Mozilla's Catch-Up Strategy for Mobile

The Firefox browser, a force in PCs, is nowhere in smartphones

When Gary Kovacs ran the New York City marathon this year—his first ever—the chief executive officer of Mozilla wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of the Web browser made by his nonprofit. Spectators shouted “Firefox!” at him as he ran by. The cheers made him proud—and anxious about Mozilla’s fate in a smartphone world dominated by corporations like Google. “My thoughts started to take twists and turns,” he says. “We cannot have one commercially minded organization shape our lives.”

The Mozilla project was born in 1998 with the mission to provide an open, customizable counterweight to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which accounted for more than 90 percent of the browser market at the time. Today, Firefox, an open-source project led by the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation in Mountain View, Calif., with millions of contributors around the world, has nearly a quarter of the market. Many of the features it pioneered—such as pop-up blocking and virus protection—are commonplace. Mozilla’s original goal of spurring competition and innovation seems to have been met.

Yet for all its success in the desktop browser market, Mozilla is nearly absent from today’s biggest growth opportunity: mobile. It has yet to develop an app for the iPhone. Its free Firefox browser for Android smartphones has been downloaded 5.4 million times, a modest number compared with the roughly 200 million Android devices now in use. All told, Mozilla’s mobile browser has less than 1 percent of the market, according to Net Applications, which tracks browser market share. “As of today there’s no compelling reason to use Mozilla” on a smartphone, says Net Applications marketing director Vincent Vizzaccaro. “The features between browsers are pretty much the same. They’re at a huge disadvantage,” he says.

Unlike on the desktop, where any user can download any piece of software, in the mobile world the handset makers act as gatekeepers. John Lilly, a former Mozilla CEO who now sits on the organization’s board, says that Apple, for instance, will likely never approve a full-powered Firefox browser because third-party apps aren’t allowed to execute Web programming code such as JavaScript. Google’s Android has looser rules, but Mozilla got a late start in developing a browser for that platform because Google didn’t immediately release the source code Mozilla needed. Neither Google nor Apple responded to repeated requests for comment.

That’s created something of an existential crisis for Mozilla. If it can’t gain traction in mobile, Kovacs says, the project will lose relevance and be unable to spur innovation in areas it considers important, such as privacy and user control. He’s started to take steps to address the situation. A year ago, Mozilla’s mobile team was a separate division with fewer than 20 engineers. In July, Kovacs made mobile a priority for the full 250-person engineering team. They’re on a “massive hiring spree” for mobile designers and developers, he says. The team is focusing its efforts on the larger, more open Android platform, and in September the company switched to the Java programming language used to build Android applications. Mozilla plans to release a new Android mobile app by early next year. “We’re not going to advance the Web by telling hundreds of millions of people to take their medicine and use a subpar browser,” says Johnathan Nightingale, Mozilla’s head of engineering. “If this isn’t great, the fact that we have a mission means nothing.” Kovacs says Mozilla is negotiating with handset manufacturers to make Firefox a default browser on certain phones, and hopes to announce a deal by February 2012.

Organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a consumer advocacy group focused on Internet policy, say a company like Mozilla needs to survive in mobile. Its browsers allow greater customization so users can more easily control their privacy settings, says Peter Eckersley, EFF’s director of technology projects. On iPhones, users can only run the privacy software that Apple approves, and Google’s Chrome browser tends to prioritize speed over privacy, he says. Kovacs has a list of mobile issues he hopes Mozilla can influence, including creating new standards for e-books so a novel bought on an Amazon Kindle also works in Apple’s iBooks tablet application.

Consumers may not care about these issues as much as Mozilla does, Vizzaccaro says. And former CEO Lilly says that one of the reasons Mozilla faces challenges is because Apple, Google, and Microsoft have started making much better desktop and mobile browsers, occasionally borrowing from Firefox. “Sometimes we wake up and think, ‘Ay, ay, ay, we’re competing with Apple and Google and Microsoft,’ ” he says. “But we created this world with lots of browser diversity and lots of creativity. We have to remind ourselves this is what we wanted.”


    The bottom line: Mozilla, with under 1 percent of the mobile browser market, is hiring more smartphone developers and building a new Android browser.

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