When people talk about the new browser wars, they typically focus on the decline of Microsoft's Internet Explorer, the longtime leader. But I'm far more intrigued by the fate of Mozilla's Firefox browser.
Google's Chrome browser, which launched just three years ago, is rapidly gaining ground on Firefox and seems poised to overtake it to become the world's No. 2 browser. Firefox was created and developed by the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation -- with substantial funding from Google -- to stimulate innovation and competition in a browser market that was once dominated by Microsoft.
Given Chrome's surge, this raises an indelicate question: Does the world really need Firefox or Mozilla anymore?
At the very least, it seems that Google may not, which raises serious questions about Mozilla's future.
"It's not going to be too long before Mozilla has to ask: Who do we exist for?" said Michael Gartenberg, a Gartner technology analyst.
I contacted Mozilla, which released this statement: "At Mozilla, we measure success by how much we are doing to improve the overall health of the Web," according to a Mozilla spokesman. "Mozilla achieves success by helping more people make choices about what software they want to use, what level of participation they would like to have online and how to take part in building a better Internet."
Google was also circumspect. In a statement, the company said:
"We remain great supporters of Firefox. After all, it was Mozilla that kicked off most of the innovation we have seen in browsers over the last few years We continue to have a valuable partnership with Mozilla."
But for how long? Google first signed an agreement with the Mozilla Foundation in 2004 to make it the default search engine on the Firefox browser. At that point, about 90 percent of the world used Explorer as its browser.
Over the next few years, harnessing the work of thousands of volunteer developers, Firefox gained incredible momentum and began to slice into Explorer's lead.
Then, in 2008, after pouring millions of dollars into Mozilla, Google surprised the world by launching its own browser, Chrome, built on many of the same standards as Firefox. Google also renewed its deal with Mozilla that year, extending it through November.
Since then, the competition for browser share has changed dramatically. According to StatCounter, Explorer's worldwide share fell to 42.5 percent in July while Firefox also dropped to 27.95 percent, down from 30.69 the previous year. Meanwhile, Chrome has surged to 22.14 percent from 9.88 percent in July 2010.
It's become a fierce, three-way dogfight, with all the momentum in Chrome's corner. Whatever Mozilla and Google say, it doesn't bode well for the future of the foundation. According to Mozilla's latest financial disclosures, Google accounted for 86 percent of its revenue in 2009.
And just last month, Google announced it would not create updates to its search toolbar for future versions of Firefox. That left Mozilla scrambling to find a workaround for users, many of whom had apparently delayed upgrading to the latest version of Firefox until the new Google toolbar was released.
All is not lost for Mozilla. It did sign a smaller deal last year with Microsoft to include Bing as a search engine option, though Google remains the default.
Mozilla has developed a number of other open-source projects, such as Thunderbird, an email program. And it continues to define its mission broadly to encourage open Web standards and the widest possible participation in the Web.
IDC analyst Al Hilwa says Mozilla is "groping for a rationale for its existence." Hilwa said the writing is on the wall for the Mozilla-Google lovefest.
"I'd personally hate to see Mozilla pack up and go away," Hilwa said. "Is there life after Google? No doubt there is. But if their dream was to have more than 50 percent browser share, that's not likely to happen."