Is Firefox Past its Prime?

A few weeks ago, in a post about why Google+ is going to succeed, I noted that Google Chrome has been on an upward trend of about .5–1% per month since it launched nearly two years ago.

While I didn’t mention it at the time, Firefox has an interesting usage graph as well. If you follow that link, you’ll see that Firefox’s curve hovered a little over 30% for the tail end of 2009 and the better part of 2010, but has started to drop over the past twelve months.

If these trends continue, Chrome will be more popular than Firefox by the end of next year.

What does this mean for everyone’s favourite open-source browser?

From Phoenix to Providence.

Back around 2003, the ‘net was desperate for something new. Sure there were other browsers around, but nobody could hold a candle to the market-dominating behemoth that was Internet Explorer (source). Innovation was non-existent, and the web as we knew it was suffocating.

Enter Mozilla. The release of Firefox 1.0 in 2004 was a breath of fresh air for the online community. Suddenly there was an open-source, standards-compliant competitor gaining momentum. We were thrust from the shackles of monopoly into an arms race that culminated in the second browser war.

Mozilla was a critical piece of the puzzle. It was a veritable flagship of new, exciting features. Better CSS support. A clean, tabbed interface. The prevalence and importance of add-ons could be its own post; countless extensions have become standard features across the board of popular browsers.

By the time Firefox 3 was released, in June 2008, Mozilla could do no wrong. Everything was on the up-and-up.

Then, the landscape changed.

Is Firefox still necessary?

With Microsoft innovating again (see IE9), Apple’s devices gaining popularity (and Safari with them), and Google bursting into the browser space with Chrome, competition was hot in 2009/2010.

Firefox still played a key role at this time: it was the yardstick against which all other browsers were held. Sure Safari and Chrome have built-in development tools, but are they as good as Firebug? How does WebKit’s HTML5 support compare to Gecko’s? And isn’t IE still laughably behind?

But this role has run its course. The major players are now well-established. Most users are aware of alternatives to their operating systems’ default browsers.

This can’t be a long-term position for Firefox. It won’t last.

The competition is no longer resting on its laurels. Chrome is closing in. Internet Explorer is finally in a position to reverse its eight-year downward trend, and WebKit is absolutely dominating this year’s explosive rise in mobile browsing.

Extensions are everywhere. Support for standards has never been better. Firefox is quietly becoming less and less relevant with each passing update.

So I ask again:

Does the golden age for Firefox lie in its past?

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10 Responses to “Is Firefox Past its Prime?”

  1. David Says:

    I still love me some Firefox, although I’m lamenting their new faster release schedule, a.k.a. incrementing the version number every six weeks.

  2. Grant Lucas Says:

    Though I used to be a heavy Firefox user for years on OSX, it eventually got to the point about two years ago when it was just too slow to start up and use. No doubt this was due to the 1-5 extensions I had installed, but since then we’ve seen browsers like Chrome and Safari manage extensions without sacrificing startup speed.

    The few things that kept me on Firefox were Firebug and Xmarks, but when Safari came out with web inspectors and Xmarks came with safari support, I was more than happy to jump to the snappier Safari and have stuck with it since with Chrome being a secondary browser when needed.

    I’m sure Firefox has improved in the years since I switched but I just can’t get the sour taste out of my mouth when I remember how long it would take to launch etc.

  3. dan Says:

    @Dave

    Seriously? A predictable, quick release schedule is much better than doing a full dot-upgrade every year or two. Chrome has been doing this since launch, and it’s working very well for Google!

  4. dan Says:

    @Grant

    I feel exactly the same way. I remember Firefox 2 in OSX and how often it crashed, and I’ve never been able to get over it. I currently use the same Safari/Chrome combo, and I haven’t looked back.

    Firefox had a huge advantage with addons for a long time, but most of the really good, necessary extensions are now defaults in most modern browsers. I think that’s a big loss for Firefox, and Mozilla needs to find a new way for their community to stay ahead of the game.

  5. Steve Says:

    Talking about Firefox 2 when its now at 7 doesn’t make a lot of sense. There is still a lot of room for Firefox to innovate. The Mozilla organization is one of the best of its kind. Chrome is a pain because its addons are really sloppy compared to those in Firefox. Chrome also uses a lot more memory and processes than Firefox. M$ Internet Explorer 9 (and Windows 7) are still big resource hogs. Anybody who pays $2,000 just to get an Apple laptop is just plain dense. OS/x is still too proprietary to be really useful. Everyone else has ripped off all the work that has been done at Mozilla and they still haven’t caught up.

    I test this stuff and do comparisons continuously with various workstation loads and operating systems. Please do some research so you can make informed and intelligent comments, rather than fanboy junk.

  6. dan Says:

    Firefox is unquestionably still an excellent browser. While I use Safari and Chrome (Canary) at work, my main browser at home, where I do most of my browsing, is Firefox (Aurora).

    I stay up-to-date on the official dev blogs, I was saddened to see Flock go, and I still try Opera every now and then to see if it’s finally a legitimate, day-to-day option. I’m by no means a fanboy. I consider myself rather well-informed.

    People like you and me might care that one browser is faster, more open, or less resource-intensive than another, but your average internet user will not notice a difference in browsing experience between the latest versions of Firefox and Chrome.

    The point I was trying to make is that Firefox played a really key role in the history of the web back when it first launched, and I don’t think it will ever do anything so significant again. Mozilla isn’t the only one innovating anymore, and expensive/slow/proprietary systems be damned, Safari and IE are good enough for the vast majority of users.

    Firefox used to fill a very big and very significant void, but that void has shrunk considerably in the past few years. It’s still a great browser, and Mozilla is still doing great things, but we’ll never need it as badly as we did when IE ruled the web.

  7. Tony Says:

    Dan,

    I think that Firefox does have it’s place. It adds weight to Standards, trends, and open source projects put out into web. Lets look at the WebRTC project. Google is pushing this project, and Mozilla is right behind it getting ready to have built in support ASAP. When Chrome + Firefox hit the market with support you know it puts pressure on Apple, Microsoft, and contributors to webkit to follow suit.

    I still enjoy (and am presently using) Firefox 6.0 on my MBP and love it’s stability. I have started to lament the use of Chrome on this machine as I keep getting the ‘Opps – Something went wrong bluish teal folder icon/screen of death’ in chrome just about every time I use it.

  8. Frank Kuschnereit Says:

    As of August 2011,Firefox was the second most widely used browser, with approximately 30% and Chrome was the third most widely used browser with 22.14% of worldwide usage share of web browsers. Chrome rise has been solely at the expense of IE and Firefox usage has remained stable. See chart: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/86/Usage_share_of_web_browsers_%28Source_StatCounter%29.svg

    Is Firefox still relevant? It is open sourced which makes it very agile. Firefox’s vulnerabilities were fixed on average one day after the exploit code was made available, as compared to nine days for Internet Explorer. What worries me about Chrome is that it sends details about its usage to Google through both optional and non-optional user tracking mechanisms. Although Google says it will do no evil, it seems to be trying to take over everything and be ‘Big Brother’. I like Firefox and don’t trust Microsoft and Google.

  9. dan Says:

    Tony and Frank, you’ve both raised some very good points.

    Firefox is a boon to the standards community, and always has been. It’s worth noting that together, FF and Chrome currently have more share than IE. Being able to team up and pressure “the man” into making the web more open is going to be important for a while to come.

    The privacy mention is also very important. It hadn’t occurred to me, and Frank, you’re totally right. Firefox is hands-down the most trusted browser out there for user privacy. Especially with all the heat Facebook and Google have taken recently for user privacy, this is a major competitive edge for Firefox in the short term. Privacy and data safety are only getting more important.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  10. dan-menard.com» Blog Archive » Achievement Unlocked: Publish 109 Posts Says:

    [...] one-hundredth post! Sadly, this milestone wasn’t marked by a thoughtful piece about the current state of Firefox or a bold prediction about Google+ — my one-hundredth post was me wishing my fellow Canadians a [...]

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