Why Mozilla's layoffs and Google deal made me rethink my browser of choice

Longtime Firefox user Jack Wallen shares his thoughts about Mozilla's recent news and says he has a new default browser: Vivaldi.

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Image: Jack Wallen

Last week, I did something I didn't think I'd do--I switched from the Firefox web browser to Vivaldi. A strange confluence of events brought this change about, so let me try to make sense of it for both you and me.

Let me preface this by saying I've been covering the Vivaldi browser for some time, and it's never failed to impress me. Vivaldi has all the features and more of Firefox, without feeling as though it suffers under the weight of memory drain.

Every time I'd launch Firefox (with roughly six pinned tabs), I'd hear the fans on my System76 Thelio kick into high gear. Launching a terminal and running the top command would never fail to show Firefox (Webcontent) slurping up a buffet of system resources, and then everything would settle down. For the most part, Firefox ran like a champ. Sure, it struggled with certain sites, but it rarely crashed. Yet, every time I'd write about a new feature or release of Vivaldi, I was always surprised that upon opening the browser, with the same number of pinned tabs, I'd never hear those fans kick in.

So, I was always on the precipice of making Vivaldi my default desktop browser. I realize it's not open source, but my mantra is: The best tool for the job. Since Vivaldi has a native Linux port, the migration would be simple.

Now let's get to the point.

SEE: Linux commands for user management (TechRepublic Premium)

Firefox has always been a breath away from disappearing; it would never vanish completely because it is open source and forks happen. But given that, as of July 2020, the Firefox market share was 4.26% according to StatCounter, the writing has been on the wall for some time. (According to the same graph, Vivaldi's market share doesn't even register. Unless you're Chrome, which held 65.89% of the market share, you're probably concerned about the future.)

To add insult to this injury, Mozilla Foundation Chairwoman Mitchell Baker announced significant changes to the corporation. In the end, Mozilla (blaming COVID-19) laid off approximately 250 employees and moved 60 others to different teams. The layoffs included, according to Baker, "...true Mozillians, and professionals with high degrees of skill and expertise and commitment."

Baker noted the restructuring of Mozilla includes:

  • Focusing Firefox on users;

  • investing in new products;

  • centralizing marketing on both new products and core business; and

  • reinvigorating the community.

When I first read those goals, my initial reaction was, "Shouldn't those have been your goals all along?" Then I remembered Mozilla is a corporation and, like most corporations, it has a habit of repurposing and rewording its goals to make them sound like brand new concepts. 

The problem with Mozilla lies in those goals, because they are very similar to what nearly took Firefox out in the first place: Mozilla is trying to do too much.

Instead of being a company that creates a fantastic browser and email client, Mozilla wants to be everything to the web. It's a strategy that's in perfect parallel to the browser. Mozilla doesn't seem to remember that what Firefox does best is render web pages. To that end, Mozilla could toss out half of the bells and whistles in Firefox to wind up with a lean, secure, and productive web browser. Once Mozilla has figured that out, it can come up with the creative means to finance the company.

Oh, but wait, hasn't Mozilla already done that?

SEE: Firefox: An endangered internet species? (ZDNet)

Here comes Google

Within a few quick hours of laying off those employees, Mozilla signed a new search deal with Google to the tune of $400-$450 million per year from now until 2023 to ensure that Google is the default search engine in Firefox.

Let me get this straight: Mozilla lays off 250 employees citing COVID-related financial trouble and then inks a nine-figure deal with Google. From my perspective, this doesn't add up. However, a goal of Mozilla is to eventually cut down its dependency on Google and instead rely on subscription-based services--that could easily make one believe Mozilla has a long-term plan in place that puts the company on the road to self-sufficiency. How?

What subscription-based service can Mozilla develop that will help it cover the cash the company receives from Google? A VPN? Is Mozilla planning on charging to the Firefox sync account? Are there other ventures Mozilla plans to acquire?

Mozilla is in a difficult situation; it can't charge for Firefox, because every web browser on the market is free. In fact, we've reached a point where the masses are as willing to pay for software as they are books and music. In other words, everyone wants everything for free. So when Mozilla rolls out a service with an associated cost, the masses will turn to a free service. 

SEE: Programming language Rust: Mozilla job cuts have hit us badly but here's how we'll survive (ZDNet)

Mozilla's best chance for profit

From my perspective, the only way Mozilla could profit--without the help of Google--is to create a product or service that becomes a must-have for enterprise businesses. With that infusion of cash, Mozilla could continue creating its open source browser (one stripped of the enterprise-grade feature), which would be a win-win. Of course, such a plan requires Mozilla to come up with that killer app/feature/service that'll have large companies salivating over. It's not an impossible quest, but it won't be easy.

What would that app/feature/service look like? Who knows. Most likely it'll require Mozilla to purchase a company and then seamlessly integrate the browser into whatever app or service the newly-purchased company offers. 

Something like Nextcloud. That would certainly be a kick in the pants to Google if Mozilla were to purchase or even just make a deal with Nextcloud and then integrate the web browser into that cloud platform such that the two worked as one. Imagine the Nextcloud desktop client enmeshed with the Firefox browser. I could see companies paying for that.

That's just me spitballing. Truth be told, Nextcloud needs to remain its own entity, because what it's doing is stellar.

SEE: Nextcloud Hub: User tips (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

In comes Vivaldi

Look, I'm not 100% sold on Vivaldi, nor do I use one browser for everything; in fact, I use the following browsers on a daily basis:

  • Vivaldi on my Linux desktop

  • Chrome on my Chromebook and Android devices, as well as on my desktop for one particular task

  • Safari on my MacBook Pro

So for me, the migration away from Firefox was only difficult in that it was the last open source browser I was using. Sure, I could switch to Chromium (which could happen in the end), but for now I'm making good on a promise I made to myself a while ago.

Ever since I started using Firefox way, way, way back, I've watched it ride a veritable roller coaster of bloat, performance, and popularity. For the most part, I stuck with the open source browser, no matter that it might suffer under the weight of feature creep and performance degradation. Even though Firefox has been performing fairly well for some time now, I've turned to a browser whose trajectory isn't altered by the ups and downs of a never-ending roller coaster.

Who knows? Maybe the good ship Mozilla will reclaim its footing and become the darling it once was. Until then, my browser experience will be scored by Vivaldi.

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By Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic, The New Stack, and Linux New Media. He's covered a variety of topics for over twenty years and is an avid promoter of open source. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen....