Forgetting Firefox

It’s been more than 10 years since Mozilla released version 1.0 of Firefox. Even for someone that lived through all those early web years it’s hard to imagine what it was like back then — almost everyone who used the web was using Internet Explorer on Windows, something which seems almost comical now in this age of Chrome and Safari and mobile browsing.

Back then though, there wasn’t much of a choice. There were a few alternatives, but many sites were built only with IE in mind, simply due to its huge market share (almost 80%). So chances were good that even if you were running something else, you’d have IE ready to fire up in the background.

I’ll confess that during this time, our web development company was building for IE. Testing in other browsers — if it happened at all — was cursory. We’d fix specific issues in other browsers if they were reported by users, but these were pretty rare.

Today, of course, it is almost the exact opposite. Chrome has the lion’s share in the desktop world. IE is still a respectable second place, though only a fraction ahead of Firefox. Mozilla’s mission of 2004 — to break up the web’s monoculture and near-complete dependence on Internet Explorer — would seem to be over.

Microsoft can no longer afford to let IE not comply with certain standards. Indeed, the argument can be made that it is a second class web citizen and is, more often than not, forced to play catch up to everyone else.

The Mozilla Foundation was established in 2003 to “preserve choice and innovation on the Internet”. I believe they’ve succeeded — perhaps beyond their wildest dreams — in the web space. Who would have thought a small foundation creating open source software could upset one of the biggest software companies in the world and help completely disrupt their near-total market dominance?

Mozilla and Firefox Today

Since Google introduced their Chrome browser, Firefox use around the world has been shrinking. While it is far from an afterthought, it’s clear that many users have jumped ship to Chrome — usually citing performance as the main reason. I listen to the expressions of surprise from my colleagues and peers when they hear about someone using Firefox — “why haven’t you switched to Chrome?”, typically resulting in another convert by the end of the conversation.

Firefox usage on, 2006–2015.

Further, as more and more browsing is done on mobile devices — where the trend again seems to be to use the standard browser that ships with the operating system — the growth of Firefox seems an unlikely prospect.

However, Mozilla has not stopped working on Firefox. Indeed, change has continued at a furious pace — back in 2011 they switched to a rapid release schedule, aiming to ship a new release build of Firefox every six weeks, calling this change “a major improvement in our ability to respond to the needs of our users and the web”.

The Firefox version number has rocketed skyward. From 2004 to 2010, Firefox went from version 1.0 to 3.6.13. Once their rapid release schedule kicked in though, they burned all the way through to version 33.0, released in October 2014.

Of course, the version numbers aren’t really indicative of much — though some critics deride the versioning strategy as nothing more than a way to try to seem as “fresh” as Google Chrome’s much higher version numbers. What really matters is what has changed under the hood, and there have certainly been a huge number of changes.

Although, as I write this, it’s hard to think of what those changes have been. I certainly can’t think of any new feature that made me go “oh, that’s cool” or “great, I’m glad they finally fixed that” or “sweet, this rocks!” Maybe the background updater? WebRTC support, although I haven’t used it yet. The main feature of their 10 year anniversary special release was just a widget that lets you forget certain parts of your history and some new built-in search options.

Sadly, I have almost come to dread new releases. “What is going to break this time?”, I think. “What random interface changes are they going to introduce?”

However, this essay isn’t about railing on Mozilla for problems with Firefox releases. This is an issue, but there are already many words devoted to covering this in great detail — simply look at basically any Slashdot discussion about any new release and you’ll see a laundry list of complaints (my favourite is the one when they introduced the new Australis redesign).

No, my problems with Firefox are something I see as merely a symptom of the real problem:

Mozilla has already won the browser wars.

Their core mission has been accomplished. Their goal was never to create the most popular browser in the world, or the one with the best UX, or the one with the most features, or the one with the best developer mode. Their goal was to “preserve choice and innovation on the Internet”.

It would be foolish to say a monoculture will never arise again (Google are making some scary moves with Chrome-only web applications). But at this point in time while Chrome is the ascendant browser (largely at the expense of Firefox), Mozilla’s ability to impact the web in general is greatly reduced. (Arguably, the rate of change and the dramatic impact to the long-standing UI and UX could be driving more people away from it.)

Mozilla are not focusing all their efforts on the web alone. While Firefox seems to get the lion’s share of funding and attention, they’ve been extremely hard at work building Firefox OS, an operating system for mobile devices. Mozilla Labs continues to spit out a range of interesting R&D projects.

One other well-known and widely used Mozilla project is, of course, the Thunderbird email client. In 2012, after several years of active development and significant improvements, Mozilla decided that Thunderbird would basically be put into caretaker mode, letting the community drive development.

The groupware mess.

Before going forward, I want to touch on the state of groupware — that being the collection of applications, tools and services that organisations use to collaborate digitally, typically including email and calendar systems.

For many years, Exchange was the uncontested leader in this market. Microsoft’s dominance in this area was almost complete — nothing packed the same level of functionality for communication and collaboration with the same ease of deployment, not to mention the integration with the rest of the Microsoft software ecosystem. Sure, it wasn’t without problems, but it was as close to a groupware standard as existed.

Then Google came along, sniffing a great opportunity. Google Apps offered simple pricing and an experience that almost everyone was pretty familiar with due to the penetration of Gmail and Google Calendar — companies could switch over and not have to worry too much about retraining. Companies heavily entrenched with Outlook couldn’t switch, but for the vast majority of small businesses it was a pretty attractive deal.

Fast forward a bit to 2015 — Amazon have just announced WorkMail, an e-mail and electronic calendar service, targeted directly at customers of Microsoft and Google. It’s clear they’ve been thinking about this for a while; as one of the biggest cloud providers and software developers they’re uniquely positioned to offer services around the planet.

Having these three options will be a great improvement for consumers. The growth of cloud shows little sign of curbing and the increasing simplicity it offers to businesses — “we no longer have to deal with keeping Exchange running?!” — is pretty appealing. So as long as you’re happy with paying another organisation to hold onto some of the critical data of your business, you’re fine.

If you’re turning to open source, there are a few options. I can only claim personal experience with Zimbra — it’s a great piece of software, if a bit fiddly to get and keep running. Finding the one that matches your requirements can be tough and time consuming.

Ultimately we found that we couldn’t stop people wanting to use Outlook. It has a lot of momentum. It has polish and features that make the open source equivalents feel somewhat clunky, awkward and limited by comparison. Zimbra works with Outlook (if you pay for the commercial version with the magic connector), or you can just use the web interface.

Email client usage data from Campaign Monitor, 2012.

But people who are serious about email typically want to use a serious email client. They want plugins and heaps of interface options. They want instant response times. They want a local copy so it can be accessed offline (or if you’re truly hardcore, you don’t want your email on someone else’s server in the first place). You want to have the files that make up your email collection stored on your own disk, so you can back them up and manipulate them at your convenience.

And so we come back to Thunderbird.

Mozilla’s chance to really impact groupware.

Mozilla has already done more for groupware than just about anyone, simply by the existence of Thunderbird in the state it is in today. (Lightning, their calendar application/extension is also a Big Deal.)

But it seems an opportunity exists for Mozilla to once again take the lead in a critical aspect of Internet infrastructure. Microsoft’s blood is in the water as their iron grip on key parts of both the home and business software ecosystems has started to slip.

But Mozilla is in a unique situation — they have a significant lead in the application space. Thunderbird has little mass market penetration and is far from perfect, but in terms of core functionality and stability it is very well positioned. (Lightning needs a lot more work.)

Just like Mozilla made Firefox a unifying piece in the standards-based web that we enjoy today, the opportunity exists to drive Thunderbird as a critical piece of our Internet communications infrastructure.

There are many challenges. The mass market and home users are unlikely to migrate away from web-based mail; it’s simply too convenient. But businesses and business users have a different set of priorities, and being in firmly in control of their own destiny when it comes to their assets is one of them.

Even as I write this, I can’t help but wonder if there’s any point. The cloudification of mail and calendar is just so useful and popular — how could anything turn it back?!

But then I remember what it’s like when an online service goes offline and you can’t get your provider to help out. I remember the NSA, and the risks associated with having my mail and calendar lying around on someone else’s servers. I remember promises of backups being made, only to find that after a disaster, they turned out to not work.

Thunderbird is a tool that can help ensure that users have the choice to retain control. Already a strong, feature-complete product, it’s perfectly usable right now — but it needs more. It needs focus and drive, the kind of effort that pushed Firefox into being the dominant alternative for so long. Mozilla need to re-establish credibility with users by ruthlessly fixing some of the years-old bugs and proving that they see Thunderbird as a critical piece of the Internet, like they did with Firefox.

Ultimately, Mozilla needs to make the nerds really love Thunderbird, recommending it above all else. Just as we were responsible for pushing Firefox (and now, it seems, Chrome) on civilian friends, family and businesses who defer to our geek cred when it comes to software selection… if Mozilla can convert us — we can convert them.

But we’ll only do that if it’s a legitimately better option for them. (And for us — saving us tech support calls is a big factor here!) A strong groupware client with excellent support for email and calendaring is just as important to the open Internet as a browser — for both business and personal use, we need good choices.

Mozilla: you won the browser wars. We will be eternally grateful. But we need you again to help preserve choice and innovation on the Internet. Please help us by devoting some of your incredible talent back to Thunderbird to help drive the state of groupware forward.