Opinion: 5 Reasons Why Firefox is Losing to Chrome

While it is a milestone for Google, the higher market share number for November is just an event within a trend that began taking shape about two years ago. In 2011, Mozilla’s market share losses have accelerated, revealing a bigger picture of strategic mistakes that amplified the growing strength of Chrome.

The numbers in a simple trend line hardly show the scenario of the current browser battle. However, StatCounter’s numbers are rather detailed, allowing those who are interested to dissect the browser war on the surface by browser versions and by geographies. In addition, those numbers date back to July 2008, which is far enough to assess the impact of certain events in the browser market. As an aside, NetApplications offers data that are much more favorable toward Firefox on an absolute basis, but let’s not get stuck on the news that Chrome has greater market share than Firefox. Instead, let’s agree that both StatCounter and NetApplications show the same trend: IE and Firefox are generally down, whereas Chrome is up. Since StatCounter offers a more comprehensive set of public data and appears to be more consistent over a longer timeframe (NetApplications changed its metrics in the past), I will exclusively refer to StatCounter data in this article.

Status quo

Mozilla is in a continuing and accelerating share decline for Firefox, which is now at 25.23 percent – the same as it was in December 2008. It’s at its lowest value since July 2008 when StatCounter began recording browser market shares. Over the past six months, Firefox has lost 12.33 percent of its share (3.11 points); in the past 12 months, the loss amounts to 20.37 percent (5.14 points). In November 2011, Mozilla suffered the highest loss of Firefox market share on record (-1.16 points or 4.4 percent). In comparison, IE lost 15.5 percent of its share since December 2010 (6.31 points).

It is hard to ignore that Firefox is in a freefall of market share that is surpassing the pace of IE in some metrics. Though, as I previously mentioned, Firefox has been caught in a trend that started in December 2009, the first month in a long series of market share losses. Out of the past 24 months, Firefox posted negative growth in 19 of them. November was the tenth consecutive month of market share loss. Of course, you could blame the losses to a strong Chrome, which had approximately 5.5 percent in November 2009. However, I would argue that Mozilla has made some mistakes that allowed Chrome to grow at an astonishingly fast pace.

Reason 1: Firefox 4

I still have not managed to wrap my head around Mozilla’s decision to develop a new browser over a period of more than one year (if we include the development phase of Firefox 3.7, which directly preceded Firefox 4). Between the announcement of Firefox 4 in April 2010 and its release in March 2011, Mozilla lost almost 1.5 points of share, but Google gained more than 9.3 points. In the end, Firefox 4 was in a massive effort to catch up with Google’s JavaScript acceleration gains and to revamp the browser UI. What Firefox 4 did not accomplish was to get Mozilla ahead in the browser race and provide breathing room for upcoming versions. Originally planned to be released in October 2010, the browser did not surface until the end of March 2011 after a very long beta phase. By the time the browser was released, Firefox 4 felt outdated and months behind Chrome. At the very least, Firefox 4 was not enough to keep Firefox users from switching to Chrome. Instead, it set the stage for massive market share losses in 2011.

Reason 2: Reaction time

Mozilla adopted the six-week release cycle from Google, justifying this move by explaining that it could introduce new features when they are ready. Overall, the impact of the rapid release cycle has been largely limited to one major new feature since March. I am referring to the memory improvements for Firefox, which were developed very quickly and deployed even faster. This is the poster board example for Mozilla as to how new features should be communicated, developed and implemented.

Unfortunately, Mozilla has not been reacting fast enough with other features. The silent update has been delayed and will not be ready until version 10 or later. Chrome migration could be delayed until version 11. The Home Tab is in the same time frame. These are all critical features that Firefox needed yesterday – not tomorrow. Sure, Google has more resources and can put many more developers on some tasks, but Mozilla’s advantage should be that it is nimble, can react, and act much faster than Google. A perfect example would be the Joystick API – a Mozilla idea first published in 2010 but not yet realized. Google picked it up in August and already has it running in the developer versions of Chrome.

Mozilla needs to follow a focused feature roadmap to develop and implement quickly, effectively, and without distraction. The current action and reaction time is out of whack and not competitive. Even if Mozilla is inventing new features and ideas, they are picked up by Google and developed in half the time that Mozilla takes. Chrome, as a result, captures the perception of being innovative, while Firefox is left with the image of the copycat. It’s a massive problem that collides with Mozilla’s ideal of open communication, but it needs to learn to develop much faster than it has so far. In order to assume the perception of being a trendsetter, Mozilla will need to own features again.

Reason 3: Identity

If you had to define Firefox, what would you think of first? What do you get with Firefox that you don’t get with Chrome? How many of those features apply to all browser users?

If it is my daily browsing behavior, then I would have to mention the following features: First, standards, because Firefox works well with more websites than Chrome does (at least in my world). Second, add-ons, because there are some really good add-ons that I can’t get with Chrome. Finally, personal values, because Firefox is the browser for rebels and those who oppose software that serves corporate goals.

Mozilla does not want Firefox to do anything else but gain market share so it can finance itself. Chrome ties its users to Google advertising. IE helps Microsoft with the construction of its HTML5 app platform in Windows 8. This picture lends Firefox appeal and trust, but it is not enough anymore. I don’t believe that the average browser user does not care about idealistic goals. Furthermore, I don’t believe that Mozilla will ever be able to communicate this difference to all web users. What Mozilla needs is differentiation that explains what makes Firefox different and better. While Firefox is, in my personal experience, today’s finest HTML5 browser that offers the greatest compromise between strong HTML5 support in Chrome and the hardware acceleration speed in IE9, it is not generally perceived to be a leading browser with a very specific strength.

I believe that Firefox has lost its identity over the past two years. Firefox needs a look and feel that defines its identity as being more competitive.

Reason 4: Platform

It has not been a secret for at least 18 months that both Google and Microsoft are developing their browsers as platform enablers: Chrome OS and search support by Google, and Windows 7/8 by Microsoft. When Microsoft announced hardware acceleration in IE9 in March 2010, and then when Chrome followed suit with Chrome 6 a few months later, it was clear that both are moving toward web app support that suits their platform strategies. Mozilla had no platform then, nor does it have one now.

Mozilla can fight back with Boot-to-Gecko (B2G), its tablet, as well as its smartphone browser. Mozilla’s big advantage of an open approach is that it can bridge platforms to deliver user value, while its competitors have the goal of keeping their platforms closed.  If Mozilla can find a way to build bridges between iOS, Android, and Windows, it has a huge opportunity to build its own platform with B2G and Firefox. Mozilla will be the only developer that can bridge the gaps between those products.

Reason 5: Focus on Opportunity

Possibly the most substantial failure of Mozilla’s has been that it has been distracted and has not pursued its opportunities aggressively enough. The only opportunity on which Mozilla has capitalized in 2011 was Firefox for Android, which still has very little impact. Both IE and Chrome have, since early 2010, shown very clearly what Google and Microsoft wanted to do with their browsers. Google, for example, focused on JavaScript acceleration to eliminate a performance bottleneck in web applications. Microsoft focused on hardware acceleration to drive a vision of HTML5 apps. Both also shaped the reasoning behind a reduced browser interface, where Google took the lead and Microsoft added its GUI design experience in a clean and IE9 interface that offers more web content space in pixels than any other popular browser today. It all adds up to increased usability and a path that leads to apps running in the browser. What opportunity did Mozilla pursue? It appears that Mozilla has parts of everything but lacks the whole of anything. The result is the appearance of a browser that is a compromise in many ways. Mozilla needs to be much firmer in its definition of its vision for Firefox. It also must be far more aggressive in pursuing this goal in order to make the browser more identifiable and the idea of what Firefox will be much more transparent.

Wolfgang Gruener is Director, digital strategy and content experience at American Eagle, where he specializes in strategic data analysis, user behavior models and information architecture (IA), as well as content strategy and governance. He was also Managing Editor of the website TG Daily and contributor to sites including Tom's Guide and Tom's Hardware.