Firefox risks irrelevance as mobile browsing booms

Firefox risks irrelevance as mobile browsing booms

Without an effective mobile browser strategy, in four months Mozilla will fall to No. 4 in a five-browser market

Mozilla's Firefox is in danger of becoming irrelevant as more browsing originates on smartphones and tablets, statistics from a Web measurement vendor show.

During April, about one in every six people who went online surfed the Web using a mobile browser, according to Net Applications. Mobile browsing's climb of more than 5 percentage points in the last 12 months represented a growth rate of 48%.

Most of the rest of those who went online in April did so armed with a desktop browser installed on a personal computer.

The shift toward mobile has hurt Mozilla most of all: Firefox's total user share -- the combination of both desktop and mobile -- was 14.1% for April, its lowest level since Computerworld began tracking the metric. That was only slightly ahead of Apple's Safari and significantly behind Google's Chrome and Android browsers.

Mozilla's dilemma continues to be its inability to attract a mobile audience. Although the company has long offered Firefox on Android, its share was so small that Net Applications did not even note it last month. And Mozilla's Firefox OS, a browser-based mobile operating system that has garnered limited support, didn't show up in the analytics company's numbers, either.

Mozilla's case hasn't been helped by a steady drain on its desktop user share, which in April slipped to 17% of all desktop browsers, down from 20% a year earlier.

Hot on Mozilla's heels in April was Apple, whose combined desktop and mobile browser user share reached 13.1%. Almost two-thirds of that was credited to Safari on iOS, the mobile operating system that powers iPhones and iPads. While Safari on iOS continued to shed share last month -- it's long been under attack from the glut of Android-powered devices used around the world -- the increase in mobile browsing's popularity was enough to actually boost its combined user share from September 2013, the last time Computerworld visited the topic.

But Google has become the clear winner in the mobile browsing sweepstakes. Its old-stock Android browser has held steady while Chrome has grown by leaps and bounds as new devices come online armed with the browser, which is available for download from Google Play. In the last 12 months, Chrome's user share of mobile has soared 447%.

When both desktop and mobile are tallied, Google accounted for 20.9% of all browsers used in April, solidifying its No. 2 position and distancing itself from Firefox.

Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) continued to dominate the desktop, but on mobile, IE remained stuck in the low single digits: 2.3% for April. That put IE's combined share at 48.4%, a slight loss since September 2013.

Overall, IE is in a much stronger position than Firefox, but unless Microsoft can greatly expand the footprint of Windows, and thus IE, on tablets and smartphones, it too faces decline as mobile erodes the personal computer's supremacy in browsing.

Norwegian browser maker Opera Software held a combined user share of only 1.8% in April, down 28% since last September. Its mobile browser, Opera Mini, drew as much of the market as did its flagship on the desktop.

If the current trends traced by Net Applications continue, Mozilla will fall to the No. 4 overall spot in about four months, passed by Apple. That's neither good news nor good timing for Mozilla, which generates nearly all of its revenue from a contract with Google for making the latter's search engine the default on Firefox. That contract, last negotiated in 2011, comes up for renewal in November.

Net Applications measures browser usage on smartphones, tablets and personal computers by tabulating approximately 160 million unique visitors each month who browse to the sites it monitors for customers.

When desktop and mobile browser user shares are combined, Google has a solid lock on second place, but Mozilla is in danger of soon slipping to fourth because it lacks a compelling mobile browser. (Data: Net Applications.)

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is

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Tags internetGoogleApplecomputerworldFirefoxmobile appsnet applications

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