Author's Disclosure: I volunteer for Mozilla, unpaid. I've been to one of their events in 2013, but otherwise have no financial ties with them. They actually weren't aware that I was a journalist. Still, our readers should know my background when reading my editorial.
Mozilla has announced that, while Firefox OS will still be developed for “many connected devices,” the organization will stop developing and selling smartphones through carriers. Mozilla claims that the reason is because they “weren't able to offer the best user experience possible.” While the statement is generic enough to apply in a lot of contexts, I'm not sure how close to the center of that region it is.
This all occurred at the “Mozlando” conference in Florida.
Firefox OS was born when stakeholders asked Mozilla to get involved in the iOS and Android duopoly. Unlike Windows, Blackberry, and other competitors, Mozilla has a history of leveraging Web standards to topple industry giants. Rather than trying to fight the industry leaders with a better platform, and hoping that developers create enough apps to draw users over, they expanded what Web could do to dig the ground out of their competitors.
The issue is that being able to achieve high performance is different from actually achieving it. The Web, as a platform, is getting panned as slow and “memory hungry” (even though free memory doesn't make a system faster — it's all about the overhead required to manage it). Likewise, the first few phones landed at the low end, due in part to Mozilla, the non-profit organization remember, wanting to use Firefox OS to bring computing to new areas of the world. A few hiccups here and there added another coat of paint to the Web's perception of low performance.
Granted, they couldn't compete on the high end without a successful app ecosystem if they tried. Only the most hardcore of fans would purchase a several-hundred dollar smartphone, and intend to put up with just Web apps. Likewise, when I've told people that phones run on the Web, they didn't realize we mean “primarily localhost” until it's explicitly stated. People are afraid for their data caps, even though offline experiences are actually offline and stored locally.
The Dinosaur in the Room
Then there's the last question that I have. I am a bit concerned about the organization as a whole. They seem to be trying to shed several products lately, and narrow their focus. Granted, all of these announcements occur because of the event, so there's plenty of room for coincidence. They have announced that they will drop ad tiles, which I've heard praised.
The problem is, why would they do that? Was it for good will, aligning with their non-profit values? (Update: Fixed double-negative typo) Or was it bringing in much less money than projected? If it's the latter, then how far do they need to shrink their influence, and how? Did they already over-extend, and will they need to compensate for that? Looking at their other decisions, they've downsized Firefox OS, they are thinking about spinning out Thunderbird again, and they have quietly shuttered several internal projects, like their division for skunkworks projects, called “Mozilla Labs.” Mozilla also has a division called "Mozilla Research," although that is going strong. They are continually hiring for projects like "Servo," a potential new browser engine, and "Rust," a programming language that is used for Servo and other projects.
While Mozilla is definitely stable enough, financially, to thrive in their core products, I'm concerned about how much they can do beyond that. I'm genuinely concerned that Mozilla is trying to restructure while looking like a warrior for both human rights and platforms of free expression. We will not see the books until a few months from now, so we can only speculate until then. The organization is pulling inward, though. I don't know how much of this is refocusing on the problems they can solve, or the problems they can afford. We will see.