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Firefox Maker Battles to Save the Internet—and Itself

Mozilla helped an open Web flourish in the 2000s. Now it’s struggling to play a meaningful role on mobile devices.

Mozilla and its open-source projects have been crucial to Web security and other key aspects of the Internet.

In Silicon Valley, most pioneers pursue big ideas and giant personal fortunes with equal zeal. Then there’s Mozilla, an innovation dynamo that refuses to get rich.

More than 500 million people worldwide use Mozilla products. The company’s Firefox Internet browser is the top choice in countries ranging from Germany to Indonesia. But the company has no venture capital backing, no stock options, no publicly traded shares. It hardly ever patents its breakthroughs. Instead, Mozilla has a business model that’s as open and sprawling as the World Wide Web itself, where everything is free and in the public domain.

For a long time, it seemed as if Mozilla’s idealistic engineers understood the future better than anyone. By building the Firefox browser with open-source software, Mozilla made it easy for all kinds of people to cook up improvements that the whole world could use. Independent developers in dozens of countries pitched in, creating add-ons that speeded up downloads, blocked unwanted ads, and performed other useful services. Firefox rapidly became the browser in which state-of-the-art development took place–on shoestring budgets.

Suddenly, though, the Internet looks nightmarish to Mozilla. Most of the world now gets online on mobile devices, and about 96 percent of smartphones run on either the Apple iOS or Google Android operating systems. Both of these are tightly controlled worlds. Buy an iPhone, and you’ll almost certainly end up using Apple’s Web browser, Apple’s maps, and Apple’s speech recognition software. You will select your applications from an Apple-curated app store. Buy an Android phone, and you will be steered into a parallel world run by Team Google. The public-spirited, ad hoc approaches that defined Mozilla’s success in the Internet browser wars have now been marginalized. Developers don’t stay up late working on open-source platforms anymore; instead, they sweat over the details needed to win a spot in Apple’s and Google’s digital stores. Rival operating systems offered by BlackBerry and Microsoft Windows have largely fallen by the wayside as well.

“Many of the principles we associate with the Web–openness, decentralization and the ability of anyone to publish without asking permission from others–are at risk,” declared a lengthy blog post written in November 2014 by Mitchell Baker, chair of the Mozilla Foundation, the nonprofit vehicle that serves as the company’s ultimate owner.

No matter that users and software developers seem to be thriving in this more structured new milieu, with nearly one billion Apple iOS and Google Android smartphones being sold each year. From Baker’s perspective, “frankly, this direction for the Internet sucks.”

Baker’s antidote: Firefox OS, a totally different operating system for smartphones, built on the same collegial, open-source principles that make the Firefox browser such a success. Mozilla has entered this battle with financial resources less than one-hundredth those of Apple and Google. And the organization is even shorter on time: the incumbents have enjoyed nearly a decade’s head start in some crucial markets. Is it too late for a radical attempt to crack the mobile duopoly?

No sanctuary

Since mid-2011, Andreas Gal has been Mozilla’s point man on Firefox OS, and he has gained power as the project has grown. In April 2014, the Hungarian-born engineer became Mozilla’s chief technology officer. A close look at Firefox OS’s journey shows why Gal and colleagues feel their mission is so crucial—and why success is going to be very hard to achieve.

Gal, 39, stumbled into his current specialty by accident. In early 2011, as he recalled in an interview, he and another Mozilla researcher, Chris Jones, were chatting in a hotel during an Asian trade show. The two engineers identified a handful of common tasks that couldn’t be done easily on the Web. The first item on their list, opening PDF documents, yielded to their coding skills within weeks. So Gal decided to try something harder.

“We need a hill to take,” Gal, Jones, and two other colleagues wrote in a jaunty post to a Mozilla developers’ group in July 2011. The engineers proposed to create a Web-based mobile OS, which would offer a new way for developers to reach big mobile audiences without needing to pass through the gateways created by Apple and Google. “This project is in its infancy,” the Mozilla developers conceded. If anyone else wanted to pitch in, that would be wonderful.

The first key offer of help arrived within 24 hours. Engineers working for Telefónica, Spain’s largest mobile carrier, had liked Gal’s posting and offered technical support and connections to their business colleagues. The goal: getting the Firefox OS installed on a next generation of phones for Telefónica’s Latin American markets.

Andreas Gal

It didn’t take long for Gal to realize how tricky this new project would be. Creating basic Web instructions to get a phone to make a call took months; that problem didn’t get solved until 2 a.m. one night in Mozilla’s San Francisco offices. (Other engineers working late that evening recall hearing whoops of joy when the first call went through.) Addressing local market peculiarities–such as Latin American customers’ desires to have an FM radio built into their smartphones–added complexity, too.

Still, Mozilla’s far-flung network of contributors kept solving problems as fast as they arose. Erik Spiekermann, a renowned designer in Berlin, came up with a distinctive typeface for Firefox phones that conveyed a friendly, simple tone even at low resolutions. The keyboard’s swipe function was implemented by a Spanish-born engineer living in Amsterdam. A Canadian designer in her mid-20s created more than 600 emoji, just for Firefox, to satisfy the moods of avid texters.

Partway through development, Gal conceded that Firefox’s mobile displays couldn’t match the iPhone’s elegant look. “Apple has spent years polishing every pixel,” he would later quip. Even so, he felt confident that the Firefox OS could fill a big global need for a smartphone that approached the performance of an Apple or Android phone at much lower cost.

In the summer of 2013, the first Firefox OS-powered phones went on sale in Spain, Colombia, and Venezuela. Many of the best-known handset makers, such as South Korea’s Samsung and Taiwan’s HTC, were already committed to making Android phones. But Gal and Denelle Dixon-Thayer, Mozilla’s senior vice president for business and legal affairs, negotiated alliances with China’s ZTE and France’s Alcatel One. Telefónica agreed to let these phones operate on its networks, while also providing marketing support.

Determined to widen the Firefox phone’s appeal, Mozilla’s team hammered out partnerships in more than two dozen countries. New carriers brought the phone into India, South Africa, southeastern Asia, and Eastern Europe. Major chip makers such as Qualcomm stepped forward to support the Firefox OS design. Handset makers such as South Korea’s LG came on board, too. “Considering how many hurdles we had to clear along the way, it was pretty dramatic progress,” Gal recalls.

What caught Mozilla by surprise was Google’s arrival in the low end of the smartphone market. Originally, Mozilla’s strategists had assumed that Android was too complex an operating system to work well in any phones selling for less than $120 or so. That would have left Firefox a lot of opportunity to woo budget-minded customers with sub-$100 phones. Then Google tweaked Android so that it could adapt to the spartan memory chips and smaller data plans of cheap phones designed for emerging markets.

Suddenly, the low end wasn’t a sanctuary for Firefox. In the Philippines, where a Firefox OS smartphone is a modest 1,499 pesos (equivalent to $33), there’s now an Android alternative for $45. The price gap has become even smaller in Brazil and India. Without a big cost advantage, Firefox and its carrier allies have been in the awkward position of championing an unfamiliar new approach that can’t dodge the competition.

Mozilla won’t discuss sales data, but mobile-market researchers estimate that Firefox is on track to win no more than 1 percent of the global smartphone market this year. Ryan Reith, mobile program director at International Data Corporation, says that on a recent trip to Peru, he found Firefox OS phones sitting “at the end of the shelf in stores, with no marketing support.”

Unfinished

For smartphone buyers, the hardware might be less important than the performance of their favorite applications. While Google and Apple have largely defined that user experience, Mozilla’s leaders insist it’s possible to create something better. Even though Firefox OS phones aren’t widely sold in the United States at present, they can be found occasionally on eBay. So I bought a ZTE Open C phone ($119) and tested its Firefox 1.3 operating system during a one-month contract with T-Mobile ($40).

A sampling of phones with Firefox OS.

I found it to be the digital equivalent of a nearly finished house that’s missing its stairway. The ZTE device’s basic design checks out well, once one accepts that it has a small screen, a sassy orange casing, and a still camera only, no video. The home-page layout is crisp and orderly. Twenty small, bright icons introduce core services such as e-mail, Wikipedia, and the always handy Firefox browser. But where are the apps? The smartphone offers its own marketplace, in which everything is free. Google and Apple can charge for apps; that’s not Mozilla’s way of doing things. As a result, the ZTE phone offers a limited collection of obscure games.

In Mozilla’s ideal world, companies would create Web-based mobile sites that work just as nicely on Firefox phones as iOS and Android apps do on their intended devices. For now, though, everything is hit or miss.

Several news providers, including the New York Times, Reddit, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, Fox News, and CNN, have smooth-running mobile sites. Twitter and Facebook work well, too. But LinkedIn’s mobile site renders pages slowly and doesn’t scroll smoothly. To date, Mozilla hasn’t regarded better support for LinkedIn as a top priority, says Bill Walker, Mozilla’s senior manager for Firefox’s mobile marketplace, adding: “It isn’t the No. 1 thing they need in Senegal.” Minor coding incompatibilities make parts of BankAmerica’s site show up on the ZTE phone as full-size Web pages in microscopic type. Yelp is especially vexing. Because of a formatting glitch, the site’s reviews are confined to a thin ribbon on the left side of the page. Brief reviews sprawl down for 60 or 70 lines, with no more than a few syllables per line.

Walker contends that these problems will vanish with Version 2.0 of Firefox’s OS, which is available in Japan and is headed to other markets. In a demonstration of that software, Yelp and LinkedIn did look smoother.

However, to Mozilla’s chagrin, many developers are too starved for time to focus on anything except the ever-changing demands of looking good on Android and iOS. A case in point is WhatsApp, the widely used messaging service, which started operation in late 2009. For its first five years, WhatsApp focused entirely on Android and iOS, amassing more than 600 million users that way. Only in January 2015 did the debut of a WhatsApp Web version provide the beginnings of a Firefox option.

Developers at Mozilla’s Drumbeat Festival in Barcelona, Spain, in 2010.

Also missing from the Firefox phone is the seamless fusion of maps, directions, speech recognition, hotel listings, and local bus schedules that can be found on an Android or iOS phone. Each of those services exists independently on the Firefox phone, but it takes a lot of work to pull them together. Mozilla’s engineers don’t believe in locking users into a single, proprietary system. As admirable as that principle of standalone services may be, it makes travel planning much harder.

The ZTE phone is hardly the last word regarding Mozilla’s mobile ambitions in the United States. Verizon has agreed to launch a new Firefox model next year that will run on its big wireless network. In a sign of how competitive Mozilla wants to be, Walker showed me a new mapping system developed in partnership with TomTom that provides excellent turn-by-turn driving directions on tricky routes. That’s a huge improvement over a musty Nokia map service currently offered on the ZTE phone. Overall, the Verizon project’s success or failure is likely to determine whether the Firefox OS can ever compete effectively with the Android/iOS duopoly in developed markets.

The long run

Mozilla’s overall financial picture looks good for now. Figures for 2014 haven’t been released yet, but in 2013, the Mozilla Foundation booked $314 million in revenue. That comfortably covered outlays of $197 million for software development, as well as smaller amounts for marketing, overhead, and foundation programs.

The Mozilla Foundation doesn’t formally report a profit. Even so, net assets grew $15 million, or 6 percent, in 2013. If the foundation needs money to pursue its civic and commercial goals, it has $255 million in cash, investments, and other holdings. Beyond that, Mozilla benefits from its vast network of informal contributors around the world. These allies pitch in, free of charge, on various projects because they find the work exciting and in keeping with public-spirited ideals.

Such volunteers have been a crucial part of Mozilla’s success, going back as far as 1999, when Mozilla began taking shape as a nonprofit spinout from Netscape Communications, a pioneering Internet browser company. Netscape largely vanished in a series of corporate reshufflings, but an informal army of Mozillians took over browser development in 2003. Outside Mozilla’s San Francisco offices, a 14-foot-high black monolith salutes, by name, the efforts of more than 4,000 such contributors.

In the long run, however, Mozilla’s revenue depends on the Firefox Web browser’s usage. Search-engine companies will pay handsomely for the privilege of being the browser’s default search engine, knowing that if they can collect billions of search requests from Firefox users, those queries will generate a big boost in ad revenue. Google traditionally paid as much as $300 million a year to be Firefox’s default search engine worldwide. Mozilla switched to a more lucrative and diversified strategy last year, splitting privileges regionally among Yahoo, China’s Baidu, and Russia’s Yandex.

If fewer people use the Firefox browser, the money spinner stops spinning. That’s one of the reasons Mozilla doesn’t want to sit idly during the vast migration toward mobile services.

Mozilla’s Gal contends that everything is moving along, right on course. “I think we’ve successfully transformed a desktop company into a mobile company with this project,” he declares. “I don’t think we saw the full extent of how much Firefox OS could influence the whole mobile industry.”

Market data, however, tells another story. The Firefox browser’s overall market share has sunk to about 11.6 percent lately, about half of what it was at the start of 2012. Most of that traffic comes from desktop computers, where Firefox still enjoys about a 17 percent share. Its mobile browser share is in very low single digits. Once consumers settle into the far-reaching embrace of the Android or iOS mobile experience, there’s hardly any chance of their voluntarily adding the Firefox browser to the mix. Doing so would be as pointless as bringing one’s own fork to a restaurant.

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