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!