There was a time when it looked like nothing could stop the rise of Firefox. But then Chrome appeared on the scene and Google grabbed the browser market for itself. The consequences for Firefox: The global market share has dropped to single digits, while the Mozilla browser never managed to get any relevant position on smartphones.
As Mozillas Senior Vice President for Firefox Dave Camp is responsible for the development of the browser. In an interview with DER STANDARD he talks about what's coming up for Firefox and why Mozilla is mostly focusing on privacy right now and why the company wants to continue to use its own rendering engine. The questions were asked by Andreas Proschofsky.
Note: There is also a German language translation of this interview available.
STANDARD: With Microsoft now basically everybody has switched to Chromium, so why not Firefox?
Dave Camp: We find that our ability to do the best thing for users, to make the web the best it can be – both for developers and users – is to have a say in that standards process. And diversity is good for the user. And so we continue to invest in the platform as a way to have their back.
STANDARD: Sure. But couldn't that result in some sort of a death spiral for Firefox? If developers increasingly focus on Chromium that's a problem for your rendering engine because then users will encounter more and more problems with websites – which could drive them to other browsers.
Camp: That certainly is a challenge we have to tackle. But, you know, we face compatibility problems since the first days of Internet Explorer. So it's important for us to keep up to date on the standards to work within the standards bodies to make sure all the implementations are well tested and compatible. And you know, it's a worthwhile challenge to take on and it leads to better web standards in the end.
STANDARD: Let's talk about the long term view. Say your usage numbers continue to go down and then in something like three or five years, would you still rule out a move to Chromium?
Camp: Nothing's ever out of question. In the end our focus is on users and what is best for them. But right now we're happy with Gecko, we intend to continue to invest in it and have no plans to switch over to Chromium.
STANDARD: Right now it seems everybody's just talking about privacy stuff or security stuff but not so much about other innovations in the rendering engine anymore – for new capabilities or making stuff significantly faster. Have we arrived at a point where we are only seeing iterative improvements?
Camp: A few years ago we spent a great deal of time on making the engine faster, making it better for users. We called that Firefox Quantum. The big focus this year for us is to get the improvements that we built for Firefox Quantum into our Android product. So in the second quarter of this year, we're going to be releasing a new Android version based on the Quantum improvements. As far as platform improvements in order to generally improve performance: that's something we're definitely looking into. But right now we're focused primarily on privacy and security and getting everything that is great about the desktop engine to the mobile platform.
STANDARD: What is the plan with your experimental rendering engine Servo? Is this going to replace Gecko at some point, or is it going to stay an experimental project?
Camp: We found that Servo is a great test bed for new technologies and we continue to use Servo as a way to incubate new technologies like the WebVR stuff that we've been working on lately. But we don't have any plans to turn Servo into a fully general web rendering engine.
STANDARD: Gecko is already pretty old. Wouldn't it make sense to start fresh at some point? To get a leaner and more modern code base?
Camp: There is a lot of complexity with building a rendering engine. So I think it's no coincidence that there's really only two major implementations of the web right now. There's the Webkit branch of that tree and then there's the Gecko branch. To deal with our resources we felt it was best to direct them to one rather than two. Leaving Servo as an engine that we could experiment with fits better with our goals for the long term.
STANDARD: Recently your messaging has mostly focused on privacy so I guess that's the big area where you see a chance to grab some market share from Chrome. But if you look at the numbers right now, there's not a lot of movement in your direction, actually to the contrary. So what's the conclusion of that? Do people simply not care that much about privacy?
Camp: There's a lot of a lot of factors there. There're certainly some barriers to competition on mobile platforms, that's worth exploring a bit. I think we certainly have work to better explain to the users what we are doing. So that's why we're here talking to you to help to get this out. But I also think a lot of what we've built here is new and it takes time for that awareness to grow up.
I think the new mobile browser we will be releasing is gonna be a moment, where folks can see everything all at once. And I think people are gonna love that. That's gonna be a moment that we're going to see some change.
STANDARD: Right now most of those privacy improvements are focused on blocking trackers. But in reality there are loads of other ways to uniquely identify users. Given that most of that is also required information for web developers to find out what a browser is capable of: Is it even realistic to think that you can completely block such forms of fingerprinting?
Camp: That is something we are working on right now with Enhanced Tracking Protection. We recently began testing some of that fingerprinting protection. The way the first iteration works is by using a disconnect list that collects sites that are known to do that sort of thing and then prevents those scripts from being loaded. In the future we're going to be looking at other ways that detect that behavior and prevent it proactively.
The difficult thing here is that these APIs do exist for a reason. We didn't just put them in for tracking. But there are some things you can do to detect if what is going on here is not serving users but is being used to generate an identity. We work with the Disconnect organization to put together that protection.
With most of these tracking problems it's something where we're not gonna be done one day. We're gonna have to continue to learn how people are affected by this and the techniques the trackers use and then break up those techniques.
STANDARD: Website publishers are often complaining that tracker blockers and ad blockers are hurting the business, the chance to monetize their work. Is this something you think about when you make these decisions or is it just like "we're only focused on the user and don't necessarily care about publishers"?
Camp: It's something that we think about, but our priority always comes down on the side of the user and what we think makes sense. We want to give users tools to assert their opinion of how their data should be used. It's our position that if we do what is best for the users the industry will catch up. And it's starting to. We see a similar privacy stance from Apple, even Google is starting to figure out how to better serve the privacy of their users. And if that shifts the economics how data is used to profit, that's something we're not afraid of.
STANDARD: You mentioned Google. Google is pushing for what they call a privacy respecting way of collecting data. Do you think that such a thing is even possible?
Camp: We certainly believe that there's a way to be a responsible steward of a user's data in order to serve their best interests as companies. The most important thing is to make sure users know where their data is going and know how it's being used and have some control over that. For us that tends to mean a fairly aggressive set of technologies that prioritize that.
We're going to look at Google's proposals and I think some of them are going to be valuable additions to the web and some of them are probably more in the best interest of advertisers than users. This is one of the reasons why we like to have our own engine so that we can show our own vision for how that should work.
STANDARD: Right now the financial income of your company's is mainly based on search deals – and by that mostly coming from Google. That's a difficult situation to be in. So how do you plan to become more independent?
Camp: Our first thought is always "what's good for the users?" Then the second thought is: how can we sustain building these things for the user? Search and browsers – that combination makes sense to us. It's a common model and it has worked well for us so far. But users need more than that to protect their privacy and security online. And as we build new products there, we're keeping a close eye on how we can monetize those. We've been releasing a VPN in private beta recently, and that VPN is not going to be ad supported. That is a more direct revenue model or subscriptional.
STANDARD: But is this something that you can really build a sustainable business around? Your VPN for instance is basically a rebranded Mullvad for the same price. So I guess that won't get you loads of money.
Camp: Sure. But as I said for us – we aren't here to make gobs of money. But I think we are going to be able to differentiate ourselves in the VPN market. We are going to be able to be clear about what we are doing for the users, how much they're paying us and we're not here to collect any other data than that. It's one of the things we're doing. We're looking to find a way to make it sustainable but I think we're pretty confident we'll be able to do something that will resonate with users.
STANDARD: You recently had to let 70 employees go. Is that all for now or will we see more cuts?
Camp: We're confident in our revenue, we're confident in our financial health. We decided to take a more conservative approach to our financials this year but you know, we have strong lines of site to new revenue, our search deal is strong with the browser. It's never fun to say goodbye to folks, but yeah, we're in a stable place.
STANDARD: But the reality is: if your market share goes down your income goes down...
Camp: Yeah, that is true and we're working hard to get more users in front of Firefox so that they can take advantage of the things we make and that's our focus over the next couple years. And in addition to that: Market share is only one metric to look at. The time being spent in browsers is also increasing. So it's not quite as simple as "look at the market share and then calculate the money".
STANDARD: Progressive Web Apps have been hailed as the next big thing for the web, maybe even replacing native apps, for quite some time now. But so far this seems not to have caught on in a big way. Why?
Camp: Certainly there's some technical challenges in the web platform versus native platforms that influence that decision. And we will continue to try and address those. Switching platforms is a big decision for developers, so you're going to see shifts in that take some time.
STANDARD: But couldn't it also be that the web has lost importance compared to mobile apps?
Camp: Yeah. I think that's definitely something that is worth tracking or figuring out. The thing that we love about the web and and I think that users love about the web is it gives you an intermediary agent. I can use Firefox instead of Chrome or a Facebook app to access Facebook. And because I use Firefox to access Facebook I have control over their ability to track me because I've used tracking protection while I do it. Also content development, the thing that the users actually spend their time on – like the articles, videos etc, are still very, very much on the web.
STANDARD: Thanks for talking to us.
(Andreas Proschofsky, 28.02.2020)