It can be challenging to generate revenue streams from free software. In the early 2000s, Mozilla was in a sweet spot with Firefox. They were and a well-deserved position of popularity with the growing number of folks on the web. Much attention and accolades did not go unnoticed by other tech companies either. Notably Google, who jumped in the game with their own browser, Chrome.
Chrome has delivered in a web browser a compelling product, which has also deservedly gained massive market share. More importantly, the Chrome product is well aligned with the effective business model that is Google. This huge gain in popularity by Chrome has been to the detriment of Firefox market share. And it has been continuously compounded by this contrast in business models wherein Google has much greater resources to market Chrome, thus realizing further benefits for a virtuous cycle (at least for Google).
Then In March of 2018, news of the Cambridge analytica scandal made headlines around the world. Mozilla reacted quickly, and made clever use of their existing containerized tab technology to release a new feature, the Firefox Facebook container extension. This feature generated a ton of attention for Mozilla and the Firefox browser, and is a useful feature to be sure. But how much impact did it really have on the majority of users day in and day out? How many users have shifted away from chrome, Internet explorer, Safari, or other browsers to primarily Firefox users? More importantly, what has been the impact of this feature on the overall web ecosystem? Consider that users can easily install Firefox and start using it, or that it is relatively trivial for other browsers to copy this feature. And yet, as noble and novel as this Facebook containerized tab feature may be, Firefox user share has not appreciably grown over the long-term. The other browsers have not really tried to copy this feature in a meaningful way either.
Now more recently Google has introduced improvements to privacy features, for example around cookie management. But have you ever tried to actually use it? When it comes to UX, Google is not Apple, that’s for sure. Contrast with Firefox enhanced tracking protection “master switch”. Easy-on privacy with one shot, bang. It’s even enabled by default for simple as simple can be. The Firefox product team made a concerted effort for effective UX and it works brilliantly. In their initial design, Firefox also had a myriad array of check boxes and radio flip-flops. But to quote Selena Deckelmann from the Firefox team: “It’s incredibly difficult to figure out which set of checkboxes to flip to preserve your privacy, …” – Genuine kudos to the Firefox product team here. But even this stellar user experience for privacy features has not grown the Firefox user base.
It’s not only web browsers, famed search engine DuckDuckGo has also pillared it’s value proposition with a mission statement of privacy. Compared to most other search engines outside of Google and Bing, DuckDuckGo has captured search engine market share a level above the long tail of rounding errors in this space. Furthermore, the DuckDuckGo user community has proven to be quite loyal, borderline fanatical. This it’s not a bad thing at all, and DuckDuckGo certainly deserves the stable revenue stream as a result.
But again, similar story here as well. The majority of masses searching the web are happy with Google, justifiably so from a product perspective (of course). The ever-increasing awareness and demands for privacy on the web has not moved the needle of market share in favor of DuckDuckGo to any sort of threat level for Google.
So where does that leave the average web user? Your personal data is still at risk, perhaps now more than ever. Overly targeted ads are a creepy annoyance at best, not to mention the potential for fraud or even worse – identity theft. Well even though it appears to have lost the browser wars, for now, Firefox does appear to be around for the long term. Privacy conscience users will always have this option. And Google Chrome has increased its own privacy controls, even if they are somewhat clunky to use. Searching and browsing the web can also be done in a privacy oriented way, DuckDuckGo has proven stability contributing to an encouraging landscape of privacy oriented web search options in the long-term. While it might take a little extra effort every now and then, privacy options for the web appear to be here to stay.
On the other hand, for web products built on a strategy of differentiation largely centered around privacy features, without a well aligned business model it looks to be an uphill battle. Browsers have historically considered security as a lower priority feature, even with increasing risk and recently improving technology this is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. For internet tech companies featuring security and privacy as a mission statement, the most promising approach towards making a meaningful impact on the majority of web users toward this goal is to align an effective business model with the core mission. It remains to be seen how successful they will be in this noble endeavor.
In the meantime, let’s enjoy this Fusion of Capital Cities | Safe And Sound: