Computerworld estimated 194 million Windows machines ran Firefox, out of a worldwide PC total of 1.5 billion, a Microsoft-cited statistic. (Firefox runs on macOS and Linux, too, but with 89% of all personal computers running Windows, the 194 million can be considered a minimum guesstimate.)

Nguyen also claimed that Firefox Quantum/57 was "our biggest release to date," and said that it had made it to 100 million profiles - that's where the browser saves each user's bookmarks and settings - faster than any previous upgrade.

None of that has translated into a significant increase in Firefox usage. The Digital Analytics Program (DAP), which tallies visits to more than 4,000 U.S. government websites, said Quantum's post-launch share was up 3.5% compared to the same 21-day span immediately before its release (that would have been Firefox 56), but down 0.5% from the three weeks before that. (Computerworld omitted the week of Nov. 21-27 because it included the Thanksgiving holiday, when browser usage plummets as people spend time with family. Also omitted was the corresponding week of Oct. 24-30 from the pre-Quantum stretch.)

More impressive was the next statistic Nguyen called out. "More users are coming from Chrome," he asserted. "We've seen a 44% growth in downloads from people who are using the Chrome browser compared to the same time last year."

That Quantum is getting a look from Chrome users should be no surprise: Google's browser is, by a huge margin, the most-used on the planet, accounting for nearly 61% of all those run in November, according to Net Applications. If Quantum picked up new users, they would have been more likely to come from Chrome than any other browser.

But the 44% increase Nguyen alleged was impressive because that figure was far greater than Chrome's own growth rate over the past year. Net Applications put Chrome's increase at a meager 1.4% during the last 12 months. If Mozilla continues to tempt a growing number of Chrome users into downloading Quantum, it has, at the very least, a chance at turning them into its users.

Other factoids Nguyen tossed out ranged from increases in mobile downloads - Firefox for iOS and Android has climbed 24% since Quantum's introduction - to a spike in positive social media mentions around mid-November. (The volume of those mentions has dropped since the rollout, however.)

The mobile downloads, which almost certainly rode the coattails of Quantum on the desktop, were another positive sign. Because the prime reason to download and install a mobile browser other than the default - Safari on iOS, Chrome on Android - is to sync bookmarks, login credentials and the like with what's used on a personal computer, the uptick in mobile Firefox downloads hints at users willing to do more than just kick tires, and may also have indicated switchers from a rival browser who armed themselves not only with the desktop Firefox but also the Android or iOS version for their phones.

Nguyen said that Mozilla plans to "watch these numbers" and update them at some point in early 2018. Computerworld will as well, as part of its series of top-of-the-month browser reports.

browser user share, november 2017 IDG/Data: Net Applications

Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Edge browsers were used by just 16% of the world's online users of PCs in November and could soon be eclipsed by Mozilla's Firefox.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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