Why Did Google Abandon Firefox?

Today Google unveiled Chrome, an open-source web browser built for web apps. The release begs the question: What happened to its relationship with Mozilla, its Mountain View, Calif.-based neighbor and formerly close collaborator on Firefox, the open-source upstart trying (and to some extent succeeding) to take a piece out of Internet Explorer? [digg=http://digg.com/software/Why_Did_Google_Abandon_Firefox]

In addition to providing the majority of the non-profit Mozilla’s revenue through a deal to be the default search engine for the Firefox browser, Google had in the past paid for some of its own employees to work part-time or more on Firefox. Most notably, Google hired Firefox lead engineer Ben Goodger in January 2005 under the condition that he would continue to work at least half-time on Mozilla projects.

And who should turn out to be one of the lead engineers on Chrome but Goodger himself, who in fact presented the browser at a media event at Google’s headquarters today. When asked after the presentation about the circumstances surrounding his stopping work on Firefox, Goodger said the Chrome project had begun two years ago, after he was hired, and he was grateful to Mozilla for giving him his first experience in the space. (As confirmation, Goodger’s blog says he stopped contributing to the Mozilla project in 2006.)

When we talked to Mozilla CEO John Lilly yesterday his spoke of Chrome like that of a competitor, saying he would wait and see if he should be worried about yet another player in the market.

So when did Google decide to forge its own path? Sundar Pichai, Google’s VP of product management, said that at some point Google realized it wanted a complete overhaul of a browser to fit its needs. While Chrome development was conducted in secrecy, now that it’s (somewhat incongruously) out there as an open-source project it may have the opportunity to rejoin other browsers’ development cycles, he said. “I hope that big chunks of Chrome can make it into next generations of Firefox,” said Google co-founder Sergey Brin, later adding he wouldn’t mind if they made it into Internet Explorer, either.

“Without what [Mozilla] have done, this would have been nearly impossible because would have had only one browser,” said co-founder Larry Page.

At least for Google there’s some money behind those words; in a nice bit of timing, Google last week renewed its Firefox search deal through November 2011. And Pichai made a point of emphasizing that Google services aren’t given preferential treatment within Chrome, though the default search provider is rather obvious.

So OK, it’s another open-source, free web browser. What’s in it for Google? Page said that the monetary benefits Google will gain from Chrome will come from the better and cheaper-to-develop web apps that its engineers can build using a better browser, as well as increased user loyalty and freed-up user time so they can search more.

But because Google has no desktop monopoly to build upon, what ultimately matters is if (like its search engine) Chrome is faster and better enough than existing options to prompt people to switch. For me, Big Brother implications aren’t an issue, but it’s just not worth using Windows, so I’ll grumble through Firefox stalling out my computer for yet another day until the Mac version comes out.

Chrome’s features — “incognito” browsing, searching within sites from the toolbar, tab dragging on steroids — are indeed excellent, and if Mozilla isn’t holding a grudge, should be added to Firefox ASAP. But the features are for early adopters and power users, so it’s Firefox’s market share that Chrome will eat up, not IE’s. And it’s Firefox’s engineers that Google took away. Maybe being open source and having a common enemy will heal up this little bout of backstabbing, but then again, maybe not.