As well as the usual array of bug fixes and standards conformance work, Firefox 41, released yesterday, has a new feature: integrated instant messaging, with voice and video, called Firefox Hello.
Hello was first included in Firefox betas in October last year. Though integrated into the browser, it uses the WebRTC specification for its audio and video features. This enables Web-based voice and video messaging between Firefox, Chrome, and Opera. Microsoft is working on a related spec, Object RTC, which is available in the most recent preview of the Edge browser This won’t be directly compatible with WebRTC code, but opens the door to an interoperable implementation.
In Firefox 41, a new Hello button has been added to the toolbar, allowing conversations to be started immediately. The system doesn’t require accounts or log-ins. Firefox users can start conversations from the toolbar button, and attendees in Firefox, Chrome, and Opera can join the conversation simply by visiting its URL in the browser.
The Hello feature was developed in conjunction with the phone operator Telefonica. In July of this year, Mozilla suggested that Firefox users would start to see more features of this kind, where development was done by third parties, including both community efforts and corporate partners like Telefonica. Calling the scheme “Best of the Web,” Mozilla hopes that it will attract users back to the browser that once broke Internet Explorer’s dominance, but now is in third place behind both Internet Explorer and Chrome.
Whether this will be effective, at east as far as Hello is concerned, is far from clear. We gave the feature a spin, and can’t deny that it all worked. Voice and video conversations between two of us (both using Firefox) were trivial to set up and worked effortlessly, with decent quality. The person creating the conversation could share their browser tabs, or their entire desktop, with the other people in the conversation, though this capability didn’t seem to extend to other participants.
What’s less obvious is what kind of difference this is actually going to make to Firefox’s userbase. Plugin freedom is nice, but we can’t imagine that there’s some great untapped userbase out there that’s crying out for a new instant messaging app. As a showcase for WebRTC, Hello is certainly easy and convenient to use, but we suspect that virtually everyone who’s in need of an instant messaging app already has one. In fact, we suspect that they already have many. This makes Hello a mildly interesting novelty, but it’s Skype for the Web, which is still in development, that’s actually exciting, as it liberates all the contacts that we already have, and puts them into a plugin free browser application.
But this alludes to a larger problem for Firefox: with a declining market share, how does it stay relevant? At its peak, about 20 percent of Web users used Firefox; that share has now fallen below 12 percent, with no clear signs of stabilizing. Mozilla is working to make it a better browser—it should soon have the same kind of multiprocess architecture, boosting stability and security, as found already in Internet Explorer, Chrome, Edge, Opera, and Safari—but this is coming at a high cost. In modernizing its architecture, Firefox is also moving away from the extension model that was arguably so important in attracting people to the browser in the first place.
The underlying work is arguably essential to give Firefox parity with its competition, but if it alienates a large part of the userbase by disabling their extensions, what’s the point? But equally, that feature parity matters; it was one of the major things that drove your author away from Firefox and into Chrome’s open arms.
Firefox rose against Internet Explorer by being the better browser; the browser that was actively maintained, that cared about Web standards, that included desirable user-facing features such as tabs and extensions. But that’s no longer enough to make it stand out; it hasn’t been for years. Internet Explorer, Edge, and Chrome are all arguably superior from a security perspective, and while Edge still lacks extensibility for the time being, there’s no obvious sense in which Firefox is the better browser any more. Mozilla is also competing against developers with bigger budgets and many more advertising dollars. Microsoft and Google can (and do) both advertise their browsers far and wide, and get an added bonus from being able to make their browsers the default on two important platforms—Android and Windows. Mozilla simply can’t match this. The organization tried to achieve a similar position with its Firefox OS platform, but this appears to have little traction.
But what is Mozilla to do? The world without Mozilla would be a worse place. The organization was arguably fundamental in creating the generation of browsers after Internet Explorer 6’s era of early 2000s dominance. Mozilla is continuing to do interesting and important work in the browser space—the development of its Rust language and Servo rendering engine could meaningfully advance the security state of the art, showing that a high quality browser can be built in a language that’s largely immune to many of the security flaws that continue to be a major problem today. But Mozilla’s ability to do this work is contingent on being a relevant force in the browser space.
We can’t believe that integrated instant messaging is going to be the key to securing Firefox’s position. But then again, what is?