Former Mozilla exec alleges Google torpedoed Firefox with 'oops' excuses

Johnathan Nightingale – a one-time Firefox V.P. – weighed in on working with Google in a series of tweets, prompted by a controversial "smart city" plan from Alphabet for Nightingale's hometown of Toronto.

Mozilla Firefox headquarters
Magdalena Petrova/IDG

A former Mozilla executive last week claimed Google, a browser rival but again also a business partner, purposefully undermined Firefox's development even as the company denied compatibility problems were anything but accidental.

Contrary to declarations by individuals at Google, the search company and Mozilla were not on the same team, charged Johnathan Nightingale, a former vice president of Firefox, who said decisions by Google that ended up hurting Firefox were too frequent to be coincidences. "Focus on the behaviour of the organism as a whole," Nightingale tweeted. "At the macro level, Google/Alphabet is very intentional. [And] Google as a whole is very different than individual googlers."

In a string of tweets, Nightingale remembered what it was like working with Google during his eight years at Mozilla. His purpose? To offer his take on a controversial "smart city" plan for his hometown of Toronto. "I want to talk about Google/Alphabet and 'amateur hour' tactics," Nightingale said at the start of the Twitter string. "It's a piece of the #BlockSidewalk discussion I may have unique perspective on."

Sidewalk Labs, part of Alphabet Inc. - Google's parent company - is working up a proposal for a sensor-driven development along Toronto's waterfront. A draft of the proposal, already overdue, has not been released. Critics have blasted Sidewalk Labs for, among other things, a lack of transparency and accountability. And earlier this month, city residents formed #BlockSidewalk and demanded a halt, then a reset, to the project.

"They've run this play on me before," asserted Nightingale as he responded to a tweet by Bianca Wylie, the chair of #BlockSidewalk. Wylie said Toronto was "getting slow played like a sucker" and accused Sidewalk Labs of "peak amateur hour."

"When I started at Mozilla in 2007 there was no Google Chrome and most folks we spoke with inside were Firefox fans," Nightingale tweeted. "They were building an empire on the web; we were building the web itself."

When Nightingale landed at Mozilla in February 2007, Firefox accounted for 14% of the world's user share, a measurement of browser strength by U.S. analytics company Net Applications. Meanwhile, Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) had a user share of 79% and Apple's Safari controlled just 5%. Chrome was nearly a year and a half in the future. (Chrome debuted in September 2008.)

"When Chrome launched, things got complicated, but not in the way you might expect," Nightingale continued. "They had a competing product now, but they didn't cut ties, break our search deal - nothing like that. In fact, the story we kept hearing was, 'We're on the same side. We want the same things.' I think our friends inside Google genuinely believed that. At the individual level, their engineers cared about most of the same things we did. Their product and design folks made many decisions very similarly and we learned from watching each other."

The appearance of Chrome did change Google's and Mozilla's relationship. Mozilla's CEO at the time, John Lilly, said, "I'd be lying if I said that things weren't more complicated than they used to be."

The complications came from direct competition between the two companies over browsers, and the fact that Google has been the source of more than 91% of all Mozilla revenue year in, year out. (Google paid Mozilla to make the Google search service the default in Firefox.) Although some questioned whether Google would continue to pay Mozilla once it had its own browser, the former kept writing checks. And in 2017, when Mozilla walked away from a five-year contract with Yahoo after Yahoo was bought by Verizon, the Firefox maker went right back to Google as its main money source.

The competition manifested itself in suspicious ways, Nightingale contended. "Google Chrome ads started appearing next to Firefox search terms," he tweeted. Gmail & [Google] Docs started to experience selective performance issues and bugs on Firefox. Demo sites would falsely block Firefox as 'incompatible.'

"All of this is stuff you're allowed to do to compete, of course. But we were still a search partner, so we'd say 'Hey, what gives?' And every time, they'd say, "Oops. That was accidental. We'll fix it in the next push in 2 weeks.

"Over and over. Oops. Another accident. We'll fix it soon. We want the same things. We're on the same team. There were dozens of oopses. Hundreds maybe? I'm all for 'don't attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence,' but I don't believe Google is that incompetent.

"I think they were running out the clock. We lost users during every oops. And we spent effort and frustration every clock tick on that instead of improving our product. We got outfoxed for a while and by the time we started calling it what it was, a lot of damage had been done."

Yet Mozilla rarely called out Google over the tactics Nightingale described. The company was much more willing to lay into Microsoft, such as when it took that rival to task for setting Edge as the default Windows 10 browser during upgrades from Windows 7 or 8.1, when a former engineer blamed Microsoft's third-party browser rules for Mozilla's decision to bag a touch-based version for Windows 8 and 8.1, or when the organization joined others in demanding European anti-trust regulators rein in Microsoft's leveraging of IE.

Mozilla's hesitation in criticizing Google over Chrome was understandable: The organization - and thus Firefox - was wedded to the money Google paid out. (In 2011, three years after Chrome's debut, Google's payments accounted for 84% of all Mozilla revenue.) And virtually every effort Mozilla made to build itself alternate revenue streams - mobile operating system, in-browser ads - ended in failure.

For all Google allegedly did - all those "oops," as Nightingale called them - Mozilla didn't squawk, or if it did, not loudly enough to register.

And Nightingale acknowledged that whatever shenanigans Google may or may not have pulled, that wasn't why Firefox lost browser share. "This is not a thread about blaming Google for Firefox troubles, though," he tweeted. "We at Mozilla wear that ourselves, me more than anyone for my time as Firefox VP."

Data backs up Nightingale's admission, to a point.

When Chrome launched, Firefox still had growth ahead of it: From September 2008 (Chrome's debut) to April 2010 (when Firefox began its slow-but-steady decline), Firefox grew by 25%, according to Net Applications. It wasn't until March 2014 that Chrome slipped past Firefox in the user share rankings, when each accounted for about 17% of the world's browser share. And all along, if Google monkey business contributed to Firefox's fall, it must have really damaged Microsoft's IE. During the time it took Chrome to replace Firefox as the No. 2 browser, Firefox lost just 9% of its user share, while IE shed 22%.

And Chrome's most explosive growth - which began in early 2016 - didn't come at Firefox's expense; instead, it first hollowed out IE, then suppressed any potential enthusiasm for the follow-on Edge. Chrome didn't reach its current place - last month capturing nearly 68% of all browser activity - by raiding Firefox.

It did it by destroying IE.

Oops.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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