As Mozilla talks up Firefox's future, the present is killing it

Firefox seems to be having an existential crisis.

Mozilla Firefox browser logo against a background of abstract blue and orange smoke.
Mozilla / Lucas Benjamin

Mozilla last week took the unusual step of issuing a short video update on its Firefox browser, declaring it wants to "help users get the best out of the Web" with "suggestions that help people find items from their history, places they frequently visit and web content most relevant to them."

When posted to YouTube, the under-two-minute message was largely panned by commenters as vague, a marketing spiel, and a head-in-the-sand refusal to acknowledge feedback from users.

Meanwhile — and perhaps not coincidentally — a thread on Reddit begun two days before the video hit pointed out that the browser had lost 50 million monthly active users (MAUs) in the last two-and-a-half years.

What's going on? Is Firefox in an existential crisis?

Let's take it chronologically.

Lousy numbers

On Reddit's Linux sub-Reddit, Mozilla's habit of losing users kicked off a thread of more than 2,000 messages. "Firefox lost 50M users since 2019. Why are users switching to Chrome and clones?" asked u/nixcraft on July 31, citing Mozilla's own MAU (Monthly Active Users) data, which tracks the number of desktop clients launched at least once in the past 28 days.

Firefox's MAUs are in worse shape than that.

From Jan. 27, 2019, to Aug. 1, 2021, Firefox shed 57.5 million MAUs, representing a reduction of about 23%, or nearly a quarter. That's a precipitous decline for a browser with no fat on its user base bones.

To anyone paying attention, Firefox's decline was no surprise. For years, Computerworld had regularly reported on the battles for browser dominance, and as a story-within-that-story, noted a gradual shrinking of Mozilla's share.

Computerworld relied on data from NetApplications, a California metrics vendor that tracked browser usage by tallying agent strings reported to the websites of its customers. But in late 2020, NetApplications said it was pulling the plug on the data source.

(At the end of October 2020, when NetApplications announced the end of its browser usage data collection, Firefox's share stood at 7.2%.)

In actuality, NetApplications did not halt publication of browser usage numbers. From November 2020 through July 2021, the latter the most recent, the company continued to post monthly results. (Computerworld asked the company last year to explain the disparity, but never received a reply.)

That recent data showed Firefox continuing its advance toward zero. At the end of July, for example, Firefox's share had dwindled to 5.6%, marking the second straight month at a sub-6% mark. (Back in November, Computerworld forecast that Firefox would slip under the 6% bar by August 2021.) If Firefox stays on its past-12-month trend, the browser could slip under 5% by the end of this year and below 4% by August 2022.

As if Mozilla's MAUs weren't bad enough, NetApplications' numbers trumped them spectacularly. From January 2019 to July 2021, Firefox's usage share plummeted by more than 43%, nearly double the MAU downturn.

Other browsers are in a bad way — after a face-saving climb in the second half of 2020, Apple's Safari is now back to where it started 12 months ago — but Firefox is a special case, as it's the only one of the Top Four not tied in one way or another to the technologies that power Chrome. Some fear that, absent Firefox and its Gecko rendering engine, Chrome wins the war by default.

(It's hard not to see Chrome as the winner, even with Firefox hanging on; Google's browser accounted for 73.2% of all browser activity in July by NetApplications' measurements.)

You guys have lost the plot

Mozilla's video-format update on Firefox was short on concrete details — just one of the criticisms from commenters — but seemed to portend some AI-like additions and enhancements to the browser.

"We want to build experience[s] that are smart enough to know what users are trying to accomplish and powerful enough to do it," said Selena Deckelmann, senior vice president of Firefox. Earlier in her message, Deckelmann had — as already noted — ticked off some of the specific ways Firefox might  accomplish that goal. "We've been asking ourselves, 'What can the browser do to help people navigate today's Internet?' We're starting to experiment with suggestions that help people find items from their history, places they frequently visit and web content most relevant to them."

Deckelmann also delved into the past to tout the recent UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) overhaul of Firefox that debuted in v. 89 and the near future, declaring that, "This is the start of the journey for us here at Firefox."

Commenters, even those who identified themselves as longtime Firefox users, were unimpressed.

"This sounds more like a vague marketing strategy rather than an update video," complained someone identified as UberRam.

"So...what was it you wanted to update us about, then? Because the video is over, I still have no clue, but somehow I'm more uneasy than before watching it," reported adior8ot0s.

Others were more specific in their critiques. "So instead of keeping it solid and up to date, like implementing web app standards, you're going to implement black box AI that goes against values of privacy to make shopping easier?" queried hanger1800. "You guys have completely lost the plot, RIP firefox."

"20 year long Firefox user. I'm close to quitting since all these changes for the sake of changing perfectly working things are getting out of hand," said omma911.

However, some commenters stuck up for the browser.

"I have been a Mozilla Firefox user all my life and while I haven't always agreed with all the decisions made at the foundation I'm glad you're still around and trying to make the web better," commented DraconianKindness. "I would like to see Mozilla start to decrease its reliance on Google's money in the form of selling a suite of services by subscription model."

But the comment that took the prize as most provocative was easily this: "This video will be remembered when people ask, "Whatever happened to Firefox?" wrote Jrakup.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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