The future of Firefox is … Chrome

Start your shouting engines

The head of Mozilla's Firefox browser is looking to the future. And, for the moment at least, it seems to lie in rival Chrome.

Senior VP Mark Mayo caused a storm by revealing that the Firefox team is working on a next-generation browser that will run on the same technology as Google's Chrome browser.

"Let's jump right in and say yes, the rumors are true, we're working on browser prototypes that look and feel almost nothing like the current Firefox," Mayo wrote in a blog post.

"The premise for these experiments couldn't be simpler: what we need a browser to do for us – both on PCs and mobile devices – has changed a lot since Firefox 1.0, and we're long overdue for some fresh approaches."

The biggest surprise, however, was that the project, named Tofino, will not use Firefox's core technology – Gecko – but will instead plumb for Electron, which is built on the technology behind Google's Chrome browser, called Chromium.

Predicting the inevitable outcry, Mayo went into some depth about the seemingly endless amount of internal hand wringing.

He highlighted what he called the "textbook innovator's dilemma" – where the status quo prevents anyone from making new and innovative products. He said: "The reason new things at old shops is difficult, mostly, I think, isn't because people are bad, or stupid, or actively sabotage new projects or any nonsense like that. It's largely because doing anything that might conceivably impact the current product creates unavoidable tension."

Update

That "tension" has led to an entire year's worth of "stop energy," Mayo revealed, to the extent that he was amazed project Tofino made it through alive.

While it – and its six-person team – are in fact alive, the same pressures quickly forced May to append an update to the top of his post:

I should have been clearer that Project Tofino is wholly focused on UX explorations and not the technology platform. We are working with the Platform team on technology platform futures too, and we're excited about the Gecko and Servo-based futures being discussed!

(Servo being Moz's promising Rust-based web engine.)

That update led to more hand-wringing and shouting and more explanations, which in their own way, only serve to reinforce May's point about argument and what's gone before slowing innovation.

Just two days after Mayo broke ranks, Mozilla's CTO jumped up and announced another new project – this one called Positron (geddit?) – which will take the Electron API and "wrap it around Gecko." Or, in other words, make it possible to take Mayo's new, better browser and pull it off Chromium and back into the safe hands of Gecko.

And so the status quo seeks to reassert itself.

This will be worth watching because, despite all the argument and counter-argument, whether Mayo succeeds in breaking free from Mozilla's web will decide whether the company's web browser will go the same way as its email client, Thunderbird, which has moved from core product to also-ran.

Meanwhile, a new version of Firefox that everyone is really excited about (!) is on its way, as well as the "biggest changes to Gecko we've ever attempted": in the snappily titled update "e10s".

Mayo noted in his post that e10s will ensure that "Firefox is on a healthy, competitive footing for years to come." But he noted: "It's not enough, when someone has a totally different idea they want to explore."

Good luck with that. ®

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