Interview: How Firefox won its market share

Chris Hoffmann, Director of Engineering and Special Projects at the Mozilla Foundation, speaks to Cliff Saran about winning the hearts and minds of internet users and developers.

Chris Hoffmann, Director of Engineering and Special Projects at the Mozilla Foundation, speaks to Cliff Saran about winning the hearts and minds of internet users and developers.

Firefox has quickly established itself as the main rival to Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser. With Google entering the fray with its Chrome browser, can Mozilla Foundation, which runs the open source Firefox project, take on the two biggest names in the industry?

 

How are you convincing web developers who have standardised on Internet Explorer?

The things we have working for us is that it is a virtuous circle. As Firefox market share grows globally, it generally works better and web developers use it as the primary platform for developing and testing web content. In Germany, for example, where 40-45% of users are using Firefox, no website would consider not supporting Firefox and/or web standards. You would cut out nearly half of the prospective visitors to your site.

One of the early adoptor groups of Firefox were web developers. The major reason for this was the web development extensions such as Firebug. Firefox made these developers more productive. They found that if they used the strategy to develop and test their new content against Firefox first, it made getting to Internet Explorer (IE) compatibility relatively easy. When going the reverse way and developing and testing using IE, it was much harder. First, the tools weren't available, and second it was too easy to branch out into IE optimisations and features that are non-standard and proprietary. Some of these things are not as well supported in IE7 and IE8 as those browsers move closer to standards adoption.

Web developer that are developing against IE6 are really targeting less than 30% of the market now, and that will turn out to be a losing proposition in the long run.

In the corporate space, accountability, security and support seem to have held open source back. What are you doing to change the perception of open source?

I'm not sure I agree that Firefox has been held back. Forester says we had 20% adoption of Firefox in the enterprise as of last summer. That tracks pretty closely with the adoption we see in the general consumer/individual user market place. The key thing we have tried to focus on is making a good browser for individuals. We try to focus on building a browser that makes users more productive and more secure when they use the web. When I talk to individuals, companies or any large organisation, they understand this and they are excited about our mission to continually make things better.

They have chosen Firefox because it is more secure and it makes them more productive using the web. I've chronicled a lot of these conversations of organisations that have adopted Firefox.

With Chrome as another browser alternative, is there a risk users simply swap out Firefox?

Firefox market share has grown slowly, organically, and though the amazing grass roots effort of our community. The relationship that we have with our community and users is based on trust that we have been developing over the last 11 years of the Mozilla project. One way to restate the question you asked is: "Will that trust erode and users shift to other browsers?" That could happen if we make mistakes and violate that trust. All of us working on the project are working hard every day and night to make sure that does not happen.

Google and other browser makers have two options to grow market share. Build trust and acquire users over the long haul as we have over the last 11 years, or they can attempt to buy market share and distribution. Often the latter path leads to features that try to monetise the browser, but are not in the best interest of the user. The latter path gets the browser out there, but in the long run users are less likely to continue to use the software.

Google has been investing and working on Chrome for four or five years now. Chrome still has only 2 or 3% market share. That shows the kind of commitment it takes to build a browser. Commercial companies have found it hard to sustain the level of effort it takes to build, maintain and advance the browser. Netscape tried and it no longer exists. Microsoft tried and it shut down browser development after IE6, but has now rejoined the competition.

It is the Mozilla Foundation charter to make the web better and to build a better browser. We are in this for the long haul.

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