Mozilla: The Greatest Tech Company Left Behind

How could an organization that had its hand in so many world-changing technologies fail to thrive?

Matthew MacDonald
Aug 14 · 8 min read
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© Young Coder

When the news broke that Mozilla was launching a new round of layoffs — its second in 2020 so far — reaction was swift. Developers noticed that Mozilla’s cuts ran straight through the corporate fat to the meat of the company. They were “reducing their investment” in the popular developer tools division. Disbanding their entire threat management team. Cutting the Servo team that was working on a next-generation Rust-powered browser engine. Vaporizing the MDN team. In total, the combined two rounds of layoffs added up to nearly a third of the company.

Considering that a significant portion of Firefox’s modest user base is programmers, shrinking its developer tools seems like a particularly short-sighted way to disappoint your most loyal users. But to people who are less familiar with the company, the Mozilla cuts seem like just another case of a competitor failing to succeed with a niche alternative. After all, it’s been years since Mozilla’s marquee product — the Firefox browser — had seriously challenged for market dominance. Surely this was just another dinosaur slowly going extinct?

But Mozilla isn’t just a Firefox company. It isn’t just another boutique tech company outflanked by trillion-dollar competitors like Microsoft, Apple, and Google. Instead, Mozilla is a company with a long history of moving the world of web standards forward. And its crisis should concern us all.

A brief history of Mozilla

Mozilla was created out of the ashes of one of the world’s most spectacular software failures. Netscape Navigator, the pioneering web browser company of the late 1990s, had gone from internet king to also-ran in a matter of months. The cause — Microsoft’s aggressive bundling of Internet Explorer — hardly seemed fair. But most industry watchers were resigned to a future where browsers would be free and ubiquitous. They were hardly a product you could build a company around.

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Netscape Navigator — King for a day

Then, in a small stroke of genius, Netscape decided that it would transform its browser into an open source project. It created the Mozilla project to manage this process and develop the next version of Netscape’s integrated browser, mail, and chat application suite. That software initiative slowly crumbled in the face of competitors with more money and greater reach. But in the following years, the Mozilla team morphed itself into a different kind of organization — the non-profit Mozilla Foundation, dedicated to promoting open web standards and web literacy. (Not to mention a handful of Utopian-tinged principles laid out in the famous Mozilla manifesto.)

Shortly after, a group of Mozilla developers rebooted their browser efforts with Firefox, and spun it off into a separate, wholly owned corporation that still funds the Mozilla Foundation to this day. Had these technologies stayed locked up with AOL (the company that bought Netscape), they would have died years ago, worn away by the changing winds of internet fashion. In fact, even AOL gave up on the software it acquired with Netscape, switching to Internet Explorer shortly before it slipped into irrelevance.

Mozilla’s greatest hits

Firefox is Mozilla’s best-known creation. And though today it’s easy to dismiss it as just an alternative browser, the early Firefox was a pioneer in ad blocking, data privacy, and developer tools. (Before there was Chrome DevTools, there was Firebug.)

If that was all there was to Mozilla, the company would just have been another speed bump on the way to Chromium and WebKit world domination. Instead, Mozilla advanced some of today’s most important web technologies. Here are four of their best initiatives.

When Netscape collapsed, few realized that its most important contribution was the small, underpowered scripting language it left behind. That language was JavaScript.

JavaScript was created in the brief period that Netscape dominated the web. But in the two decades since Netscape failed, JavaScript has only grown more widespread and more dominant. So it’s not hard to imagine that the most important innovation that Firefox leaves behind could be the blazingly efficient, typesafe Rust language.

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Rust’s appeal stretches across the aisle. Developers who believe that C++ is too permissive and error-prone love Rust. But developers who think that traditional OOP languages are to heavy and inefficient also love Rust. And despite its relatively low adoption, Rust has been ranked as the most loved programming language in Stack Overflow’s developer survey every year since 2016.

Sadly, contributing to the Rust language is no longer a priority for the new Mozilla. In the latest round of layoffs, they cut dedicated Rust developers and the Servo team that sought to build a new, Rust-powered browser engine. But the current consensus is that Rust won’t go down with the ship. Planning for a standalone Rust Foundation is already underway.

It’s hard to remember, but there was a time when the world was locked in an ugly battle between HTML and XHTML, a non-backwards-compatible version of HTML reimagined using the stricter syntax of XML. And HTML was losing. In 2004, the standards body in charge of HTML (the W3C) officially halted all work on HTML.

The story would have ended there, were it not for the WHATWG, an ad hoc group quickly cobbled together by Apple, Opera, and Mozilla. The rest is history — the WHATWG won, forced the W3C to change course, and launched a pile of new standards under the umbrella of HTML5, including Flash-free video, web workers, web sockets, and plenty more. Those standards are still with us today.

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Mozilla definitely wasn’t the only player in this drama. But they were instrumental in launching the movement that helped define the following decade of web technologies.

One of the greatest parlor tricks to come out of Mozilla was asm.js. Technically, asm.js is just a streamlined subset of JavaScript, with tricks like bitwise arithmetic to force strong typing. But developers at Mozilla demonstrated that they could compile other languages down to this performance-enhanced micro-language. With little more than an informal spec and a transpiler called Emscripten, they took real-time 3D games built on the Unreal engine in C++ and put them inside a web browser.

Asm.js was the springboard for the most important innovation in recent web history: WebAssembly. WebAssembly follows in the path of asm.js as a sort of machine language for the web that runs in the JavaScript execution environment. It adds further enhancements, like a compact binary format for code that needs no parsing or compiler tricks. Today, some of the world’s most interesting innovations are being built on WebAssembly, including Microsoft’s Blazor framework.

WebAssembly is a joint project between Mozilla and other browser makers, but it wouldn’t have sprung to life so quickly without the example of asm.js. Even today, asm.js is a polyfill for WebAssembly — a backward compatibility fallback for a few old browsers that don’t support WebAssembly.

MDN is a massive resource of high-quality developer documentation. You can think of it as a Wikipedia for modern web development, or a vastly better version of W3Schools.

If you’ve hunted for an answer on the web, you’ve probably encountered one of MDN’s gems before. Perhaps you’ve used its exhaustive CSS property reference, or its well organized HTML DOM reference. Maybe you’ve done a deep dive with a particular emerging API, like IndexedDB or WebRTC. (No stale information here!) Or perhaps you’ve read MDN’s ambitious HTML introduction, which starts by describing markup for beginners and continues all the way to JavaScript frameworks like React, Ember, and Vue.

The MDN documentation goes even deeper than what’s exposed on the website. For example, the browser compatibility data that Mozilla compiles is so thorough that it’s used for services like http://caniuse.com.

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Now Mozilla has gutted the MDN team. They’re promising to keep the popular site alive, possibly with other partners and more community support. But without the infusion of cash and talent from a motivated organization, it’s an open question whether MDN can maintain its high standards. After all, Mozilla already has a full graveyard of abandoned initiatives for early web education, like Webmaker, Mozilla Backpack, and — my favorite — X-Ray Goggles (an incredibly simple way to introduce HTML that’s more effective than 90% of the world’s video tutorials). If these are the signs of the future, they aren’t encouraging.

What killed Mozilla

Mozilla isn’t dead (yet), but it’s clearly hit an inflection point. Mozilla’s layoff letter to its employees lays the blame on COVID-19, which seems dubious. After all, the Mozilla Foundation was created to help Mozilla look past short-term shocks and adopt a long-term perspective. It was designed to insulate Mozilla’s software development work from temperamental CEOs, faddish trends, and Silicon Valley investors looking to double their money. And while COVID-19 will eventually pass, there’s no easy way to recreate a gutted development team or rebuild developer trust.

The reality — unspoken by Mozilla but often reported in the tech press — is that Mozilla operates on an extremely fragile revenue model: the advertising largesse of a browser-building competitor. More than 90% of Mozilla’s funds come from a deal with Google that makes it the default search engine for Firefox. In return, Mozilla earns a yearly payout that exceeds $400 million. Google has renewed this deal several times, even as Firefox’s market penetration has plummeted.

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A decade of decline

Over the years, Google’s renewals have become slower and less enthusiastic. Perhaps they only continue to finance Firefox because they don’t want the struggling browser to die off completely and focus antitrust attention their way. (This is much the same reason that Microsoft once invested in Apple.) But no matter what Google’s intentions are, Mozilla’s practice of relying almost completely on a single donation from a tech megacorp seems like a serious strategic mistake.

Over the years, Mozilla has attempted to develop longshot commercial products, like the Firefox OS, a pricey VPN network, and a premium bookmark service. These have mostly failed. Now Mozilla (the corporation, not the foundation) has set its sights on a new and disappointing goal: “core browser growth through differentiated user experiences.” You can read that in more than one way, but at least one interpretation is that they hope to succeed by fiddling with their browser UI and repackaging current products with new marketing. If so, the heartbreaking story of Mozilla’s decline is also the beginning of its end.

Wishing you could offer your support? You can donate to the Mozilla Foundation, but due to the way the corporation is set up, none of this money is invested in Firefox or developer tools. If you have the skills and time, the best possible support is to join the Mozilla community and contribute to their code base.

For more about the history of JavaScript, read How JavaScript Grew Up and Became a Real Language. And to get notified about new articles, sign up for the once-a-month Young Coder newsletter.

Young Coder

Hack. Code. Think. Stories about science, tech, and programming.

Matthew MacDonald

Written by

Teacher, coder, long-ago Microsoft MVP. Author of heavy books. Join Young Coder for a creative take on science and technology. Queries: matthew@prosetech.com

Young Coder

Hack. Code. Think. Stories about science, tech, and programming.

Matthew MacDonald

Written by

Teacher, coder, long-ago Microsoft MVP. Author of heavy books. Join Young Coder for a creative take on science and technology. Queries: matthew@prosetech.com

Young Coder

Hack. Code. Think. Stories about science, tech, and programming.

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