Firefox Leans Towards the Vertical

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the tremendous potential for Mozilla to change the world by putting smartphone capabilities in the hands of hundreds of millions of people with its Firefox OS. That's an example of the project moving its focus away from the traditional desktop to a sector that is likely to become the dominant one in the next few years.


A couple of months ago, I wrote about the tremendous potential for Mozilla to change the world by putting smartphone capabilities in the hands of hundreds of millions of people with its Firefox OS. That's an example of the project moving its focus away from the traditional desktop to a sector that is likely to become the dominant one in the next few years.

In a sense, Mozilla has already won on the desktop, turning a market totally dominated by one company - Microsoft - into one where there are now four alternative browsers, all implementing open standards. That's a huge achievement, but it's also true that Firefox's share of that market has been declining for some time, and is likely to continue to do so absent any major surprises in the sector. That raises the question: Where does Mozilla go now?

FirefoxOS is clearly a big part of the answer, and here, on the tenth anniversary of Firefox, is Mitchell Baker, Chair of the Mozilla Foundation, explaining why the new platform is so important:

Winning on the desktop was great. And, if our goal was just to build a successful product, I might have just moved on. But our goal was — and is — quite different. We created Firefox to build openness and opportunity in our lives and into the internet industry. That is our mission. And it’s mission that is even more relevant today than 10 years ago.

Today, this goal is at risk again. Many of the principles we associate with the Web — openness, decentralization and the ability of anyone to publish without asking permission from others — are at risk.

Specifically, she's worried about lock-in to mobile and social networking platforms:

it isn’t very different from the ‘Microsoft stack’ version of the internet that was emerging 10 years ago. The possibilities of mobile, social and big data are astonishing. But the current implementation drives all of us into a world of monitoring and control and opportunities determined by others far, far away from our lives. I don’t want to be owned and tracked by giant multinationals or governments, or told which of the Web’s astonishing possibilities I’m allowed to enjoy. I don’t want that for the rest of the world’s citizens either. This is not the trajectory that I think the Internet should be on.

So, what else will Mozilla be doing, alongside the completely open Firefox OS, to address this issue of being "owned and tracked" whenever we are online? Here's one new venture:

Polaris is a privacy initiative built to pull together our own privacy efforts along with other privacy leaders in the industry. Polaris is designed to allow us to collaborate more effectively, more explicitly and more directly to bring more privacy features into our products. We want to accelerate pragmatic and user-focused advances in privacy technology for the Web, giving users more control, awareness and protection in their Web experiences. We want to advance the state of the art in privacy features, with a specific focus on bringing them to more mainstream audiences.

That's the long-term goal. Meanwhile, Mozilla is launching what it calls "two experiments under the Polaris banner, focused on anti-censorship technology, anonymity, and cross-site tracking protection":

First, Mozilla engineers are evaluating the Tor Project’s changes to Firefox, to determine if changes to our own platform codebase can enable Tor to work more quickly and easily. Mozilla will also soon begin hosting our own high-capacity Tor middle relays to make Tor’s network more responsive and allow Tor to serve more users. “The Tor Project is excited to join Mozilla as a launch partner in the Polaris program. We look forward to working together on privacy technology, open standards, and future product collaborations,” said Andrew Lewman of the Tor Project.

The second experiment (which is our first in-product Polaris experiment) seeks to understand how we can offer a feature that protects those users that want to be free from invasive tracking without penalizing advertisers and content sites that respect a user’s preferences. We’re currently testing this privacy tool in our “Nightly” channel. The experiment is promising, but it’s not a full-fledged feature yet. We’ll test and refine the user experience and platform behavior over the coming months and collect feedback from all sides before this is added to our general release versions.

This is bold, innovative stuff, and exactly the sort of thing we need to be seeing from Mozilla if it wants to remain one of the leaders in the online world. Privacy needs to be baked into the browser, present at every stage, not added as an afterthought. Making it easier to use Tor is one way of doing that; another which I would be keen to see is making the use of strong encryption in Mozilla's Thunderbird much more seamless than it is at present. As anyone who uses OpenPGP via Enigmail will know, things are pretty clunky at the moment, and that's a huge barrier to wider use of this tool, which has taken on a new importance in the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations of pervasive surveillance.

Clearly, then, privacy is a key focus for Mozilla in the future. Here's another one, addressing a different audience:

Ten years ago, we built Firefox for early adopters and developers to give them more choice and control. Firefox integrated WebAPIs and Add-ons to enable people to get the most out of the Web. Now we’re giving developers the whole browser as a hard-hat area, allowing us to bring front and center the features most relevant to them. Having a dedicated developer browser means we can tailor the browsing experience to what developers do every day.

Currently this "dedicated developer browser" has two main features:

Valence (previously called Firefox Tools Adapter) lets you develop and debug your app across multiple browsers and devices by connecting the Firefox dev tools to other major browser engines. Valence also extends the awesome tools we’ve built to debug Firefox OS and Firefox for Android to the other major mobile browsers including Chrome on Android and Safari on iOS. So far these tools include our Inspector, Debugger and Console and Style Editor.


WebIDE allows you to develop, deploy and debug Web apps directly in your browser, or on a Firefox OS device. It lets you create a new Firefox OS app (which is just a web app) from a template, or open up the code of an existing app. From there you can edit the app’s files. It’s one click to run the app in a simulator and one more to debug it with the developer tools.

The early success of Firefox was built on the foundations of developer uptake - that is, the people who could see immediately that it was a superior product, offering greater freedom. Returning to its roots in this way by adding dev-specific features, is a wise move, and could do much to make Firefox once more the browser that the cool coders use.

What's interesting about these two new initiatives is that they start to position Firefox as something of a specialist, almost vertical, browser. That could be a shrewd response to Firefox's shrinking market share. Since Mozilla has, in any case, won the battle for the mainstream browser sector by imposing its own terms of openness on the other players, there's no need for it to fight them simply to gain market share. Instead, it can now lead the way again by addressing the next big challenges: safeguarding our online freedom and privacy, and helping developers do that and much else.

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