Stop bolting features onto the browser

I strongly believe in the promise of the open web.

Web runtimes are ubiquitous: on PCs, phones, game consoles, televisions, and other appliances. Phonegap & Cordova allow developers to write native iOS and Android apps with web technologies.

The web has finally become the platform.

The web is a great platform to develop on, but the browser is poor delivery mechanism for many products.

Standalone apps make sense. On the desktop, browsers are a poor replacement for OS window managers. On mobile, the browser is a fallback service; people expect to consume content via standalone apps.

A browser is only one of many interfaces a single person uses to consume content. Users consume content in the interface most convenient for the task.

At Mozilla we are susceptible bolting new features on to Firefox instead of considering whether a standalone product is a better market fit.

Take for example Firefox Hello. Hello is a WebRTC video conference tool that allows Firefox users to initiate a conference by sharing a link. Even though Hello is compatible with any WebRTC capable runtime, Mozilla built a UI into Firefox to access the service from within a panel in the browser.

Is the browser really the best delivery mechanism for this product? Is making video calls from within Firefox a feature our users want and actually use? Does Firefox provide functionality that cannot be replicated in a standalone app? Is Firefox better at handling window management than the OS? If Hello was built into Firefox to drive adoption, could a prominent toolbar button that opens a standalone app provide an equal or superior experience?

I'm not the only one with these questions, and after the initial push to build Hello into the browser, a standalone Hello client is in progress.

The Firefox password manager is another example. Firefox's password manager was developed in the era before native apps on mobile phones became a thing. The password manager has been stagnant for a number of years but by the end of 2015, Firefox users should see a completely overhauled UI.

Great password managers are an invaluable tool to help keep users safe. A truly useful password manager must be available everywhere the user needs their passwords. A browser-only password manager has little value to a user who is unable to sign in to a standalone app on their mobile phone.

Apple understands this and built the iCloud Keychain. LastPass built a standalone Android client with deep OS level hooks that autofill passwords in native apps without any modifications by the app developer. LastPass's browser extensions allow desktop users to sign in to sites.

Mozilla's next password manager should be available everywhere the user needs their passwords. On mobile, the password manager should be available to standalone apps. On desktop, the browser is the MVP, perhaps deep OS level integration is possible too.

Mozilla has a browser problem. Organizational inertia has caused a myopic approach to product development where we bolt features on to Firefox that could live as standalone products.

Understanding that the browser is only one of many interfaces fighting for a user's attention should drive Mozilla's product development in new ways.