Anita Elberse was on Charlie Rose awhile back to talk about her book “Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment” and that interview had a large impact on me. In the interview she brilliantly emphizes the importance of a blockbuster product/feature in the context of a business. She was talking primarily about the entertainment sector, and I do not think that Firefox is entertainment, but I think the idea still applies quite well.
In the first year that Google Chrome was released they had a large number of blockbuster features, here are just a few off the top of my head:
- The Unibar: Google Chrome made the search bar redundant.
- Built-in Flash: Google Chrome came with Flash built right in to the browser, removing the need to install a plug-in to make a huge portion of the web just work (like charlierose.com).
- Simple Extension APIs: Google Chrome made it incredibly easy to make simple add-ons and release them.
- Speed: Google Google Chrome nailed this when it was released, it was much faster than the rest of the market.
- Rapid Releases: Google Chrome was able to update itself.
- Built-in DevTools: Google Chrome had a Firebug like feature that was solid and fast built-in.
- Per-Window Private Browsing
This list is short, but it was effective, I constantly hear people tell me that they used to use Firefox and that they now use Google Chrome and they love the Unibar or Google Chrome’s speed, right after I tell them that I work on Firefox.
The fact that Firefox has caught up to Google Chrome on these features doesn’t matter. It’s like releasing a movie about ants right after a competing studio released a movie about ants, the effect isn’t the same because the latter seems like a copy, even if it is superior.
Now my concern with Mozilla is that it is too focused on catching up with Google Chrome and not focused enough on being better by creating a blockbuster feature.
Firefox has caught up or is working on catching up in many areas, and we’ve spent a lot of capital to do so. Rapid Release is done, Simple Extension APIs is mostly done, Speed is mostly done, per-window private browsing is done, the Shumway project is tackling the Flash issue, and there are other projects like Australis which is achieving UI parity afaict, pdf.js for a built-in pdf reader, and I’m sure that I’m missing some other projects.
It’s my opinion that simply catching up, or even achieving moderate superority on feature clones isn’t going to bring new or old users to Firefox. This can only be done with a blockbuster feature.
So to call projects that bring us parity with Google Chrome “innovation” is quite a difficult thing for me to believe. I do see how the implementations are innovative, but I am referring to design at the moment. In fact it’s hard for me to believe that any of the projects listed above will increase Firefox’s market share, and some of the projects, like Australis is at risk of moderately damaging our market share.
I contend that Firefox, or more specifically Mozilla, needs to design a blockbuster feature, or perferably many blockbuster features. This is what the add-on community is good at, and that community is what made Firefox great to begin with in my opinion. I think that some good examples of blockbuster attempts were Greasemonkey, Ubiquity, Ad Block, NoScript, Stylish, Tab Groups, Tree Style Tabs, Collusion, and there are good examples of semi-blockbuster features that were built-in to Firefox, like the Add-on Manager redesign, Social API, DevTools Tilt, and the DevTools Responsive Design mode. I’m not saying these were all successful, some were not, but they are all well crafted attempts, and they bring Firefox prestige and grow the community.
It’s late here now and I this post is a longer post than I am used to writing already, so I will have to save the rest for part 2+, where I suggest how Firefox can innovate in the future, but the truth is the Mozilla community is teeming with bright minds, and I would just like to conclude by saying that I implore you to think about blockbuster features, then try to built them! and join the #jetpack channel on irc.mozilla.org if you for help with that latter bit.
Think big Mozillians, at long last it is time to forget about what Google Chrome is doing.