Former Mozilla CEO would've transformed Firefox into a pro-privacy anti-Chrome

Short-lived Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich says Firefox's key to success lies in differentiation

Brendan Eich's reign as Mozilla's CEO may have only lasted less than two short weeks, but he already had long-term plans about how to help Firefox regain some of its lost glory--plans that meant competing against Mozilla's biggest benefactor, as Eich revealed in a series of tweets on Sunday.

Mozilla and Firefox are in a sticky spot. More than 90 percent of Mozilla's revenue comes from Google, in exchange for prominent placement in the browser. But Firefox's share of the browser market has been tumbling in recent months, from 18.02 percent in January to 15.5 percent in June, according to NetMarketShare--and in the same time frame, both Internet Explorer and Google's own Chrome browser saw an increase in users.

Eich's proposal to counter the trend? Embrace one of Chrome's biggest selling points, while pushing against Google in every other way.

Eich says that as CEO, he would have accelerated the development of Firefox Electrolysis--a project designed to run web content as separate processes from Firefox itself, to improve performance and security. Running content as discrete processes would allow Firefox to "sandbox" each site in Chrome-like fashion, though sandboxing technology is being developed as another, related project, rather than as part of Electrolysis itself. But splitting web content into separate processes could also break the functionality of some third-party add-ons--regrettable collateral damage that Eich feels is worthwhile to achieve parity with Chrome and IE.

But in all other respects, Eich would've positioned Firefox as an anti-Chrome, by leveraging Google's weak points--most notably the search giant's all-devouring need for your personal information. While Google's branching out into fields like home automation, car tech, and creepy robots, the overwhelming chunk of its revenue comes from advertising. And a big part of delivering high-value targeted advertising is having an incredibly accurate profile of your individual behaviors and preferences. Hence Chrome's constant pinging of Google's servers, Google Maps incessantly tracking your location via your cell phone, and so forth. The beast must be fed to survive. (And to offer cool features like Google Now, of course.)

The Mozilla Foundation approaches the web from a very different angle, however: It was created to "promote openness, innovation, and participation on the Internet." As a non-profit organization, money isn't the end goal.

In the post-Snowden era, there's definitely room for Firefox to differentiate itself by driving home its pro-privacy stance--did you know all of Firefox's (very sparse) data collection is opt-in, not opt-out, for instance?--and perhaps baking helpful privacy tools into the browser itself. Something like a native version of Ghostery's ad tracker-tracking plugin would be a sensational addition to the browser, for example.

Privacy isn't in diametric opposition with advertising, however, as Eich himself said in a subsequent tweet. Clearly explaining why you're being shown ads and what exactly--if anything--is being tracked by those ads is key. Earlier this year, Mozilla announced plans to introduce basic ads to Firefox's New Tab screen for new users that haven't built up a browser history yet, though it plans to move cautiously after a fierce backlash.

One thing is clear: Mozilla needs to dredge up something to differentiate Firefox and lessen its reliance on Google's cash, especially if Firefox's eventual role is indeed to become the anti-Chrome. While Eich's tweets are now the mere musings of a former CEO and far from the official roadmap, he was a Mozilla co-founder and CTO before his brief ascension to the lead role, so the suggestions he's making might already have some traction inside the Mozilla Foundation's walls.

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