advertisement
advertisement

Mozilla says users are being denied browser choice. It’s not that simple

In a new report, Firefox’s maker says that operating-system makers make it too hard to switch your browser. But what if most people just don’t care anymore?

Mozilla says users are being denied browser choice. It’s not that simple
[Video: Getty]

The people behind the Firefox browser are feeling fired up about how desktop and mobile platforms shape browser choices these days. And they went to the trouble of publishing a 66-page report Thursday to make that point.

advertisement
advertisement

But while this “Five Walled Gardens” report documents some clear cases of what it calls “the foreclosure of browser engines and independent browsers by operating systems,” it also raises a question that it doesn’t and maybe can’t answer: What if many users just don’t care that much about which browser they use anymore?

The core problem this document describes isn’t exactly news: Web browsing, especially in the growing mobile ecosystem, has become a market dominated by Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari.

As of August, according to Statcounter’s automated metrics, Safari had 52.8% of the U.S. mobile market, followed by Chrome with 41.3%. Firefox came in fourth after Samsung’s proprietary Android browser, with under 1%.

advertisement
advertisement

The desktop market was a little more competitive, thanks in part to Windows computers shipping with Microsoft’s Edge browser, which has seen serious improvements lately: Chrome had 60.4%, Safari had 15.9%, Edge had 13.9% and Firefox had 6.8%.

Firefox used to be much more of a contender, holding a full quarter of the desktop market in 2011.

Thursday’s report tries to unpack what happened since then even as Firefox has become one of the most privacy-protecting browsers in the market.

advertisement

“People should not have to fight with operating systems that continuously pester, confuse, and revert preferences in favor of their own software,” it says.

The argument for that looks much stronger in mobile operating systems. Apple’s iOS didn’t allow changing the default browser until the 2020 release of iOS 14. And Apple still requires all competing browser vendors to build their software on its WebKit framework–which, as the report correctly notes, means every iPhone and iPad user, regardless of browser choice, remains vulnerable to a malicious web page until Apple can shove out a security patch.

The report does not mention an extra insult for iPhone and iPad users looking to switch browsers: Importing bookmarks from Safari to Firefox requires turning to a desktop or laptop computer with browsers synced to the same iCloud and Firefox accounts.

advertisement

Android makes it vastly easier to use other browsers, as I know firsthand from having Firefox’s app shortcut on the home screen of my Pixel 5a phone. The report does, however, warn that people can still be misled when a tap on a web link in an app opens it in an in-app Chrome view.

In regard to desktop browsers, though, Mozilla’s report loses much of its punch. Its core contention–that it’s too difficult to install a competing browser and set and keep it as the default in Windows, thanks to constant nudges and nags from Microsoft’s operating system to use Edge–doesn’t square with its own data about how many people run Chrome, a browser that itself requires a separate download and install almost all Windows computers. (Apple’s macOS barely gets a mention.)

Mozilla is also arguing against its own history. In the years after its 2004 debut, Firefox almost single-handedly destroyed the monopoly of Microsoft’s insecure, antediluvian Internet Explorer–a far worse browser than any major option today. Back then, switching browsers was a fussier proposition, and many Windows users were less ready to act on advice like “anybody using Internet Explorer should switch to Firefox today.”

advertisement

I know, because I wrote those words in The Washington Post in 2004 and read the resulting emails from readers.

Later, after Firefox had helped render IE irrelevant, it went through an unfortunate bout of neglect itself, which didn’t do its market position any favors.

The Mozilla report also advances a higher-level argument about the importance of diversity in browser engines–the frameworks inside Firefox, Safari, Chrome, and others that display web pages. With Edge having switched from a Microsoft-developed engine to Google’s Blink in 2018, Firefox’s Gecko engine is the only major one that runs on both Windows PCs and Macs and isn’t a Google project.

advertisement

But that doesn’t have to be so: Lack of greater engine diversity may reflect disinterest on the part of developers more than obstacles thrown in their way by the current dynamics of the browser market. First of all, Blink and the Chromium framework around it are open-source projects that anybody can revise and repurpose, just like Firefox’s Gecko. Second, while the open-source WebKit engine inside Safari does not animate any big-name browsers other than Safari itself, it could–contrary to the report’s statement that “Apple’s engine only runs on Apple devices.” For example, Microsoft uses WebKit inside a web-compatibility tool called Playwright.

“The contention is not that WebKit is Apple-only, but that Apple is WebKit-only,” says Kushall Amlani, global competition and regulatory counsel at Mozilla, in an email sent by a publicist.

The most revealing parts of Mozilla’s report involve the findings of a survey that find many users accepting or apathetic about whatever browser came with their devices. For instance, 55% of U.S. users agreed that they “have never thought much about what browsers or search engines I use to access and search the Internet.”

advertisement

A real-world test unmentioned in the report bears that out: Even after the European Union ordered a browser-choice screen in Android’s setup interface, Firefox’s share of the EU mobile market hasn’t budged.

“We mention in the report that previous remedies have not been particularly successful,” Amlani says. “Choice architecture remedies need to be carefully thought out and transparently implemented.”

Maybe, but so far this experiment suggests that non-technical types don’t want setting up their computer or phone to be an Ikea-esque, assembly-required exercise. If so, demanding that OS vendors lay out more hexagonal wrenches may not do much to fix that issue.

advertisement
advertisement

About the author

Rob Pegoraro writes about computers, gadgets, telecom, social media, apps, and other things that beep or blink. He has met most of the founders of the Internet and once received a single-word e-mail reply from Steve Jobs.

More

Call for Most Innovative Companies entries! Apply now.

500+ winners will be featured on fastcompany.com. Final deadline: 9/23.