Grandson Of Browser Wars: Open Source Is Not Enough

The latest sequel of browser wars has Firefox between a rock and a hard place

It seems for as long as there has been an Internet, there has been a browser war. Lynx, Mosaic, Netscape Navigator are names that conjure up browsing the web in a simpler time. I still remember well Microsoft coming out with IE and knocking the high flying Netscape off its perch. Many of us were thrilled when Mozilla Firefox rose from the ashes of AOL owned Netscape and became a hipper, cooler way of browsing. One of the best things about it was that it was open source and the Mozilla Foundation reveled in that "good guy" rep as the open source alternative to Microsoft's evil empire browser.

Then Google came out with Chrome. It was based on open source software, if not open itself. But most of all Chrome proved that like in many sports, speed kills in browsing too. Chrome was fast. It rapidly (pun intended)took share from both IE and Firefox. Of course Apple continued with its own Safari browser and there is of course Opera. But it seemed that browser war 3 was going to be a Google-Microsoft affair, as these two titans battled for supremacy of the tech world.

Firefox found itself largely as a bystander. The spunky, open source contender that had bloodied Microsoft seemed like it didn't have the cajones to take on a fellow open source browser. It was cooler than button downed IE, but it just wasn't as cool as Chrome. Now finally, Mitchell Baker, Chairman of the Mozilla Foundation has laid out a vision of the future of Mozilla and Firefox. The key according to Baker is the Mozilla mission to "to build user sovereignty into the fabric of the Internet. We work to ensure that the the Internet remains open, interoperable and accessible to all. To do this we build products, we build decentralized participation worldwide, and we build the ability for people to create their own experiences".

It is a big vision mission that takes into account several realities. The biggest maybe that we may be moving beyond the browser. The age of the app may make using a browser to access the web old fashioned. But will the browser morph into the app. The browser can become the platform that the app is built on. Baker says, "the browser is necessary but it is no longer sufficient. There are a number of reasons the Firefox experience needs to expand to fulfill the Mozilla mission." 

While her blog is long on big vision statements such as those above, it is not as clear on the specifics of how to get there. Being open is not going to be enough. Many people think Google's Chrome, like Google's Android is open enough. Mozilla and Firefox need to show us more than open if they are not going to continue to bleed market share. Otherwise the good guys could finish last here.

There is another reason for me to be bearish on Firefox and Mozilla. While Microsoft's IE is being closely integrated into a mobile platform (Windows Mobile) and even more tightly knit to the on the horizon Windows 8, Apple of course is building Safari tightly into both MacOS and iOS. Even Google is building Chrome hooks into both Android and ChromeOS.  All of these browsers are part of the OS of both desktop and mobile platform providers. Mozilla has no platform. There is no Mozilla OS on either a desktop or a mobile device.

Without it Mozilla will never have the "special relationship" that these other browser's enjoy with their parent's OS. How can Mozilla compete? As we move to more apps and less browser can Mozilla take the "Mozilla values" and do a better job of becoming an app platform that can run on top of operating systems from these other players? Maybe they can take a Java approach and be the only browser/app platform that runs across all of these platforms. The Java if you will of browsers. Build it once, run it anywhere.

I don't know perhaps that is an angle that will prevent Mozilla from being just another casualty in the browser wars.

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