2011-03-23

Why I Think All Browsers (Mozilla Firefox Included) Will Survive

Mozilla Firefox 4, as customized by me
Mozilla Firefox 4 is out, and I'm using it now. It's now fast enough and stable enough that it has rekindled some of the old excitement I felt when I first started using Mozilla Firefox and when I started using a new version of the browser. At the same time that I started using it, I saw this article (Ed Bott, ZDNet) which posits why Microsoft Internet Explorer will survive and Mozilla Firefox won't, and I felt like I should respond to it.

Before that, there are two things I should disclose. The first is that I initially considered titling this post "Review: Mozilla Firefox 4" but I decided against it because it's more my opinion of the current status of the browser and my excitement about the new release. The second is that I am probably quite biased in favor of Mozilla Firefox, considering that I have been using it since version 0.8. Please keep these in mind when reading the rest of this post.

Basically, he posits that Mozilla has done wrong by letting Firefox sit without a major release for two years, while in two years Google Chrome has gone from version 1 to version 10. Furthermore, Microsoft has been ramping up its Internet Explorer release schedule and coming closer to how often Google releases Chrome and will make bigger strides in market share thanks to integration with Microsoft Windows Phone 7. And finally, both Microsoft and Google have a whole host of web applications coming with Internet Explorer and Chrome, respectively, while Mozilla has nothing of the sort for Firefox, so Firefox is the loser here. Follow the jump to read my take.


Let's start from the top. First of all, Mozilla has numbered Firefox differently than Microsoft has Internet Explorer or Google has Chrome. Mozilla Firefox 3.0, 3.5, 3.6, and 4.0 are all major releases. It's similar to how openSUSE 11.4 is a jump of a full major release from 11.3, yet there are writers out there who claim its just a new minor "point" release in the "openSUSE 11 series", which is plainly not true. It seems like this author has fallen for the marketing trap set up by Google. That said, all 3 browsers are moving towards a numbering system that drops point releases and just uses whole numbers, which I suppose will make comparisons of progress easier.

Next, the author briefly mentions how Mozilla plans to release Firefox 5-7 this year, but conveniently ignores this later on when discussing how Microsoft is following a similar development pace as compared to Google but Mozilla is not. Oops [on the part of the original author].

Finally, the author basically ignores how Microsoft Internet Explorer is still nowhere near as customizable as Mozilla Firefox and how that's important. This customization potential that has become a hallmark and selling point of Mozilla Firefox has allowed anyone and everyone to browse the web exactly the way they want. Internet Explorer users are restricted to browsing the web in the way that Microsoft wants. Furthermore, with regard to Microsoft and Google's web applications, it's not like they are tied to a specific browser; Windows Live applications and Google Docs work equally well in all browsers, so I don't see how that'll really be a factor at all. And lastly, Mozilla has quite a few extensions mentioned in the comments of the original article that are pretty much web applications themselves. So Mozilla is at no disadvantage here, and may even have an advantage with its new Firefox Sync (which other reviewers have admittedly called kind of half-baked).

But there are a couple other reasons why I think all the browsers will survive. Google Chrome will of course continue to thrive thanks to its increasing momentum. Microsoft Internet Explorer will continue to survive because it is so much better than previous versions and is a credible contender in the browser marketplace, so Microsoft Windows users may be more inclined to stick with Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 rather than immediately download a new browser. Then again, the author makes reference to Microsoft Windows Phone 7 as another reason for Microsoft Internet Explorer thriving, which isn't exactly true considering that OS has been a relative flop while Android has continued to dominate the smartphone OS market. This will limit Microsoft Internet Explorer's dominance, along with the fact that it is limited to Microsoft Windows desktop and mobile platforms.
On a side note, I think it's cute that Microsoft moved Internet Explorer's tabs to the side of the location bar, because this is a combination of jumping on the tabs-on-top bandwagon and trying to be different, yet it seems terrible from a usability and design standpoint, considering that the number of tabs visible at any one time will be more limited.

So why will Mozilla Firefox survive? To be fair, it has probably already reached its peak in terms of the number of people using it, and it receives a good bit of financial support from Google (which needs to change soon given that Google Chrome competes with Mozilla Firefox), but it probably won't go below 15% market share. Why? Well, it already has a huge number of people using it, and plenty of people are finding Mozilla Firefox 4 to be an excellent browser and a contender for the crown in the browser marketplace. Its extensibility is still unmatched. It's still going to be a browser choice in the selection screen presented to Microsoft Windows users in Europe. It's included as the default browser in Microsoft Windows 7 on computers sold by companies like ASUS, and this will continue. It will likely be the default browser in HP's Microsoft Windows competitor WebOS, considering HP will probably not want to include the browser that underlies a competing mobile OS (ChromeOS); also, depending on how well WebOS does, Microsoft Internet Explorer's market share will be further limited. And finally, as one of the most successful open-source projects ever, it'll continue to find favor in open-source desktop (Linux, BSD) and mobile (Android thanks to Mozilla Firefox Mobile) OSs.

Right now, I'm typing this in Mozilla Firefox 4, and it is pretty awesome. It's fast, it's stable, it hasn't crashed yet, and it's slick. Plus, in version 3.6, my tooltips got messed up, so I couldn't read xkcd right. Now I have my tooltips back in proper form. Yay!

That said, there are a couple disagreements I have with UI changes, and I have fixed them thanks again to Mozilla Firefox's unmatched extensibility. The first is tabs-on-top: I've changed it to tabs-on-bottom. Why? The Mozilla developers' rationale for tabs-on-top is that the navigation buttons and location bar are specific to each tab, so the tabs should be on top while the navigation buttons and location bar should be underneath to look more like they are specifically part of a given tab. I agree with this from a design perspective, but from a usability perspective, I switch, open, and close tabs more often than I use the navigation buttons or click (as opposed to just typing in) the location bar, so it makes more sense that the tabs be on the bottom and hence closer to the cursor which is usually inside the page of the current tab. Next, I like how the menu has been made into a button, but I don't like how Linux users' Firefox button shows as just the word "Firefox" as opposed to a nice icon. I changed it using this trick from OMG!Ubuntu!. Finally, I think combining the status and location bars makes for more clutter and confusion, so I used the extension Status4Evar to fix that. This also allows the progress bar to be embedded in the location bar, which is what I had in version 3.6 with the Fission extension.

In conclusion, all 3 of these browsers are excellent and competitive, and you really can't go wrong with any of them. At the same time, I think all of them will continue to do well in the marketplace. Happy surfing!
What do you think about Mozilla Firefox 4 and the current state of web browsers? Please do let me know in the comments!

10 comments:

  1. Bott's article seemed rather uninformed and irrelevant to me. What do version numbers really matter? IE of course will survive because Microsoft backs it.

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  2. @be_slayed: Oh my goodness that was fast! Yeah, the article did seem a little fishy, and yes, Microsoft's continuing support of Internet Explorer will make sure it doesn't die unless Microsoft Windows somehow dies. Thanks for the (extraordinarily quick) comment!

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  3. I stopped reading Ed Bott when I realized he was such a shill for M$. I agree with you that all 3 will survive and I hope Opera does as well. I switch from one to another depending. I find that Chrome has some problems with You Tube hanging, FF 3.6 is not as fast as Chrome or Opera and Opera has a few operational problems that I don't like. I find it hard to copy from Opera screens to an email when I want to send something to a friend - no idea why but it just not work as well then. If I could get that to work and also if I were able to pay a few bills with anything but FF I might choose Opera as my main browser.

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  4. I have serious doubts about Ed Bott since reading his article, I am beginning to wonder about his true motives and credibility as a journalist. That said firefox is in no danger in the foreseeable future it is hugely popular and has unmatched extensibility. I use 26 addons regularly they are a vital part of my browsing experience and increase both my productivity and enjoyment on the web. Couldn't agree more re your comments on browsers generally they all bring something to the table and have matured into great tools.

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  5. What is about other browsers? Safari? Opera?

    And then, as soon as Firefox and Chrom(ium) are FOSS, there are (and will be) forks and re-brandings, like Iceweasel, Seamonkey &Co.

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  6. @Anonymous 1: Thankfully, Mozilla Firefox 4 has fixed almost all the big problems version 3.6 had. Also, I do enjoy using Opera, but one issue they have is that the forum moderators are quite thin-skinned; even a single mention of the term "open source" (even in a context unrelated to Opera) has gotten forum users banned.
    @Anonymous 2: My only concern is Mozilla's continuing dependence on Google for a good chunk of funding for Firefox; that has got to change soon, because otherwise Google may one day pull the plug because it sees Firefox as too competitive with Chrome. Then again, its motto is, after all, "don't be evil", and I suppose pulling the plug like that would qualify.
    @linuxblog: Safari and Opera aren't going anywhere; I would say their usage rates are pretty much stagnant, because Opera has neither fallen back nor made further headway, and the percentage of Mac OS X users using Safari will remain essentially constant compared to Mac OS X users using other browsers. (I would say Safari for Microsoft Windows has basically flopped.) The three big players here are Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, and Microsoft Internet Explorer, although Opera has been doing most of the innovation, so it's sad to see them not get any credit.
    Thanks for the comments!

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  7. RE: Tabs on top versus tabs on bottom

    If you have the tabs on top directly at the top of the screen it will be easier to access than if you have them closer because if they're at the screen edge you can overshoot your mouse as much as you want and they'll still go farther. On the other hand, if tabs-on-top doesn't put the tabs right to the screen edge, tabs-on-bottom will be closer.

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  8. @Anonymous: And that's the issue. At least with Chromium the tabs are actually at the top of the screen. With Mozilla Firefox the tabs are sandwiched between the titlebar and navigation tools. Now, I know there are ways to change this, but honestly, I'm too used to tabs-on-bottom and I intuitively know exactly how much to move the mouse to reach a tab. I guess I'm just a creature of habit. Thanks for the comment!

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  9. I stopped using FF a few weeks ago.

    Ive been having a problem like many other people with Gmail, it keeps reloading, booting me out of emails and reloading again...

    I dropped it like a hot potato and now am using Chrome, ReKonq and even Opera.

    I miss the extensions but I miss using my Gmail even more so it wasnt even a choice.

    I might go back and see if its fixed but am in no rush.

    Can the tabs and other components be moved around?
    If so, then the positioning is not a problem but more and more, we see UI specialists go with the 'we know better than you' mentality. If Bob prefers top to bottom then the browser should allow Bob to view them where HE wants.

    Honestly, i have no great love for the new generation of minimalist browsers and I know its a huge problem with many people.
    Ive shown Chrome to many friends Ive introduced to FF earlier and most people hate it because the info is hidden one layer under now.
    People like their File>Print or Edit>Find and so on.
    You tell them that History, Bookmarks and the rest are just one click away and they say 'Why?'
    Because 'its better' is not an answer, its an opinion.

    ALL of the new browsers look exactly the same so Im not sure choice is really that important.

    Im halfway to not caring right now and not since speed dial was exported from Opera have I really cared about features.

    One more thing, Chromium uses a wrench to signify its tools/preferences and all those options and FF uses the logo. One of these is easy to understand and one of them hopes that you guess right and click on its icon.
    Not impressed.


    Still, its not as bad as anything Ed Butt writes.
    This post was so bad that if you tried to get things wrong on purpose youd be hard pressed to do a worse job.

    if you were to hire him based on his writings, i dont think he could get a job sweeping the floors. he sure as hell has proven that tech is too hard for him to follow.

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  10. @Anonymous: All of the browsers you mentioned are great browsers. That said, I do believe Mozilla Firefox 4 has solved the Gmail issues. Furthermore, the UI is somewhat configurable out-of-the-box (e.g. tabs can be moved to the top or bottom) and totally configurable with extensions (e.g. moving the menu button around). I do agree with your assessment of Mozilla Firefox's poor choice to use its own logo to signify the main menu; I think the wrench icon has become pretty standard, considering KDE 4.7 will use it for the compact menus in Dolphin and other applications, and that's just one example of a software suite doing that. And yeah, the original article was pretty darn bad. Thanks for the comment!

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