Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs On The Fate Of Firefox In A Mobile Era

“We have 450 million Firefox users, and they’re all going to have a smartphone or tablet,” says Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs. “I don’t know how it will play out with all of the companies [Apple, Google, Microsoft, etc.], but we believe fundamentally there’s a place for competition.”


Firefox is one of the world’s most popular desktop browsers, with more than 450 million users. But as the world increasingly turns to mobile devices to access the web, Mozilla is in danger of getting left in the dust. A recent Pew report found that roughly 68% of all smartphone owners access the mobile web on a typical day; what’s more, 25% of those users go online mostly using their phone (rather than, say, a PC).

So, why is Mozilla in danger? Because the biggest players in the mobile space also happen to be Firefox’s biggest competitors in the browser space. In other words, Apple wants Safari running on its iPhones and iPads; Google wants Android to run its own browser, or Chrome presumably in the future; and Microsoft has a vested interest in making sure Internet Explorer comes default on all Windows Phones. Is there a place for Firefox to curl up on an iPhone or Android device?

“It’s unclear to be frank,” says Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs. “We have 450 million users, and they’re all going to have a smartphone or tablet. I don’t know how it will play out with all of the companies [Apple, Google, Microsoft, etc.], but we believe fundamentally there’s a place for competition.”

The issue, he argues, is that many mobile companies are trying to vertically integrate. Think about how Apple controls the user experience from end to end, from the software (iOS) to the hardware it runs on (iPhone, iPad). RIM and HP followed a similar strategy with BlackBerry and WebOS, respectively; many believe Google, with its acquisition of Motorola Mobility, aims to create a vertically integrated stack through Android; and some have even mused that Microsoft is hoping to accomplish the same through its partnership with, or a potential acquisition of Nokia.

“That has benefits for the user, of course,” Kovacs says. “The risk is, boy, you better hope that whatever company has your vertical stack is delivering the best things for you that are in your best interests. No matter what it is, whether it’s in construction or technology or kitchen appliances, anytime there’s a huge vertical integration where everything is provided by one [company], I get really nervous. And I think the world needs to be nervous about that.”

Little or no choice on mobile devices means it’s hard, if not impossible, to compete. Apple’s Safari browser has a minuscule market share on desktop computers. But on Apple’s mobile devices, where it comes as the pre-loaded default, Safari dominates the market. The reason is clear: When users have choice, they tend to choose Firefox, Chrome, or Internet Explorer. 


“Today, we couldn’t put Firefox in its current form on the iPhone,” Kovacs says. “We can get on Android, but it’s just hard. It’s hard to design it into the native levels of the OS to make it as great as we know it can be.”

Kovacs acknowledges that verticalization was inevitable in the early stages of the web. “Apple showed us the way–how to crack mobile and create a great user experience,” he says. “They couldn’t do it by piecing together different parts because the mobile space is so fragmented.” But over time, he calls it “ridiculous” to imagine a world where the technology remains so separated that, in order to access a particular app or browser or social network, you’d need to access separate proprietary products that don’t interoperate across devices and systems from Apple, Google, Microsoft, RIM, and so forth.

“It’s insane–it cannot work,” Kovacs says. “We tried that with AOL. AOL was great in the first days of the Internet because it was integrated. I had mail; I had news; I had sports; I had instant messaging. But then over time, there was a better instant messenger, there was a better sports feed, and so on. People wanted that. That will happen too [in mobile]. It doesn’t mean any of those great phones will go away. It just means that the open choice will always become the de facto.”

Kovacs envisions a world where you can easily select from a variety browsers on your smartphone, just as you can now on a Windows or Mac desktop. The same should go for all other types of applications–the more choice and competition, the more benefit for consumers. “It’s ridiculous for me to think that can’t exist–that that won’t exist on all these other [mobile] platforms,” he says. “Because that would mean one firm, even as delicious as Apple is, has to always provide the best of breed. And that can’t always be true.”

Asked whether Apple’s strict terms and conditions are possibly anti-competitive, Kovacs demurs: “I don’t know about that–it’s a question I get all the time, but I’m not a trade lawyer. I don’t think their mobile products encourage as open an ecosystem as I would like to see– that’s just a personal opinion. I certainly would like to see lots of things loaded onto an iOS device, and I think technically there are ways to do it without compromising the overall iOS experience. But Apple of course knows better. They have a belief in their own methods, so you’d have to speak to Apple on that topic.”

He adds: “But personally I think our Firefox users would love to use the Firefox [browser] on an Apple device.”


[Image: Flickr user Permuted]


About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.