Innovation

Mozilla is desperately needed to save the web, but does it stand a chance?

Mozilla used to be our bulwark against the the closure of the web. Can it muster a defense again?

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Image: Mozilla

I can't remember the last time I cared about Mozilla. I also can't remember a time when we needed it more.

Back in 2008 I could say, with some semblance of sanity, that "The Web's platform is Firefox." Nearly 10 years later, Mozilla's Firefox is almost a rounding error in desktop market share, and nonexistent in mobile browser market share. It offers a few other services, like Pocket, but largely gets ignored.

This is a mistake. Our world is increasingly mediated by the internet, and that internet has just a few gatekeepers, collecting tolls as we browse. As Python guru Matt Harrison put it, "Vendors control the default browser which 99.9% of people use." Those vendors are happy to sell us access to information. Nothing about it is free.

SEE: Mobile Cross Platform Development Bundle (TechRepublic Academy)

You are most definitely the product

On mobile, where the majority of the world's content is now consumed, Google and Facebook own eight of the top 10 apps, with apps devouring 87% of our time spent on smartphones and tablets, according to new comScore data (Figure A).

Figure A

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Image: comScore

For that remaining 13% of time spent on the mobile web, Google and Apple offer the two dominant browsers. Though Apple has introduced ad blocking in Safari, according to Augustine Fou, head of Marketing Science, an ad consultancy, roughly 0% of mobile users block ads. Much of this comes down to how hard it is to deliver good ad blocking on mobile devices, as Cloud Technology Partners engineer Adam Barrett has posited, but part of it also comes down to how clunky it is to get ad blocking operational on your browser of choice.

And, for most people, their browser of choice (Google Chrome) has yet to implement ad blocking.

Oh, sure, it's coming. Google has talked up how it's going to block "the most intrusive ads." But let's be clear: Google's business depends upon advertising. It might be willing to scrap the worst ads—the kind that may push users onto other platforms—but there is zero chance that Google will stop selling user privacy to build its ad revenues. No one at Google has "bankruptcy" as a goal.

SEE: Download: Online security 101: Tips for protecting your privacy from hackers and spies (TechRepublic)

In sum, the majority of our time online is now mediated by just a few megacorporations, and for the most part their top incentive is to borrow our privacy just long enough to target an ad at us.

Mozilla to the rescue?

Then there's Mozilla, an organization whose mantra is "Internet for people, not profit." That feels like a necessary voice to add to today's internet oligopoly, but it's not one we're hearing. Mozilla once had a commanding share of the desktop web browser market; today that share has dwindled, and on mobile devices it's virtually non-existent.

This isn't good, but I'm not sure what to do about it. We clearly need an organization standing up for web freedom, as expecting Google to do that is like asking the fox to guard the henhouse. Google does many great things, but its clear incentive is to sell ads. We are Google's product, as the saying goes.

SEE: Firefox fights back (CNET)

It's unclear what Mozilla should do. While it took its eye off the mobile ball for too long, its Firefox and Firefox Focus browsers are great. I've been running them at Mozilla director Asa Dotzler's suggestion, and I'm impressed by how zippy fast they both are. In Firefox (though not Firefox Focus, which strips all the crap away), I still get the "sponsored content" silliness telling me that "Stunning Asian Women Seek Older Men from Ottawa." Yes, I'm typing this from Ottawa, but I'm only here overnight. And am I really that old? (OK, don't answer that....)

As former MySQL executive and Duo Security COO Zack Urlocker has stated, "What is Mozilla's 21st-century mission? I am not sure browser wars matter anymore."

Nor do other areas where Mozilla seems to be investing (like Pocket, an Instapaper clone that allows you to save content for later reading?). Rust, a cool programming language it's developing, has promise, but not to save the web from the all-consuming embrace of Facebook and Google, especially as they wall off the experience in apps.

If I sound like I don't know what to propose Mozilla should do, it's because I don't. I simply feel strongly that the role Mozilla played in the early browser wars needs to be resurrected to save the web today. I'd love your thoughts: Is it too late, or is there something that Mozilla (or Apple or...?) can do to reverse this shift toward centralization and content closure?

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About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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