Google Chrome has never been so dominant—the web browser is used by 69 percent of all desktop users and 64 percent of mobile users. Every time you visit a website or conduct a search, again probably using Google, the information you send is fed back to the company’s infrastructure. And that’s on top of advertising trackers from Google and Facebook following you around the web.
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
But things don’t have to be this way. Despite only having a tiny fraction of the mobile browser market, Mozilla has totally rewritten its Firefox app for Android to rely on its own infrastructure rather than Google’s, which is used in the majority of browsers. The rework of the Android app, dubbed Firefox Daylight, follows the company testing out the features in a Preview version last year. For people in Europe the new Firefox app was launched Tuesday, while those in the US can get it from August 27.
One of the big differentiators between Firefox on Android and its rivals is that it runs Geckoview, Mozilla’s browser rendering engine. “We are the only independent web engine browser available on Android,” says Dave Camp, the vice president of Firefox.
Browser engines are key pieces of infrastructure that lie at the heart of every web browser. They run the core functions of a browser needed for navigating the internet. However, there are only three main ones available for developers to use. These are Blink, which belongs to Google, Apple’s WebKit, and Mozilla’s Geckoview.
Of the limited choices available, Google’s Blink is dominant. On Android, Microsoft’s Edge, the Brave Browser, and Chrome all use Google’s Blink. Microsoft was the latest firm to switch to Google’s underlying architecture as it implemented Blink in Edge in December 2018. On iPhones, Apple’s closed ecosystem requires that all browsers, including Chrome, use WebKit as their underlying engines.
“Having our core browser engine be part of our product is a great way for us to be able to make every change that we think we need to see to get the web to where we want it to be,” says Camp. It also means if Blink suffers from any security vulnerabilities, Mozilla’s browser won’t be impacted. “This independence lets us create a user interface that, when combined with an overall faster browsing pace, enables unprecedented performance,” Mozilla adds in a statement.
Using Geckoview allows Firefox to also make speed improvements on Android that it first introduced on desktop in November 2017. Camp says that because Firefox is relying on Mozilla’s browser engine, it’s able to use its Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP) tool, which is turned on by default and blocks third-party tracking cookies that follow people around the web. Mozilla first turned on ETP by default in September 2019 and says it has blocked 3.4 trillion tracking cookies since then. The trackers that are blocked are all defined by a list compiled by privacy company Disconnect.
“ETP Standard is a technology that knows what the trackers are, knows what they are doing, and deploys a set of mitigations that prevent them from actually tracking you,” Camp says. He adds there is a more restrictive strict mode for ETP that can be turned on by users—however, this may impact how web pages load.
Despite having more privacy-protecting features than Chrome, Firefox faces a serious uphill battle on the Google-owned Android operating system. Analysis of browser usage on Android shows Chrome holds 89 per cent of the market. Firefox makes up 0.44 percent of the market. (On desktop Firefox is in a stronger position with a 4 percent market share).
It’s something that Mozilla is very aware of. Within the new Firefox for Android version—current users of the browser will access the version through a PlayStore update—there have also been user experience changes. Camp says there is the option for people to move the URL search bar to the bottom of the screen so they don’t have to reach to the top to tap on it. There is also a picture-in-picture mode that lets people watch videos while in other tabs or apps, and there’s a revamped bookmarks feature, called Collections, designed to be used in a similar style to Pinterest.
Camp says Mozilla has also taken the Private Mode from one of its other Firefox apps and added it to Android. “Private Mode is easily accessible from the Firefox for Android home screen, and users have the option to create a private browsing shortcut on their Android home screen, which will launch the browsing app automatically in the respective mode and allow users to browse privately on the go,” Mozilla says in a statement.
Ultimately, Firefox is trying to add features to the browser to convince people to make the switch for more than just privacy reasons. “We want to be more than ‘the same as Chrome but more private,’” Camp says. “We think that there’s a lot of ways we can serve the user better, and some of them are about being faster and easier to use, finding and sharing more of the web.”
However, Mozilla itself has struggled during the pandemic. Earlier in August, the nonprofit organization announced it was making 250 people redundant—around a quarter of its total workforce. CEO Mitchell Baker told staff that its operations in Taipei, Taiwan, would cease, while the number of workers in the US, Canada, Europe, and rest of the world would be reduced because the pandemic “significantly impacted our revenue”.
This will impact the development of the Firefox browser in the future. “In order to refocus the Firefox organization on core browser growth through differentiated user experiences, we are reducing investment in some areas such as developer tools, internal tooling, and platform feature development, and transitioning adjacent security/privacy products to our New Products and Operations team,” Baker wrote in a memo to staff. Mozilla will keep investing in new products that it can bring in revenue from, he added—for instance, its recently launched VPN.
While Mozilla may be creating tools to limit web tracking and online surveillance, it is still reliant on Google. A large part of its income comes from a deal with Google that ensures its search is the default option inside Firefox. As first reported by ZDNet, Mozilla and Google recently extended their current deal until 2023. It’s expected the deal could be worth as much as $400 million and help contribute to Mozilla’s ongoing survival.
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
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