Firefox Isn't Dead or Dying

Reports of Firefox's demise are greatly exaggerated

Firefox 4 is out and, by some accounts, the vultures are already circling: IE is here to stay; Chrome's on the rise; and Firefox has no place to go but down -- or so the conventional wisdom goes.

I disagree. Industry observers are overlooking one key factor that will keep Firefox going strong for years to come. Permit me to explain.

But first, if you don't yet have hands-on experience with all three browsers, take a quick visual tour:

Each of the browsers has a whiz-bang feature or two that sets it apart from the rest. Firefox has App Tabs and Tab Groups, and it'll sync bookmarks, history, and open tabs in the cloud. IE9 makes it one-click easy to block ActiveX controls. (Notably, IE is the only browser that needs the ability to block ActiveX controls.) Chrome has independent processes for each tab, native Flash support, and a hard-earned reputation for bulletproof security.

Several features appear in two of the browsers, mutatis mutandis, with the third browser not yet in the picture -- perhaps by intent. IE9 and Chrome have the ability to pin tabs on the Windows 7 taskbar. IE9 and Chrome have done away with the separate search box, although Firefox searches on terms typed into the address box. Go figure. Firefox and Chrome can be skinned to change their appearance. Firefox and Chrome also have much larger collections of add-ons.

All three browsers share certain key characteristics and features. They're all very fast compared to earlier versions, although the speed of your Internet connection means much more than any SunSpider benchmark. They all eliminate the window title bar, opening up more real estate for the Web page. They all have a "private" mode, so the browser develops amnesia when so instructed. They all (finally) have a download manager worthy of the term. They all support HTML5, to a greater or lesser extent, with IE9 carrying the torch for H.264 video format, Firefox and Google going with WebM, and Google back-ending IE9 with a WebM plug-in. All of them have compatibility problems, dealing with sites designed for earlier versions of Internet Explorer.

Experts debate the pros and cons of each. Frankly, for 90 percent of the people who use the Web there won't be much difference among the three. I use -- and generally recommend -- Chrome because, historically, it's been hard to crack. But that reputation could dissolve in the blink of an eye.

Response to the new browsers defy imagination. More than 6 million copies of Firefox 4 were downloaded in the first 24 hours. IE9 hit 2.3 million the first day. Servers all over the world are on their knees as I write this, trying to keep up with the Firefox onslaught.

All of this is playing out against a backdrop of rapidly changing market share. In the past two years, according to NetMarketShare, IE has gone from 68 percent of the market to 57 percent, Firefox declined from 23 percent to 22 percent, and Google gobbled up IE's slack, going from 2 percent to 11 percent.

So why the doom and gloom about Firefox?

The argument goes that Microsoft is innovating its browser at breakneck speed, and Google's been revving Chrome like a Ferrari Enzo, but it took 12 beta versions and three years to get Firefox 4 out the door. Moreover, Microsoft and Google are playing in a multiplatform world, with phones, tablets, and PCs, and the browser ties it all together.

Firefox doesn't have that breadth. Between the stagnation and scant single-platform prospects, Firefox's fortunes are limited. Or so they say -- while there's a great deal of truth in that analysis, it fails to account for several key points.

The folks at Firefox know it took too long to get Firefox 4 out the door, and they're planning on kicking some organizational tail to straighten things out. While it's hard to believe they can churn out a new version every 16 weeks, as promised in the latest plan, they seem to be headed in the right direction.

Anyone who thinks Microsoft can turn out a significant IE upgrade in short order is ignoring tons of history. In fact, with the new burden of having IE run identically on completely disparate platforms -- sorry, but Windows Phone 7 has almost nothing in common, programmatically, with Windows 7 -- the task of creating a one-size-fits-all browser may prove impossible. At least it'll take more than 16 weeks.

Then there's the regulatory environment. Firefox has pioneered a very simple Do Not Track bit that allows users to notify websites when they don't want to be tracked. IE9, on the other hand, has an elaborate Tracking Protection scheme, a way to proactively block specific sites from collecting information. (The jury's still out on how well it'll work, how many people will actually understand and use it, and which third parties will support it; details in Pete Babb's Tech Watch post.) I expect we'll see a lot of debate in coming months about a national Do Not Track policy. Firefox's approach may well persevere.

That leads me to the one big advantage Firefox has over IE and Chrome: Microsoft and Google have huge vested interests in online advertising. Every browser decision they make is influenced -- some would say tainted -- by another part of the company that makes big bucks compromising users' privacy. That's how the online advertising game is played. There's no question who pays the piper.

To be sure, Firefox isn't squeaky clean. In recent years, more than 80 percent of the Mozilla Foundation's income has come from Google. The nonprofit has been accused of changing features in Firefox, under pressure from the advertising industry. But of the big three, only Firefox stands a chance of remaining somewhat independent, a voice for customers, not advertisers.

Don't count Firefox out yet.

This story, "Reports of Firefox's demise are greatly exaggerated," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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