Firefox Losing Foothold on Linux Distros?

When you install the Ubuntu Netbook Edition in October, don't look for Firefox on the desktop — it won't be there. Chromium, Chrome's open source cousin, is going to be taking its place. After years of desktop dominance on Linux, is Firefox losing its foothold or is this an anomaly?

Firefox has enjoyed sweetheart status on Linux for years. With little competition for a full-featured browser on Linux, Firefox has had a lock on default desktop installs. The rise of Google Chrome, and its open source cousin Chromium, are starting to change that. With Ubuntu 10.10 Netbook Edition (UNE) Chromium is slated to be installed by default to replace Firefox.

Since Firefox’s inception, it’s enjoyed near-exclusivity on the Linux desktop. Granted, the Linux desktop isn’t solely or even mostly responsible for Firefox’s huge growth. The numbers vary, but Firefox seems to hover around 25% of the market. Initially, Firefox’s adoption was driven by early adopters before catching on with a wider market. That’s what seems to be happening with Chrome now, which has about 6% to 7% of the market. An impressive gain for a browser that was trailing Safari this time last year.

While Chrome has been increasing its market share handily, Firefox has mostly stalled. IE continues to lose share, though it’s not clear if it’s losing most of that share to Firefox, Chrome, or Safari.

Does this mean immediate disaster for Firefox? Not necessarily. First of all, it doesn’t even mean that Firefox is being swapped out on the default install for all of Ubuntu. It’s only the netbook remix, which isn’t the majority of Ubuntu’s user base. And just because Chromium is the default doesn’t mean that some users won’t install Firefox anyway.

It’s unlikely that Chromium will displace Firefox at all on other standard Linux distributions. Attempts to package Chromium within the Fedora packaging guidelines have met with little success. Tom ‘spot’ Callaway explains the problems with packaging Chromium for Fedora — many legal, some technical. Chromium doesn’t roll out stable and supported releases. The project tends to fork existing libraries, meaning that Fedora would have to ship libraries twice or do extensive work making Chromium play well with system libraries. Some code is not licensed using Open Source Initiative licenses, making it a bit tricky to establish the status of those licenses.

As an upstream, Chromium has some maturing to do. Mozilla has been working with Linux distros for years, and has established fairly good relations with all the projects and vendors producing distros. Chromium is still getting this stuff ironed out, and it needs to improve quite a bit in the way it works with other projects that it consumes.

The Future is Mobile

But the flip side of the technical hairball that is Chromium is that it’s considered slimmer and more suitable for mobile devices. Chromium was picked for UNE because of its speed and lower resource requirements. UNE is also dropping other requirements for xulrunner in efforts to slim down.

It’s not just Ubuntu. Chrome is also the default for MeeGo. Since MeeGo and UNE are likely to be the leading distros for netbooks, this puts Firefox on the sidelines on quite a few machines. The good news, for Mozilla, is that Fennec is being planned for MeeGo Handset devices. So the mobile “war” isn’t lost just yet, but Chrome is pretty clearly gaining a lot of momentum. And that’s before ChromeOS makes its debut, which is scheduled for later this year.

If Chromium is well-received on the Ubuntu Netbook Edition in October, it doesn’t seem a stretch to imagine that Chromium will be replacing Firefox on the default Ubuntu install in April 2011. The competition is good, especially since Google’s investment in the browser space is helping bring open video to the masses. However, it looks like the days of Firefox as the “default” browser on Linux desktops is nearing an end.

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