The Mobile World Congress, arguably the world’s most important telecommunications industry trade show, takes place in Barcelona next week.
One of the key attractions – aside from the release of Samsung’s next flagship, the Galaxy S5 – will be the Mozilla stand.
This year Mozilla – best known for its Firefox web browser – will be celebrating the first birthday of its Firefox OS smartphone platform.
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For those who are unfamiliar with it, Firefox OS is a slimmed-down smartphone operating system (like Apple’s iOS, Android or Windows Phone) that is largely based on the Firefox browser. As a result, it runs apps coded in open web standards including HTML5, and can work on less powerful handsets than its rivals, making it ideal for low-end smartphones in emerging markets.
It’s certainly been a busy year for Mozilla, which was founded in 1998 by one of Silicon Valley’s most successful women, Mitchell Baker.
Since the Firefox OS smartphone announcement, it has also announced Firefox OS will be used to power tablets, low-cost PCs, and – through a partnership with Panasonic – smart TVs. Mozilla has also announced the rollout of the cloud-based Firefox Accounts service and the Firefox Marketplace app store.
It’s certainly a very ambitious growth strategy.
At the same time, according to TheNextWeb’s Emil Protalanski, around 90% of Mozilla’s revenues come from Google, which pays a commission for searches originating from the search field in the Firefox tool bar. (As incredible as it might sound, that little search field in the top-right hand corner of Firefox on a PC or a Mac is worth around $US280 million per year in revenue.)
The problem is that many of the new Firefox OS product lines compete head-to-head against Google’s Android, Google TV and Chrome OS/Chromebook products.
Meanwhile, the success of Google’s own Chrome web browser on the desktop means it’s less dependent on Firefox than in the past.
According to StatCounter figures, in December 2010, Firefox accounted for 30.76% of the web browser market, compared to 14.85% for Chrome. By January of this year, Firefox had fallen to 20.37%, while Chrome now accounts for 46.6% of the market.
Aside from Google’s marketing clout, a key factor in this shift in the browser market has been the fact that Chrome now includes a number of features sorely lacking in Firefox.
For example, each tab in Chrome operates as a separate system process, meaning if some bad code on a website causes one tab to crash, it doesn’t take your entire browser. This feature is sorely lacking in Firefox.
At the same time this market share and feature gap is widening, Mozilla is redirecting precious resources that otherwise would be spent improving Firefox towards its many other side projects.
Yet most of these side projects are still not ready for prime time. One of the first smartphones to run Firefox OS – the ZTE Open – was almost universally panned by critics. Similarly, all of Mozilla’s other revenue streams – such as the Firefox Marketplace app store – account for just 10% of its income.
As if the situation weren’t already urgent enough already, Mozilla’s lucrative deal with Google expires in November of this year. In a sense, it’s fitting that Baker has taken up trapeze as a hobby, because Mozilla’s in the middle of a high-wire act.
It might be that, over the coming months, one of Mozilla’s growing number of Firefox OS-driven side-projects gains traction in the market place. However, it could also backfire spectacularly, endangering its main source of revenue in the process.
So is Mozilla crazy like a Firefox or just like a mad fox that bites the hand that feeds? We’ll know the answer by the end of November.