What does the future hold for Firefox?

Firefox was always the coolest browser but it is rapidly losing that crown to Google’s Chrome

Firefox crystal ball

I’ve been a fan of Firefox for the longest time. Over the years I have faithfully installed just about every version of the open source browser and, while I chopped and changed between e-mail clients, web-editors and word processors, I always remained faithful to Firefox.

That was until about three months ago. That was when I first installed Google’s Chrome browser as more than just a test version. Until then I had always had a copy of Chrome to hand, but only for testing purposes, and never as my day-to-day browser. However, Firefox (I forget which version) was playing up and constantly crashing, so I decided to give Chrome a real chance.

At first I hated Chrome. It felt sparse, empty and devoid of features. It looked unfinished. Gradually, Chrome gets to you.

Instead of empty spaces you start to see how much screen space you have. Instead of feeling devoid of features you marvel at the power hidden under the sparse interface. Instead of feeling like something not quite finished you start to see the method in apparent madness.

Switching back to Firefox can be a shock. For one Firefox feels sluggish. Even without too many extensions loaded, Firefox start-up time can be incredibly frustrating. Then there are all those toolbars. I know that Mozilla is gradually reducing the number of toolbars and cutting back on excess buttons, but when you’ve experienced Chrome, even Firefox’s best attempts at being streamlined feel clunky and crowded.

There was a time when Firefox felt like a breath of fresh air when compared with Internet Explorer. Now it is Chrome that makes Firefox feel dated and bloated.

Not good enough

Clearly the Mozilla Foundation is aware that an increasing number of former fans are now making the switch across to Chrome, and that while Firefox’s market share is dropping Chrome’s is climbing. The answer from the foundation has been to ramp up development. This week the foundation released Firefox 5, the first release in its “rapid release” strategy. The plan is to roll out new versions of the browser every couple of months, culminating by year-end in the release of at least Firefox 7.

It sounds like a nice idea, and it mimics Chrome’s rapid-fire release schedule, but there is a problem.

Releasing a major release (version 5.0) of a browser suggests major changes from previous releases. Unfortunately, Firefox 5.0 is little more than a (minor) upgrade to Firefox 4.0.

There are some changes, like support for CSS animations and so on, but nothing much on the surface that shouts out “new version”. What is the point of releasing a new version of Firefox that is little more than a change in name?

There was a time when a new release of Firefox was a major event. Can anyone remember when the Firefox community actually spent money on print advertising to mark new major releases?

This time around, the common thread from users around the web was: “There’s a new version of Firefox? I don’t even remember seeing a beta version.”

Obviously, big launch campaigns don’t necessarily guarantee great new features. However, releases rushed out with little or no fanfare don’t instil confidence either.

To the Mozilla Foundation’s credit there are enough changes under the hood of Firefox 5.0 to to make it a good deal faster than previous versions, but is it enough to stem the tide of users moving away? Sadly, I doubt it.

Once Firefox was the innovator in the browser market. Now that title is held by Chrome, which is seemingly unbeatable at the moment. Just about every major, minor and incidental release of Chrome has enough goodies under the hood to keep even us jaded geeks happy. It’s tough for anyone to keep up.

Firefox is going to work a lot harder to retain its market share and do a much better job of marketing itself. Simply upping the version number is not good enough.

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