An incredibly shrinking Firefox faces endangered species status

Mozilla's Firefox is in danger of hitting the endangered species list for browsers if current trends continue.

Mozilla's Firefox is in danger of making the endangered species list for browsers.

Just two weeks after Mozilla's top Firefox executive said that rumors of its demise were "dead wrong," the iconic browser dropped another three-tenths of a percentage point in analytics firm Net Applications' tracking, ending February with 11.6%.

That was Firefox's lowest share since July 2006, when the browser had been in the market for less than two years.

Firefox 1.0 was released in November 2004, at a time when Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) had a stranglehold on the browser space, having driven Netscape -- Firefox's forerunner -- out of the market. Mozilla has been credited with restarting browser development, which had been moribund under IE.

But Firefox has fallen on hard times.

In the last 12 months, Firefox's user share -- an estimate of the portion of all those who reach the Internet via a desktop browser -- has plummeted by 34%. Since Firefox crested at 25.1% in April 2010, Firefox has lost 13.5 percentage points, or 54% of its peak share.

At Firefox's 12-month average rate of decline, Mozilla's desktop browser will slip under the 10% bar in June, joining other third-tier applications like Apple's Safari (with just a 4.8% user share in February) and Opera Software's Opera (1.1%). If the trend continues, Firefox on the desktop could drop below 8% as soon as October.

The numbers for Firefox were even worse when both the desktop and mobile data are combined.

Firefox's total user share -- an amalgamation of desktop and mobile -- was 9.5% for February, its lowest level since Computerworld began tracking the metric nearly six years ago, and 3.4 percentage points lower than in July 2014, the last timeComputerworld analyzed the data.

Mozilla faces a double whammy: Its flagship desktop browser continues to bleed share, while the company has been unable to attract a significant mobile audience. Although the company has long offered Firefox on Android and its Firefox OS has landed on an increasing number of low-end smartphone makers' devices, its February mobile share was less than seven-tenths of one percent, about four times smaller than the second-from-the-bottom mobile browser, Microsoft's IE.

Apple, which had long trailed Mozilla in desktop + mobile browser user share, has leapfrogged its rival because of Firefox's decline: Safari on desktop and mobile had a cumulative 11.8% user share, down half a point from July 2014. More than two-thirds of Apple's total was credited to Safari on iOS.

Google has been the biggest beneficiary of the losses suffered by Mozilla and to a lesser extent, Apple, adding to its lead over both in February. Last month, it had a combined desktop/mobile user share of 27.6%, 5 percentage points higher than seven months ago.

Together, the aged stock Android browser and its replacement, Chrome, accounted for 41.5% of all mobile browsers by Net Applications' count. Google's pair remained behind Apple's Safari on mobile, but has narrowed the gap.

Two weeks ago, Johnathan Nightingale, vice president of Firefox, argued that the browser had a "fierce momentum," citing Mozilla's internal data. Nightingale said that January's desktop download numbers had been "the best they've been in years" and claimed that Mozilla's own numbers showed a tick upward that had not yet been confirmed by third-party measurements.

Neither Net Applications' data or that from StatCounter, an Irish analytics vendor, supported Nightingale's contention. According to StatCounter, which measures usage share -- how active each browser's users are on the Web -- Firefox on the desktop stood at 18.2% in February, down half a percentage point from the month prior.

Mozilla, of course, remains committed to Firefox. Last month, Mozilla's CEO Chris Beard announced that the company had combined its cloud services group with the one responsible for Firefox. "We have been exploring how we can integrate client software on desktops and mobile with cloud service approaches to evolve what Firefox can do for people," Beard said.

Like Nightingale, Beard asserted that Firefox was in good shape. "In the last year, Firefox turned a corner. We achieved positive growth again and dramatically reset our global search strategy," he said, referring to the move late in 2014 when Mozilla dropped Google as its global search partner and signed a five-year deal with Yahoo to make its search engine the default for Firefox in the U.S.

But third-party measurements, the only available because browser makers don't disclose the number of active users on a regular basis, do not back up Beard's claim that Firefox experienced "positive growth" in 2014.

Mozilla has also said it will develop an iOS version of Firefox that will run on Apple's iPhone and iPad, but the project has not yet produced a browser suitable for public testing.

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