The folks behind the Firefox browser are raving about how desktop and mobile platforms shape browser choices today. And they went to the trouble of publishing a 66-page report on Thursday to make that clear.
But while this Report ‘Five Walled Gardens’ documents some clear-cut cases of what it calls “the exclusion of browser engines and independent browsers by operating systems”, it also raises a question it can’t and may not be able to answer: what if many users just don’t care too much about which browser do they use more?
The core problem this paper describes isn’t exactly news: Web browsing, especially in the growing mobile ecosystem, has become a market dominated by Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari.
From August, according to Automated statistics from Statcounter, Safari had 52.8% of the US mobile market, followed by Chrome with 41.3%. Firefox came in fourth place after Samsung’s own Android browser, with less than 1%.
“People shouldn’t be fighting with operating systems that constantly harass, confuse and roll back their own software’s preferences,” it says.
The argument for that seems much stronger in mobile operating systems. Apple’s iOS didn’t allow changing the default browser until the 2020 release of iOS 14. And Apple still requires all competing browser vendors to build their software on its WebKit framework — which, as the report rightly points out, means every iPhone- and iPad user, regardless of browser choice, remains vulnerable to a malicious web page until Apple can roll out a security patch.
Report says no additional insult to iPhone and iPad users who want to switch browsers: Importing bookmarks from Safari to Firefox requires switch to a desktop or laptop computer with browsers synced to the same iCloud and Firefox accounts.
Android makes it much easier to use other browsers, as I know firsthand from the Firefox app shortcut on my Pixel 5a phone’s home screen. However, the report warns that people can still be tricked when a tap on a web link in an app opens it in an in-app Chrome view.
With regard to desktop browsers, however, Mozilla’s report loses a lot of its power. The gist of the claim — that it’s too hard to install a competing browser and set and keep it as the default in Windows, thanks to constant nags and nags from Microsoft’s operating system to use Edge — doesn’t match. with its own data on how many people run Chrome, a browser that itself requires a separate download and installs almost all Windows computers. (Apple’s macOS is barely mentioned.)
Mozilla also argues against its own history. In the years since its 2004 debut, Firefox almost single-handedly destroyed the monopoly of Microsoft’s insecure, antediluvian Internet Explorer – a far worse browser than any other major option. Back then, switching browsers was a trickier proposition, and many Windows users were less willing to respond to advice such as “anyone using Internet Explorer should switch to Firefox today.”
I know because I wrote those words The Washington Post in 2004 and read the resulting emails from readers.
Later, after Firefox helped make IE irrelevant, it itself went through an unfortunate period of neglect, hurting its market position.
The Mozilla report also raises a higher argument about the importance of diversity in browser engines: the frameworks in Firefox, Safari, Chrome, and others that render web pages. Now that Edge has moved from a Microsoft-developed engine to Google’s Blink in 2018Firefox’s Gecko engine is the only major one that runs on both Windows PCs and Macs and is not a Google project.
But it doesn’t have to be that way: a lack of greater engine diversity may reflect more disinterest on the part of developers than obstacles thrown in their way by the current dynamics of the browser market. First of all, Blink and the Chrome framework around it are open source projects that anyone can revise and reuse, just like Gecko from Firefox. Second, while the open-source WebKit engine in Safari doesn’t animate big-name browsers other than Safari itself, it might – contrary to the report’s statement that “Apple’s engine only runs on Apple devices.” For example, Microsoft uses WebKit in a web compatibility tool called Playwright.
“The statement is not that WebKit is just for Apple, it’s that Apple is just for WebKit,” said Kushall Amlani, global competition and regulatory advisor at Mozilla, in an email from a publicist.
The most revealing parts of Mozilla’s report are the findings of a study showing that many users are accepting or apathetic about the browser that comes with their devices. For example, 55% of US users agreed that they “have never thought about what browsers or search engines I use to access and search the web.”
A field test not mentioned in the report confirms that: even after the European Union browser selection screen in the Android installation interface, Firefox’s share of the EU mobile market didn’t budge.
“We state in the report that previous remedies were not particularly successful,” Amlani says. “Remedial architecture choices need to be carefully thought out and implemented transparently.”
Maybe, but so far this experiment suggests that non-techy types don’t want setting up their computer or phone to be an Ikea-esque exercise that requires assembly. If so, it won’t do much to solve that problem by requiring operating system vendors to use more hex keys.