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Can Firefox survive in a Google world?

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The red panda is the longtime mascot of Mozilla, developer of the Firefox browser.


(Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Last week, Microsoft announced it was throwing in the towel on its EdgeHTML development effort and switching to the open-source Chromium engine. That’s a big win for Google, which maintains that codebase and uses it as the core of Google Chrome. It’s arguably a big win for Microsoft’s enterprise customers, too, who can now count on having a standards-compliant browser that works with all their modern web-based apps.

You know who was not among the winners? Mozilla, makers of the Firefox browser.

Also: Microsoft Edge: What went wrong, what’s next

In a doom-and-gloom-soaked post on the Mozilla Blog, CEO Chris Beard criticized Microsoft’s decision even as he acknowledged that it “may well make sense” in business terms even as it poses an existential threat to the non-profit Mozilla:

We compete with Google not because it’s a good business opportunity. We compete with Google because the health of the internet and online life depend on competition and choice. They depend on consumers being able to decide we want something better and to take action.

[…]

If one product like Chromium has enough market share, then it becomes easier for web developers and businesses to decide not to worry if their services and sites work with anything other than Chromium. That’s what happened when Microsoft had a monopoly on browsers in the early 2000s before Firefox was released. And it could happen again.

Unfortunately, Mozilla’s relationship with Google is… Well, let’s just say it’s complicated. Yes, Firefox competes with Google in the browser market, but Google also literally pays to keep the lights on at Mozilla.

Two weeks ago, Mozilla released its annual report, including audited financial statements for 2017. In that report, it acknowledged that “[t]oday, the majority of Mozilla Corporation revenue is generated from global browser search partnerships, including the deal negotiated with Google in 2017 following Mozilla’s termination of its search agreement with Yahoo/Oath….”

In fact, more than 89 percent of Mozilla Corporation’s $562 Million in income in 2017 came from search engine royalties, and almost all that appears to have come from Google. (Yandex is the default Firefox search engine in Russia and Baidu is the default in China. Google is the default in the United States and other developed markets.)

That fact is, tellingly, listed under the “Concentration of risk” heading in the Mozilla 2017 financial statement (PDF).


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The current search-engine contracts run out in November 2020, less than two years from now. If Google decides to end that search relationship or change its terms in a material way, the financial impact would be devastating on Mozilla. With $514 million in cash on hand and $421 million in annual expenses, it would only be able to operate for about 15 months without cutting another search deal.

Unfortunately for Mozilla, most of the market forces that forced Microsoft Edge to give up on its independent browser engine apply equally to Firefox.

Despite excellent reviews, the Firefox Quantum browser, released in late 2017, hasn’t been able to steal any significant usage share on desktop platforms. Depending on which source you look at, Firefox continues to be stuck in the high single digits as a percentage of overall browser usage.

In the latest figures from the US Government Digital Analytics Program, for example, Firefox accounted for exactly 8 percent of traffic from Windows PCs and Macs, compared to 8.44 percent for Microsoft Edge and 7.9 percent for Safari. That comparison is even worse than it appears, because Edge can’t even be installed on devices running MacOS or versions of Windows other than Windows 10, and the desktop version of Safari runs only on the Mac.

If you look only at mobile operating systems, Firefox is a non-starter, with one-half of 1 percent of web traffic as measured by DAP, which is slightly less than Amazon’s Silk browser. Part of the problem might be that Google treats Firefox as a second-class citizen, as ZDNet’s Chris Duckett reported in July 2018:

“We are focused on providing a great experience for search across browsers, and continue to work to improve this for all users,” a Google spokesperson told ZDNet.

“Firefox uses the Gecko engine, which requires us to do extensive testing on all of our features to ensure compatibility, as it’s different from WebKit (which is used by Chrome, Safari, UC, Opera). We’ve done this for Firefox desktop, but have not done the same level of testing for mobile.”

That’s the same problem that Microsoft’s engineers cited as their primary reason for giving up on EdgeHTML. I’ve heard that the overwhelming majority of the time and energy that EdgeHTML developers spent over the past three years has been on fixing compatibility problems with sites that didn’t work properly because they were only tested on WebKit and Chromium-based browsers.

Can Mozilla afford the technical costs of maintaining the only rendering engine and browser code base that isn’t based on WebKit or Blink (Google’s Chromium-based fork of WebKit)?

The brutal nature of competition in the modern technology landscape suggests that Mozilla’s mission of providing an alternative to the Google monoculture is admirable and probably doomed to failure. The big question is whether Google will continue to pay royalties to keep Mozilla afloat after 2020. That might happen, just as insurance against potential antitrust action.

PREVIOUS AND RELATED COVERAGE:

Mozilla: Why Microsoft Edge’s switch to Google’s Chromium is bad news

Microsoft’s move probably won’t help Edge and it’s also bad for the open web, say Mozilla, Vivaldi.

Microsoft confirms that Chrome extensions will run on new Edge browser

Microsoft’s Chromium-based Edge browser could close the extension gap.

Microsoft’s Edge to morph into a Chromium-based, cross-platform browser

Microsoft is going to remake its Edge desktop browser by using Chromium components and by bringing it to Windows 7, 8.1 and macOS, in addition to Windows 10.

Microsoft Edge: What went wrong, what’s next

Microsoft’s grand browser experiment flopped in the marketplace, so the company is turning to an unlikely successor: the open-source Chromium project. Can it succeed where EdgeHTML failed?

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2021 BMW 540i xDrive Review: Benchmark in Balance

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It feels strange saying it about a $72,000 luxury car, but it’s oddly easy to overlook this 2021 BMW 540i xDrive. On the one hand, it’s not an M5, or even an almost-M5 like the M550i; at the same time, neither is it a clever plug-in hybrid like the 545e. Instead it’s about as close to a “standard” BMW 5 Series as you can get these days.

Even then, this is “standard” by degrees. A sprinkling of M-badged parts from BMW’s tuning division suggest whoever spec’d out this particular car couldn’t quite resist the lure of some customization, though the Alpine White result is still on the sober side.

It’s a handsome sedan, and fairly restrained by BMW standards. No vast grille, or exaggerated creases; it’s about as understated as the automaker’s line-up gets. Park it next to some of the luxury upstarts aiming to take a bite out of BMW’s market share and you’d be forgiven for having your head turned by the Genesis G80 or Cadillac CT5.

The 540i is, in contrast, quietly confident in its own prestige, and you can’t really begrudge it that. BMW’s recipe here is straightforward, though like the best cooking it relies on premium ingredients for a pleasing end-result. A 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-6 gas engine taps a little 48v mild-hybrid action for some sparkle, with 335 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque proving to be ample if not eyebrow-razing.

An eight-speed transmission is standard too, and BMW says you’ll see 0-60 mph in 4.6 seconds. That’s properly quick, and really it’s only the even-quicker existence of the M550i and raucous M5 that make the 540i seem a little more mainstream.

The same goes for driving dynamics. In Comfort or Adaptive mode, the 540i wafts and glides like German royalty. The standard AWD car starts at $61,750 (plus destination) but $3,200 gets you adaptive dampers and active roll bars, and the result is a supple ride that luxe newbies could still learn from. There’s no wallow or marshmallow squishiness to it, just a compliance that reminds you how adept the 5 Series always has been as a long-distance cruiser.

Where Sport mode on an M5 then threatens to immolate your underwear, though, on the 540i it’s a little more tempered. What sensibly dialed-in roll remained in the corners is squashed; the suspension stiffens, though still not to teeth-shaking levels. Focused but not frenetic, even if you notch the shifter over to S mode and have the gearbox hold its ratios a little longer.

It all suits the 5 Series nicely, even if we all know that the sedan can handle plenty more if your wallet is so accommodating. The mild hybrid system lends its 11 horses to fill in any lingering gaps during gearshifts or while the turbo is spooling up, and then allows the 540i to shut off the gas engine preemptively as you slow. Usually I’m no fan of start/stop systems, but then usually they’re jerky, agricultural things; BMW’s, in contrast, is beautifully surreptitious.

The same could be said for the cabin. Saved, by price and positioning, from the typical lashings of carbon fiber and spangles, the 540i plays it safe with more mainstream luxury. The leather seats are fulsome thrones, you get a 12.3-inch digital cluster and a matching 12.3-inch center touchscreen, and BMW doesn’t stint on buttons for whose who prefer to reach out and toggle their settings that way.

The infotainment system is crisp, swift, and generally pleasing; it’s only when you need to dip into the deeper menus for things like mobile device setup that it starts to get a little confusing. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, along with a 4G LTE modem with WiFi hotspot. The $1,850 Premium Package adds a head-up display and wireless phone charging.

Somewhere the 540i doesn’t deviate from every other BMW is in the array of options – and the way they help inflate your sticker price. With nicer Nappa leather, the M Sport design package, and all the various other extras, my review car was sliding past $72k.

For safety, forward collision warnings, blind spot alerts, automatic emergency braking, and auto high-beams are standard. Throw in the $1,700 Driving Assistance Plus package, meanwhile, and you get adaptive cruise control with lane-keeping assistance along with Extended Traffic Jam Assist. That lets the 540i handle low-speed congestion without your hands on the wheel, using a driver-attention monitor built into the gauges to make sure you’re still watching the road. It’s neat, but since it only works when you’re crawling along in traffic it’s not as useful as, say, GM’s Super Cruise.

As for those in the back, there’s decent space there for adults, while the 14 cu-ft trunk is also practical. The EPA says you’ll see 23 mpg in the city, 31 mpg on the highway, and 26 mpg combined, and they’re easily achieved.

2021 BMW 540i xDrive Verdict

The cynic might suggest that BMW has, if not forgotten about the 5 Series – and, more specifically, the 540i – then been distracted recently with SUVs and its upcoming all-electric models. Certainly, whether it’s from a styling perspective or a matter of dynamics, the 2021 540i xDrive feels a little more “old school” BMW than the automaker’s other recent cars.

I can’t say that’s a bad thing. Indeed if I had to sum the 540i up in a word, it’d have to be “ample”: enough power, enough design, enough comfort, and enough tech. Sure, you can chase BMW up through the echelons of the wilder 5 Series variants if you so desire, but just recognize that comes from a desire for excess.

The 2021 BMW 540i xDrive is, in contrast, an adequate sufficiency of luxury car. Not too sporty, not too plush, and not too ostentatious. That there are some compelling alternatives in the category is undeniable, but somehow all they do is highlight just how nicely dialed-in this “standard” 5 Series actually is.

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Mercedes-Benz unveils T-Class and EQT all-electric concept based on new Renault Kangoo

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We weren’t expecting Mercedes-Benz to unveil an MPV or small van, much less an all-electric microvan, but here it is. First off, the Mercedes EQT concept looks fantastic. It mends the styling attributes of a practical people carrier and a small luxury conveyance. Mercedes-Benz will debut two versions of the T-Class: Internal combustion (gasoline and diesel) and the EQT all-electric version.

“We are expanding our portfolio in the small van segment with the forthcoming T-Class,” said Marcus Breitschwerdt, Head of Mercedes-Benz Vans. “It will appeal to families and all those private customers, whatever their age, who enjoy leisure activities and need a lot of space and maximum variability without forgoing comfort and style.”

Let’s start with the Mercedes T-Class, the one arriving with a slew of gasoline and diesel engines in Europe. Based on the all-new, third-gen Renault Kangoo, the T-Class is riding on Renault’s CMF-B platform, capable of supporting internal combustion and all-electric powertrains.

Measuring 4,945 mm in length, 1,863 mm wide, and 1,866 mm high, the T-Class has seven seats, two sliding doors, and second-row seats that can accommodate up to three child seats. The concept is wearing premium white Nappa leather upholstery, but we’re expecting the production version to get wear-resistant nylon materials in lower-trim models.

Of course, MBUX infotainment will come standard, and Mercedes promises the dashboard and control layouts of the concept will make it to production. It will arrive with a slew of advanced safety features and driving aids like automatic emergency braking, lane assist, adaptive cruise control, trailer stability control, and crosswind assist, to name a few.

Meanwhile, the EQT all-electric version is a hardware clone of the Renault Kangoo E-Tech Electric model, and it’s the ninth member of Mercedes-Benz’s all-electric EQ family. The concept bears tasty exterior bits like a black panel grille with 3D star-effect lighting, futuristic LED taillights, and a full-width LED light bar in the rear. It also has 21-inch aero wheels wrapped in low-profile tires and a unique bottle-shaped panoramic glass roof.

Admittedly, the production EQT will be a toned-down version of the concept seen here. Then again, Mercedes-Benz claims the packaging, body style, and practical features will remain unchanged, and that’s good news. Powertrain options for the EQT remain unannounced, but we have an idea.

Most likely, the EQT will have a single electric motor pumping out 101 horsepower, drawing juice from a 45 kWh battery pack as the Renault Kangoo E-Tech Electric. The driving range is around 165 miles using the WLTP cycle.

The Mercedes-Benz T-Class and EQT will make their official debut later this year. Production is at Renault’s MCA factory in Maubeuge, France, where both the T-Class and EQT are built alongside the Renault Kangoo and Kangoo E-Tech Electric.

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Porsche makes a huge promise for its most important EV

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The Porsche Taycan showed the German sports car company was taking EVs seriously, but it’ll be the arrival of the new Macan EV which really tips the scales toward electrification. Porsche isn’t quite ready to unveil the all-electric Macan quite yet, but it’s already making some big promises about the EV version of its best-seller.

It’s fair to say the Macan has been a huge deal for Porsche. Though the automaker may be best known for its 911 sports car, available as a coupe, a convertible, and a Targa, it’s crossovers and SUVs which have padded the bottom line for some time now.

In Q1 2021, for example, Macan led Porsche sales in North America, closely followed by its bigger Cayenne sibling. Indeed, Porsche sold more examples of the Macan in those three quarters than it did 911 and 718 models combined. In short, if you’re going to make an all-electric version of your most popular nameplate, you need to get it absolutely right.

Porsche’s answer to that challenge is built on the Premium Platform Electric (PPE), an electric-only architecture the automaker co-developed with VW Group stablemate Audi. Indeed, the Macan EV will be the first Porsche product to use PPE. Focused on luxury performance electric vehicles – rather than mainstream EVs as VW Group’s MEB is focused on – there’s plenty of flexibility in how PPE can be configured.

For example, Porsche and Audi have already talked about the capability of rear-wheel drive single motor setups, and all-wheel drive dual motor versions. Body styles, too, can be configured in multiple ways, with up to a 100 kW battery pack nestled into the wheelbase. In the case of the Audi A6 e-tron – a barely-disguised nod to the upcoming luxury electric car the automaker has planned for a few years out – that means a sedan, but PPE can just as easily be adapted for crossovers, SUVs, and other designs. Audi, for example, will use the platform for its Q6 all-electric SUV that’s expected to be unveiled at the end of 2022.

The all-electric Porsche Macan, meanwhile, is being planned for 2023, the automaker says. It’ll use 800-volt architecture – like the Taycan and Taycan Cross Turismo – for faster charging times along with greater performance. Indeed, Porsche isn’t holding back on its speed commitment, promising “the all-electric Macan will be the sportiest model in its segment.”

For the moment, physical prototype Macan EV models are just headed out to the road. Porsche’s development so far has been virtual, using simulations to model the design of the crossover EV more effectively. That includes the aerodynamic work which is so important for electric vehicles, to cut drag and improve range.

In parallel, however, there’ll also be another conventionally-powered version of the Macan – using gas engines still – that will be on sale alongside the Macan EV.

“Demand for electric vehicles continues to rise, but the pace of change varies considerably across the world,” Michael Steiner, Member of the Executive Board at Porsche, explains. “That’s why we’re going to launch another conventionally powered evolution of the current Macan in the course of 2021.”

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