Google Chrome has never been so dominant—the web browser is used by 69 percent of all desktop users and 64 percent of mobile users. Every time you visit a website or conduct a search, again probably using Google, the information you send is fed back to the company’s infrastructure. And that’s on top of advertising trackers from Google and Facebook following you around the web.
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
But things don’t have to be this way. Despite only having a tiny fraction of the mobile browser market, Mozilla has totally rewritten its Firefox app for Android to rely on its own infrastructure rather than Google’s, which is used in the majority of browsers. The rework of the Android app, dubbed Firefox Daylight, follows the company testing out the features in a Preview version last year. For people in Europe the new Firefox app was launched Tuesday, while those in the US can get it from August 27.
One of the big differentiators between Firefox on Android and its rivals is that it runs Geckoview, Mozilla’s browser rendering engine. “We are the only independent web engine browser available on Android,” says Dave Camp, the vice president of Firefox.
Browser engines are key pieces of infrastructure that lie at the heart of every web browser. They run the core functions of a browser needed for navigating the internet. However, there are only three main ones available for developers to use. These are Blink, which belongs to Google, Apple’s WebKit, and Mozilla’s Geckoview.
Of the limited choices available, Google’s Blink is dominant. On Android, Microsoft’s Edge, the Brave Browser, and Chrome all use Google’s Blink. Microsoft was the latest firm to switch to Google’s underlying architecture as it implemented Blink in Edge in December 2018. On iPhones, Apple’s closed ecosystem requires that all browsers, including Chrome, use WebKit as their underlying engines.
“Having our core browser engine be part of our product is a great way for us to be able to make every change that we think we need to see to get the web to where we want it to be,” says Camp. It also means if Blink suffers from any security vulnerabilities, Mozilla’s browser won’t be impacted. “This independence lets us create a user interface that, when combined with an overall faster browsing pace, enables unprecedented performance,” Mozilla adds in a statement.
Using Geckoview allows Firefox to also make speed improvements on Android that it first introduced on desktop in November 2017. Camp says that because Firefox is relying on Mozilla’s browser engine, it’s able to use its Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP) tool, which is turned on by default and blocks third-party tracking cookies that follow people around the web. Mozilla first turned on ETP by default in September 2019 and says it has blocked 3.4 trillion tracking cookies since then. The trackers that are blocked are all defined by a list compiled by privacy company Disconnect.
“ETP Standard is a technology that knows what the trackers are, knows what they are doing, and deploys a set of mitigations that prevent them from actually tracking you,” Camp says. He adds there is a more restrictive strict mode for ETP that can be turned on by users—however, this may impact how web pages load.
Despite having more privacy-protecting features than Chrome, Firefox faces a serious uphill battle on the Google-owned Android operating system. Analysis of browser usage on Android shows Chrome holds 89 per cent of the market. Firefox makes up 0.44 percent of the market. (On desktop Firefox is in a stronger position with a 4 percent market share).
It’s something that Mozilla is very aware of. Within the new Firefox for Android version—current users of the browser will access the version through a PlayStore update—there have also been user experience changes. Camp says there is the option for people to move the URL search bar to the bottom of the screen so they don’t have to reach to the top to tap on it. There is also a picture-in-picture mode that lets people watch videos while in other tabs or apps, and there’s a revamped bookmarks feature, called Collections, designed to be used in a similar style to Pinterest.