Firefox Preview is Mozilla’s attempt to rebuild its Android web browser. The group doesn’t want a web where Google is in complete control
Google is under siege. Chrome is the world’s dominant browser but its rivals are fighting against the firm’s heavy data collecting habits. Now Firefox is taking the battle to Google’s front lawn: Android.
Starting from today the Mozilla Foundation, which is behind the bushy-tailed browser, is reinventing its web browser for the 2.5 billion devices that run Google’s operating system. The new browser comes in the guise of Firefox Preview, an app that’s still in a beta stage but is ready to be tested in the real world.
“Our goal was to not reinvent the same thing that we have out there today but completely build a revamped version of it,” says Vesta Zare, a senior product manager for Firefox’s mobile division. “We actually went very deep into the architecture and we built everything from the ground up.”
As a result Preview is Firefox’s vision of what an Android browser should look like: speedy, with little user tracking. The organisation claims its new browser is twice as fast as the current version of Firefox for Android, has a minimal start screen and moves the URL bar to the bottom of the screen.
It is also turning on its tracking protection by default – this means Firefox doesn’t store cookies served by web pages and stops third-party tracking following you across the web. The setting has not been on by default in its main app before, although it was used in its pro-privacy browser Firefox Focus, which was released in December 2015. (A full version of Preview will be released as Firefox’s main Android browser this autumn).
Tracking cookies are used to monitor user behaviour online and build profiles to serve targeted ads – one recent study suggested around 94 per cent of websites using some form of user tracking. The data matters as it can be used to build up a profile of an individual’s habits and personal interests. (WIRED‘s publisher Condé Nast places cookies on its websites).
In a recent experiment Washington Post columnist Geoffrey Fowler monitored how many cookie tracking requests Google Chrome made over one week of his typical web browsing. The result? A total of 11,189 requests for tracking cookies were made.
However, the Firefox Preview changes that will really make Google pay attention come under the application’s hood. Firefox is sticking with its own browser infrastructure, rather than using the most popular version available. At the core of browsers are engines that run the core functions of navigating the internet and there are only three main ones available: Blink, which belongs to Google, Apple’s WebKit and Mozilla’s Gecko.
Google’s Blink, which is part of the open-source Chromium project, underpins some of the world’s largest browsers, including Vivaldi, Opera and Chrome. In December 2018 Microsoft decided to rebuild its Edge web browser using Blink, handing more of the underlying market to Google.
Firefox is keeping away from Blink. Zare says Mozilla is using its own GeckoView browser engine, designed for mobile, within Preview. “We can do the features that we want and protect users independence without relying on Google and the Chromium based engine,” Zare says.
The decision has been taken to avoid giving Google too much power over the web’s key infrastructure. “It’s really around not depending on Google decisions about mobile and having more flexibility in terms of the types of privacy and security features that we can offer,” Zare adds. Google has recently been criticised for upcoming Chrome changes that could limit the use of ad blockers.
“No other browser out there is taking a step to really push user privacy as a differentiating feature and take it as far as blocking all of the third party trackers,” Zare says. Mozilla also just turned-on its enhanced tracking feature by default.
Despite this, there’s a slow-moving but growing body of web browsers that are moving away from the idea that everything you look for online should be catalogued and stored. Apple used its annual developer conference this year to take a direct swipe against Google and Facebook’s data collection through social sign-on buttons. (It introduced its own Sign In with Apple feature to counteract them).This built on Apple’s 2017 announcement that its Safari browser would start alerting users when their web browsing is being recorded by third parties.
But there are more extreme browser options that are looking to damage Chrome’s 70 per cent desktop browser dominance. DuckDuckGo started as a privacy-focussed search engine but has since moved into creating its own browsers for iOS and Android, former Firefox developer Brendan Eich has also created the Brave browser, which is trying to reinvent how ads are served across the internet. However, if you’re looking for the most private way to browse the web, downloading Tor is the option you need to take.