Mozilla updates Firefox, but is it enough to bring old users back?
Many years ago, when I first getting acclimated to the Internet, I only used the browsers included with the operating system. I had no idea of the world that existed outside of Internet Explorer besides the random dabbling with Netscape.
Then along came Firefox, my gateway browser. “Download it!” a trusted friend advised me. So I did. And I never looked back at Safari or Internet Explorer. It was the best browser. Then when Google first launched Chrome, I installed it, only to scoff at its look and minimalist feature set.
As time passed, Apple AAPL and Google GOOG began releasing meaningful updates to Safari and Chrome. Mozilla’s Firefox started falling behind. Not just in terms of looks, mind you, but in terms of features. It felt slower. It lacked a synchronizing mechanism for other desktop computers and mobile devices. Most of all, it flat out looked ugly, even with all of its customization options and themes. So I jumped ship, and quickly took to scoffing at those who still used Firefox. (I know, I know. I’m a fair-weather fan.)
In the last couple of years since that fateful jump, I have split my usage between Chrome and Safari. I probably opened Firefox a total of five times, and those instances were usually reserved for trying to verify or dispel an issue I was seeing in another web browser.
On April 29, Mozilla released Firefox 29. The long-overdue update brought a new look to the browser that so clearly draws inspiration from Chrome that devout Firefox users took to the MozillaZine support forums to voice unpleasant opinions. In use, I found the redesign to be effective. A new settings menu presents easily identifiable icons, which make it easy to quickly find and select the settings category you’d like to view. The ability to quickly bookmark a page by clicking on a star icon is easier to use than the old option, which demanded that you name and organize the bookmark.
It doesn’t work with all websites, either. This problem is, of course, a tricky one to solve — it’s partly the responsibility of the website-builder to build to standards; it’s partly the responsibility of the browser-maker to adhere to them — and in no way unique to Firefox. But it makes me wonder why, in 2014, we still haven’t moved past the need to completely tailor websites to fit requirements of individual web browsers.
I digress. But that brings me to a major point about today’s browsers: They’re mostly the same. Today’s crop of browsers are so similar that the marginal differences between them are what can sway a user one way or another toward adoption.
Safari, for example, does not allow for tabs to be pinned; Chrome and Firefox do. Pinning a tab may not seem like a huge deal, but for those people who regularly have 20 or 30 tabs open and need to quickly identify what can be closed, the capability can be crucial — and a deciding factor.
Similarly, Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer, and Safari all offer some form of personal data synchronization: bookmarks, open tabs, system preferences. But not all browsers are available on all operating systems — especially for mobile devices — allowing the final experience to vary widely among them. In the case of Firefox, Mozilla refuses to release an iOS app, so its support list for mobile devices begins and ends with Google Android devices. (Mozilla is working on Firefox OS, a platform for mobile devices, but it’s not widely available.)
It is possible that I’m overstating how important these small features are: How much time they save, how much frustration they cause. But I don’t think I am. When web browsers nearly have feature parity, the importance of minor features is amplified. For a piece of software you use for hours each day, it’s even more conspicuous.
Should you download Firefox? There is little reason not to give it a try. But you may soon find that, like checkout lines at a busy supermarket, hopping between browsers is a fool’s errand. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m sticking with Chrome, even if it no longer has a clear lead among web browsers. Whatever your browser, you may find the same, too.
“Logged In” is Fortune’s personal technology column, written by Jason Cipriani. Read it on Fortune.com each Tuesday.