Mozilla's midlife crisis has taken it from web pioneer to Google's weird neighbor

Can the sleeping fox ever wake up?

Comment Mozilla seems to be asleep at the wheel, when it once drove online activity and communications. We have some suggestions where it could go.

Mozilla is the wealthy [PDF] independent organization behind the only all-FOSS browser engine that's independent of commercial vendors. It also does important security research – its recent report on the abysmal privacy of in-car software is a good example.

Firefox remains a powerful, capable, fast, and resource-efficient browser. For instance, it doesn't just render PDFs in-browser, without plugins or helpers, it lets you amend or annotate them too. The latest Firefox 118 has privacy-centric, local, in-browser language translation. Some of its shorcuts and navigational features will probably surprise you.

Mozilla's programming languages (yes, plural)

Mozilla also invented not one but two of the hottest programming languages around. This century, it invented the Rust programming language, as we reported back in 2011. In recent years that seems to be eating into every major OS… but six months into the pandemic, Mozilla laid off the entire team, killing its next-gen rendering engine, Servo.

(Much of Mozilla's revenue comes from Google, of course. This couldn't be because Rust was, and is, outshining Google's GoLang? Surely not?)

Back in 1995, before even The Register, Mozilla's commercial forerunner Netscape invented JavaScript, which it introduced with Netscape 2.0; as this fossilized announcement notes, "of possible interest to developers." Yeah, just a tad.

Mozilla's messaging client

Mozilla also backs the development of the leading cross-platform messaging client, Thunderbird. This was sadly neglected for years, but even so, its developers kept working on it. A few highlights:

And, at some point soon, an Android version is coming.

Mozilla's mobile OS

Mozilla also had a mobile OS, which a decade ago we called the third-place contender and which it officially killed off in 2016. Boot2Gecko, marketed as FirefoxOS, was rebooted under the name KaiOS. It won some Google investment in 2018 and we even reviewed a KaiOS phone in 2020.

KaiOS is still around, and still in third place, which in such a huge market isn't a bad place to be; it implies substantial growth. Its owner claims 160 million devices, which is no minor rounding error. The Finnish Fund For Industrial Cooperation recently bunged KaiosTech a few million to help them expand into the new growth market of sub-Saharan Africa. The code on GitHub still has Mozilla trademarks all over it. Why isn't this a famous FOSS project to rival, or merge with, postmarketOS? Why doesn't Mozilla talk about it, or better still, reclaim it?

Mozilla's… web editor and music player

It also formerly had some other gems. The original "Mozilla" was an all-in-one suite of internet tools, derived from Netscape Communicator: a browser, plus an messaging client – then meaning email plus USENET – plus calendar, address book, workflow it acquired with Collabra, and an HTML editor. A combined suite is still around, in the guise of the Seamonkey Project.

Although HTML is everywhere, you don't hear much about HTML editors any more – largely because the static stuff has been rendered almost obsolete by dynamically generated web content, much of it generated by code in Mozilla languages, of course. Even decades after Mozilla dropped it, the leading FOSS HTML editor remains Mozilla code; it's just about hanging on in the form of BlueGriffon.

To be honest, we're not sure that it really needed its own music player, but Songbird was a thing for a while. With many companies, including the BBC, making it harder to stream without their own clients, there might be an opening there.

Mozilla's server software

LDAP is not trendy and never really has been, but it's still useful. Red Hat sells an LDAP server as the Red Hat Directory Server. The code originated as the Netscape Directory Server, and the community-supported FOSS version is now called the 389 Directory Server, after the TCP port that LDAP uses .

Oracle is still just about supporting the old Netscape Enterprise Server too.

An impressive history

Netscape was the original open source web browser. We've been covering it from the start; in 1998, owner AOL promised to open source it – before Google was even founded (25 years ago on Monday, as it happens). Four years later, the open source version shipped. Twenty years ago, The Reg covered its rebirth as Phoenix (and when it became Firefox the next year).

So how, and why, has this vastly innovative, pioneering company become a straggler among followers?

It's let many of its jewels go. Some canceled, some sold off, some given away. Many have found new homes, from Rust's foundation to the Servo engine.

And yet it still has some powerful, valuable tech.

Whither the bird?

Browsers are hard, really hard. The days when the web was just HTML are long gone. There are very few web pages any more; instead, they are programs, and worse still, they're client-server programs, with one end running on the device in front of you, talking to a different program running somewhere else.

Much of the modern computing world runs over this stuff. Ostensibly local applications, from Slack to Teams, are just JavaScript applets running inside their own private single-site browser – and those all use Google's browser engine. Web engines and web apps are a core part of the digital world – arguably, the core part.

As, of course, is open source: most web servers run on Linux, and on the client end, over 70 per cent of smartphones run Android, which is also Linux underneath.

Just as over 70 percent of smartphones run Linux, over 70 per cent of browsers are based on Google's code. At the time of writing, some 64 per cent is Chrome, plus 5.4 per cent Edge. Opera and the Samsung browser make up about another 5 per cent. As they all run on the same engine, Chromium – as does Vivaldi and Brave – that's perilously close to three quarters.

Safari, whose rendering engine WebKit is the origin of Chromium's Blink engine, is a little under 20 per cent, making it by far the leading non-Chromium browser – but almost exclusively on Apple OSes. GNOME Web, codenamed Epiphany, is as far as we know the only WebKit browser on Linux (and, it should be noted, on Haiku as well). The Windows port of WebKit is still maintained — for instance, iTunes uses it – but the Windows version of Safari was discontinued back in 2012.

So how come the original open source web browser is now, Statcounter estimates, under 3 percent? Mozilla, it seems to us, has missed a lot of opportunities, and continues to do so.

There is still a niche for power user browsers, and for powerful integration tools to bring together disparate comms channels that force users into web apps and Electron clients. Despite the sales of ChromeBooks and the free ChromeOS Flex, despite the Steam Deck and Steam OS, Linux still isn't a mainstream end-user OS. If you run Linux, you're probably a power user. Firefox is the dominant Linux browser. By default, it's the only standalone app in next month's Ubuntu Mantic Minotaur.

Mozilla, please stop aping Chrome. Copying is rarely the way to win big. The Australis Chrome-like theme in Firefox 29 annoyed users and was a driving force behind Pale Moon. Firefox Quantum killed XUL addons, and drove The Reg FOSS desk to Waterfox Classic. Others went to Basilisk instead, while XP users have MyPal.

Even Microsoft's Chrome-based Edge has vertical tabs. Firefox doesn't, and to make them well, you must mess around with config files, although we still feel it's worth it. The Vivaldi browser shows that there is still plenty of room to outdo Chrome on features, and a market of people who want for them.

Can we please have a Firefox that leans into being the browser for power users? Bundle some of the more powerful extensions that survived your self-inflicted extension extinction event. Vertical or tree-structured tabs, on any edge. Menu bars and hotkeys. Multithreaded downloads, even integrated BitTorrent support. Perhaps experiment with this stuff in the Firefox developer edition. Bring back the customizability it once had, which you've been steadily removing for years.

Thunderbird is also a powerful asset. Although it too is sadly neglected, Pidgin is still around and still works, and libPurple remains uniquely powerful. There are plugins that get it talking to Slack, WhatsApp, Telegram, RocketChat, Signal, Mattermost, you name it. Adopt it, update it, add it to Chat Core.

Thunderbird could be the universal client that talks to dozens of services in one place. There is room here for significant improvement over the existing multiprotocol messaging clients we've described before.

Leave Chrome and its offspring to the technophobic, and make some cross-platform tools for the keyboard merchants who know how to email like a pro. ®

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