Firefox maker Mozilla is taking aim at Microsoft, Google, and Apple for using their operating systems to steer users to their browsers and stacking the deck against rivals who lack the same OS advantages. Like, for instance, Mozilla.
Having these few large companies dominate such an important tech market – Mozilla refers to browsers and browser engines as the heart of the web – has a monopolistic ripple effect that leads to few choices for users, a drop in innovation, a lack of openness, and low quality, insecure code thrust upon us, the Firefox developer concluded in a recent report.
In “Five Walled Gardens: Why Browsers are Essential to the Internet and How Operating Systems are Holding Them Back,” Mozilla researchers wrote that they wanted to learn how netizens interact with browsers and how OS makers are stifling competitors and holding back innovation.
Suffice to say, Firefox, once seen as cool and popular, isn’t exactly flavor of the month anymore. On desktop, it comes in at about seven percent of market share, versus Chrome’s 67 percent, and on mobile, it barely registers, according to StatCounter. So you can see why the Firefox builder is a bit upset. But who or what’s to blame for this dwindling interest?
Moz’s stance is that although there are alternatives, such as its open source Firefox, to the big three browsers – Microsoft Edge, Apple Safari, and Google Chrome – users find it hard or too much effort to change from those, especially given the way Microsoft, Apple, and Google engineer their OSes – Windows, macOS and iOS, and Android, primarily – to keep people locked in. That cuts off interest to competing browsers, which see limited usage and development effort, and never quite get off the ground to challenge the status quo.
What’s more, Google, Apple, and Mozilla are the only major browser engine makers left, another indicator that users don’t have much choice. Apple pushes its WebKit engine, at the heart of Safari, onto Mac and iOS users to the point that the iOS Firefox app is required to use WebKit rather than its own engine, stamping out competition, choice, and innovation there.
For other OSes, Mozilla uses its Gecko engine in Firefox. Meanwhile, Google has managed to get its Chromium Blink engine into not just Chrome on desktop and Android, but also Edge, Brave, Vivaldi, Opera, and more, across multiple platforms.
With Apple focused on its own ecosystem, dictating even the browser engine iOS apps must use, that leaves just Gecko and Blink across many other platforms. That, according to Mozilla, is not a good deal for web developers nor netizens. The dominant engine is well placed for dictating future web standards.
“The research we are releasing with this report paints a complex picture with many paradoxes: people say they know how to change their browser, yet many never do,” the Mozilla team wrote. “Many people believe they can choose their browser, yet they have a bias towards software which is pre-installed, set to default and difficult to change.”
Tech giants design their software to influence people’s choices, and OS makers use these techniques to drive the use of their own browsers, crushing any rivals in the way, in Mozilla’s view.
“Competition in browsers and browser engines is needed to advance innovation, performance, speed, privacy, and security,” the Moz team argued. “Effective competition requires multiple stakeholders to counter the power of a small number of giants and prevent them from dictating the future of the internet for all of us.”
As well as all this, you’ve got Meta bundling its own Chrome-based Oculus browser with its virtual-reality headsets, and Amazon uses Chromium’s Blink engine in the browser included in its devices.
An old problem
Mozilla’s complaint reminds us, and likely you too, of the outcry in the 1990s over Microsoft using its Windows OS to thrust its Internet Explorer browser on everyone, annihilating Netscape and steamrolling any other rival browser in the way. Tech giants using their operating systems to force web browsers onto users is something that just keeps cropping up time and time again.
Most recently, the UK’s Competition and Market Authority in June said it is probing the market dominance of Apple and Google in the world of browsers and gaming. That same month, Telegram CEO Pavel Durov accused Apple of stifling web developers by cramming WebKit and Safari down users’ throats.
Mozilla claimed Microsoft, Apple, and Google are abusing their market strengths by bundling their browsers with their OSes – again, Windows, iOS and macOS, and Android – and setting them as defaults, and making it tedious for users to unchain themselves from the software and pick an alternative, if said users are even aware there is an alternative.
In some cases, you can’t even delete the bundled browser. It wasn’t until 2020 that Apple added settings to switch from Safari to another browser as the default on iOS, and even then you can’t uninstall Apple’s offering.
Another annoying thing some OS makers do is find any excuse to override the user’s browser choice, and point people’s settings back to the giants’ own browsers. This configuration hijacking is “even more egregious than prohibiting rival software adoption,” the Moz researchers opined.
“This has been the case on Microsoft Windows computers for a number of years; consumers have faced increasingly aggressive practices, some of which have been aimed at reversing their decisions to use non-Microsoft software, for example, overriding default browser choice and reverting to Edge,” they wrote.
In addition, according to Mozilla, operating system developers may lean on manufacturers of computers, phones, and other devices so that this hardware ships not only with their OS and browser but that no rival browsers are included – some going as far as demanding rival browsers are excluded from app stores. For example, Google strong-arms Android smartphone makers into bundling Google’s software suite – including Chrome – and competing browsers are given the cold shoulder.
This is important given the high use of both PC and mobile browsers, according to the report. The researchers found that 82 percent of surveyed US residents – and 84 percent in the UK – use a smartphone browser at least once a day, and 54 percent to 88 percent many times a day.
“The browser is a connective tissue between our professional and personal lives and the larger world, as more and more facets of it become digital-first,” the Firefox maker wrote.
You might think this is just Mozilla being bitter and crying over the fact that Firefox has fallen out of fashion. No one’s forcing you to install or run Chrome on your non-ChromeOS desktop, for instance, so we surely must do it under our own free will.
But Mozilla does sound somewhat convincing in its conclusion:
We believe that if people had a meaningful opportunity to try alternative browsers, they would find many to be compelling substitutes to the default bundled with their operating system.
These opportunities have been suppressed for years through online choice architecture and commercial practices that benefit platforms and are not in the best interest of consumers, developers or the open web. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of years of self-preferencing and undermining consumer choice, including its effect on consumer behavior.
It is also difficult to estimate the disruptive innovation, alternative products and features, and the independent competitors which have been lost as a result of these practices.
So what should be done? Mozilla said it’s working on proposing some solutions. It hopes in the next few months to publish suggestions on how software can be designed to promote choice. That is to say, we reckon, promote Firefox. It also proposed this little side quest for politicians and watchdogs…
“Regulators, policymakers and lawmakers in many jurisdictions can take this moment to create a new era in the internet’s story — one in which consumers and developers benefit from genuine choice, competition and innovation.”
Given that Netscape features in the heritage of Firefox, we guess we’ve got a reboot of Netscape v Microsoft to potentially look forward to again. ®