Firefox in 2020: what's next for the feisty underdog?

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

The release of Firefox Quantum in 2017 was the browser’s biggest overhaul in 13 years, but it was also a change in attitude. Since then, we’ve seen a spunkier attitude from  Mozilla – unafraid to call out competitors for unscrupulous behavior and lax attitudes to users’ privacy.

Art installation The Glass Room (curated by Tactical Tech and presented by Mozilla) shone a light on the practices of Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook. Sculptures, videos and other works visualized the labyrinthine connections between the companies that fall under each of their umbrellas, highlighted the length and complexity of their terms of use, and showed how much user data was released in the event of a data breach.

In the wake the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Firefox released a Facebook Container extension, which stops Facebook collecting your data when you browse other sites.

Other recent additions include Firefox Send, for transmitting files securely, Firefox Lockwise for managing passwords, Advanced Tracking Protection to prevent advertisers building up a unique ‘fingerprint’ based on your hardware, and Firefox Monitor, which lets you see if your details have been leaked in a data breach.

On the Android front, Mozilla has released Firefox Preview – an experimental browser that’s taking the fight to Google’s front door and aiming to undo Chrome’s monopoly on the mobile web. Preview is built on Mozilla’s own Gecko engine rather than Google’s Blink, which powers most of the world’s main browsers. By freeing itself from Blink, Firefox is no longer tied to infrastructure designed to serve Google’s interests.

It’s been a busy couple of years, but what can we expect to see in 2020 and beyond? To find out, TechRadar spoke to Dave Camp, senior vice president of Firefox at Mozilla’s London office.

Free and premium

We started by asking Camp about the much-discussed premium features that Mozilla is considering adding to Firefox as a way to pay the bills in a transparent way without resorting to ads and tracking.

“Without that clear idea of what we're doing, it's been met mostly with like questions,” he said. “What's it gonna look like? And I think that's totally reasonable. Totally valid.”

“I think people generally understand what we're trying to do, which is like figure out a more clear way to recover some of the value that we put into the world. People are waiting for details and that's totally understandable.”

He wouldn’t be drawn on what the new features will be (despite our best attempts), but he made it clear that a separate, paid-for version of Firefox definitely isn’t on the cards. Instead, he and his team are looking at privacy-related tools that will augment the existing browser.

We’ve seen hints at such features before, when questionnaires appeared asking Firefox users their opinions on VPN and ad-free news services, and how much they might be willing to pay for them. However, as Camp explains, these were only tests to get a feel for the average user’s opinion.

Testing the waters

Canvassing opinion is something Mozilla has found tricky in the past. In January 2019, it closed Firefox Test Pilot – its program for trialling new features, gathering feedback, and seeing whether they were viable before deciding whether to integrate them into the browser.

“Test Pilot was great,” said Camp. “I enjoyed it. I loved it. But it ended up being a biased sample. It was self-selecting, and the audiences that tended to pick up Test Pilot and use it ended up being audiences very similar to us as people. And so it didn't do as much to aid our intuition as we were hoping it would.

“Part of the idea of getting things in front of users is to replace intuition with understanding, and Test Pilot sometimes struggled to replace our intuition. So if you saw that that VPN test we did, where we just sort of asked a sampling of Firefox users if they would be interested in a product like this, that’s taking some of the Test Pilot work forward, but doing it one at a time, and with more random samples of people so that we can get something a little more representative.”

The necessary sample size means that not all Firefox users will be asked for their thoughts, but don’t be surprised if you see the occasional survey or questionnaire over the coming months as the team continue to test the waters.

The future of mobile

Beta testing is another way to gauge users opinions, which is what Mozilla is trying with Firefox Preview – an experimental new browser for Android that not only uses a different framework, but also incorporates some features from the pared-back, privacy-centric browser Firefox Focus.

“Reception has been good, and we've enjoyed developing it,” said Camp. “It's in a preview state right now, but the users seem to like it. There are still a lot of users on our primary current browser, but we're looking forward to release it that more broadly. The beta has been going very well. I think long-term, we expect most of our users to end up on what is now Firefox Preview.”

The existing Firefox for Android will remain available for the near future, but the team will monitor how Preview is performing and make sure users are as happy with it as possible before considering phasing it out.

Firefox for iOS doesn’t have the same issues as the Android version (Apple’s default browser, Safari, is built on the company’s own WebKit platform rather than Blink), so Mozilla isn’t planning to replace its iPhone app. Instead, it intends to upgrade the existing browser with features that work well in the new Android version.

The winds of change

New features like Firefox Lockwise and Monitor have received a warm welcome. “The Facebook container has been really popular,” said Camp. “It's a very good example of what we've been able to put together to make complex issues a little more simple for users to work with. People really enjoy that.”

“Firefox Monitor, which is our breach detection service, has been a breakout success. We've had a lot of, a lot of registrations for that, so that's been pretty positive. We were expecting a lot – we hold ourselves to high standards – but I think it resonated in a way we were very happy with.”

The introduction of GDPR in the European Union and the Cambridge Analytica data scandal mean privacy has been making mainstream headlines over recent years. Has the Firefox team noticed a change in the air as a result?

“I think people are starting to realize what they are trading for the services they get online,” said Camp. “And this is part of what led to us thinking through the Firefox premium thing – people become more aware of what they are exchanging for the services that they get online. We wanted to have a more transparent way of getting the services. I think there’s generally been a cultural shift towards caring more about privacy and asserting your rights.”

2020 vision

So what are Mozilla’s plans for 2020, in light of that shift? “Our main target is, at a very high level, giving people the experiences they love on the Internet without compromising their privacy and security,” Camp said.

“We see a lot of great stuff being built on the web, and users loving it and wanting to use it. And we think that's great. We're not here to try and tell people to stop using the Internet because it's scary. But what isn't going well is that they don’t understand what’s going on behind the scenes.

“We released enhanced tracking protection recently. The idea behind that is you go to a site, you love the site, it's great. That's cool – we want you to have that experience – but you don't realize that some pieces of that page that you maybe thought were just an ad were also forming an opinion about you, saving that opinion and using it to fund further advertising and stuff. And so we want to build products that let people get the experience they expect and understand, and protect from the experiences they don't.”

For the time being, Camp’s advice to keep yourself safe online is to grab a password manager if you don’t already have one, but also to think more generally about the software you choose to use.

“It’s helpful to think about the people who provide your software – what motivates them,” he said. “I think one of the things that make Firefox great is our modus operandi and motivations behind our products. The things we care about, how we think about people is, is important.

“I think consider the relationship you have with the companies that you're giving yourself over to – that really matters.”

Cat Ellis

Cat is the editor of TechRadar's sister site Advnture. She’s a UK Athletics qualified run leader, and in her spare time enjoys nothing more than lacing up her shoes and hitting the roads and trails (the muddier, the better)