A diminished Firefox turns 100

Mozilla launched version 100 of its Firefox browser today, but more so than a day for celebration, it feels like a day for nostalgia.

That’s a nostalgia for a time when Firefox was truly revolutionary after it broke out of the Mozilla Application Suite back in 2002 and quickly threatened the hegemony of the utterly dismal Internet Explorer. But also a nostalgia for the open web, which Mozilla was able to champion when Firefox still had a dominant market share. It’s much easier to lead when your product has 30% market share and growing (like Firefox had around 2010) and your biggest competitor is declining quickly, but it’s hard to make your voice heard when you are under 4%.

Today’s Mozilla, after many lean years, seems to be on a path to a better financial future, but its dependence on Google makes for an uneasy alliance as Mozilla tries to champion online privacy in a world dominated by the giant advertising company it utterly depends on.

Firefox, too, is now a perfectly competent browser — but so is every other browser. It’s no secret that over the years, Mozilla got distracted. There were efforts to build a Firefox OS for affordable smartphones (which still lives as a fork under the KaiOS banner), VR browsers, arguments over whether there should be sponsored tiles on Firefox’s new tab page, a WebRTC video chat service and much more.

Today, with Firefox Relay and the Mozilla VPN, it seems the organization has refocused a bit. Its focus on privacy resonates more today than it ever did — but for now, that hasn’t changed the browser’s fortune. Even today, for most users, privacy is a nice to have but not a reason to switch browsers, especially when there are plenty of extensions that can essentially do the same (though Firefox’s Multi-Account Containers are a game changer and should be available in every browser, as far as I’m concerned).

Yet with all of the resources being poured into Chromium, it’s hard to see how Firefox and its Gecko engine will remain competitive in the long run. Browsers today are incredibly complex pieces of software. With Servo, Mozilla started a project to build a new engine from scratch. That was in 2012. Ten years later, we’re only seeing pieces of that in Firefox — and when Mozilla laid off many of its employees in 2020, that included the Servo team.

There also hasn’t been a lot of innovation around Firefox lately, all while Chromium-based browsers are finding their niches, with Vivaldi, for example, tapping into the market for advanced users who want endless customizability, Brave going for the privacy-conscious crypto fans and Microsoft keeping the Windows faithful happy after finally ditching Internet Explorer (despite occasional missteps into bloatware).

It doesn’t help that Mozilla never made it easy to build new user experiences around its browser engine while Chromium made it a core feature. Users may not care about the engine underneath their browsers, but developers who want to experiment with new browser paradigms will always opt for Chromium.

The web is better off today because of what Mozilla built with Firefox. I hope we’ll see version 200 eight years from now.