Why Firefox Will Flame Out
Mozilla's Firefox is doomed. Caught between the immovable object of Microsoft Internet Explorer and the irresistible force of Google Chrome, the free open source community's poster child will soon be relegated to the ash heap of history.
At least that's my conclusion after sifting through the latest round of excuse-making and finger-pointing coming out of the Mozilla camp. Still laboring to deliver the long-overdue Firefox 3.6 release, Mozilla insiders are now talking about a major restructuring of the entire Firefox development process, leading some to question the organization's ability to maintain the browser's increasingly top-heavy code base.
Frankly, it's been a long time coming. Early popularity resulted in an avalanche of third-party extension development at a time when the browser's core architecture was still quite immature. This, in turn, led to much publicized delays and false starts as the development team struggled to keep the hodgepodge of fixes, patches, and structural Band-Aids that made up later versions of the Firefox code base all working together in harmony.
Now we hear that Mozilla is abandoning its traditional major release cycle model in favor of smaller, incremental changes that it will slipstream through security patches and other maintenance updates. Basically, Mozilla's developers are admitting that they can no longer deliver a fully baked and tested Firefox release in a timely fashion. So they're switching to an incremental model where they can deliver progress in more manageable chunks, thus bypassing the lengthy external beta/feedback process altogether.
Of course, releasing lots of small changes without broadly testing their effects on the underlying platform is often a recipe for disaster. Just ask Microsoft, which has spent many thousands of man-hours trying to integrate its often contradictory "hotfix" releases into cohesive service packs that can be widely disseminated without breaking Windows. Even with nearly unlimited resources, the Redmond giant often fails miserably and has to further patch the patches to set things right. To think that Mozilla will fare any better than the world's largest software company is simply naïve.
Then there is the issue of corporate stakeholders. IE is the flagship of Microsoft's Web application strategy, and for better or worse, IT organizations are stuck with it as long as they invest in Microsoft's back-office technologies. Meanwhile, Chrome has evolved from an interesting thought experiment about Web browser security (replete with comic book adaptation) to the linchpin of Google's master plan for world domination.
Which leaves Firefox as the odd man out: Not part of anybody's strategic road map, Mozilla's browser is almost entirely dependent on the goodwill and enthusiasm of its supporters. As any student of history will point out, popularity -- especially among the technically savvy -- is fleeting. Just ask the folks behind the KDE project. One bad design decision (or in KDE's case, a whole boatload of them) can turn today's open source darling into tomorrow's scorned turkey.
For Firefox, the writing has been on the wall for some time now. In fact, the moment that Google revealed it was developing its own Web browser (thus leaving its one-time partner out in the cold), the fate of Mozilla's favorite son was sealed. Now, as Chrome continues its inexorable rise to prominence and Microsoft shifts gears from IE maintenance mode to actively developing its browser code base as a counter to Google's incursion, Firefox will increasingly find itself being squeezed both from above and below.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, this story doesn't end well for Firefox.