Chrome accounts for around 70% of browser use worldwide. Its nearest competitors, Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox, get just under 10% each of the desktop browser market. In this post, we’ll explore whether Firefox might deserve a larger piece of the pie.
The first thing to understand is that it wasn’t always this way.
All this has happened in just ten years: in 2008, it was Microsoft’s now-defunct Internet Explorer that held the crown, with 60% market share. In the process of replacing IE, Google reinvented the browser and wound up with something that acted almost like a separate operating system—and eventually grew into one.
Chrome launched the same year IE peaked (2008) supported by a comic that explained what a search engine was doing building its own software:
Chrome was built to handle “Web 2.0”—websites that did a lot more than display static, mostly textual information. That transition, away from web pages that most closely resembled home desktop publishing and toward the modern web, was in full swing by this point. But browser technology hadn’t caught up.
Cleverly Google created an open-source code base, Chromium, for its Chrome browser. While Google’s tech staff develop Chrome, Chromium is developed by a much wider group of developers including some other companies that use Chromium for their codebase. These browsers include Brave, Microsoft’s IE replacement Edge, and Vivaldi.
By contrast, Firefox is built on an entirely different codebase, using Mozilla’s free, open-source Gecko browser engine. This is crucial to understanding some of the differences between Chrome and Firefox: browser engines handle layout and rendering, turning HTML and CSS into the content you see on the pages you visit.
They also enforce the browser’s security policy, manage navigation via hyperlinks, and implement the browser’s Document Object Model, which represents HTML and XML documents so that other programs can change their structure and appearance.
So why does everyone use Chrome?
Benefits of using Google Chrome
Speed and function
Chrome isn’t blisteringly fast and there are faster browsers out there. But it’s significantly faster than Safari and Firefox. Chrome’s Beta, Dev, and Canary builds are respectively less stable, even less stable and totally unstable.
But the default, stable Chrome build basically never crashes. And it’s very rare to run into a website that won’t render or run properly in Chrome, partly because developers like the browser and its high market share means many organizations build their products “Chrome-first.”
Chrome out of the box is a fairly bare-bones browser. But users have the option to add nearly any additional functionality they like, thanks to a vast and ever-growing library of extensions that let you change everything from how certain words appear on the web to which order websites render in or how you search your browsing history.
The Google ecosystem
You can access Google services from any browser. But things like Google Translate, an inbuilt PDF viewer, and the omnibar that accepts both search terms and URLs are built into Chrome.
Chrome is built with developers in mind and has a massive developer toolkit (hit Cmd+Shift+C on a Mac keyboard or Ctrl+Shift+J on Windows to open Dev Tools in Chrome). You’ll have the option to retool the websites you’re looking at right in your browser, write autocorrected CSS on the fly, run SEO and performance audits, and a whole lot more. Dev Tools is updated and improved with each new Chrome build.
Flags and features
Flags are Chrome’s experimental features. You can see the flags available in your version of Chrome by typing chrome://flags into the omnibar. Turning flags on can make Chrome act weird, but they’re a good way to adapt your Chrome experience to exactly what you want.
Chrome features include the ability to cast your computer to another screen, as well as standard browser features like Incognito mode (which, as with all browsers, isn’t as Incognito as you might think) and a range of enhanced search functions in the omnibox. Chrome features are continually updated, and many flags become full-fledged features in future Chrome builds.
Chrome comes with sandboxing (running processes without granting them wider access to the browser or the computer’s operating system), phishing and malware alerts, and site isolation designed to offer solid protection against the most common online threats.
Not every browser works on every device. Chrome, however, is available for iOS and Android, Mac and Windows, Linux, and yes, Chromebook. You can have one Chrome account across all your devices, syncing your bookmarks, preferences, and browsing history.
Easy and fast to install and uninstall, Chrome can be added to and removed from devices without administrator privileges.
So if Chrome’s so great, why would you ever consider switching to Firefox?
Reasons to switch to Firefox
FireFox scores over the more popular browser in several important areas. Here’s how Chrome stacks up against Firefox in terms of privacy, memory usage, ease of use, security, cross-platform compatibility, and extensions.
Chrome’s WebKit HTML rendering engine, which originated with Apple and is shared by the majority of browsers on the market, developed a reputation as a privacy minefield because it allows so many background and cross-site trackers free access to its users.
In 2019, though, WebKit announced a new anti-tracking policy that would finally put privacy on a par with security in WebKit-based browsers, promising to “treat circumvention of shipping anti-tracking measures with the same seriousness as exploitation of security vulnerabilities.”
However, Chrome still hands over control of your data—browsing, location, and more—to Google. Google has lost user data in the past and not disclosed it, as well as cooperating with the NSA’s PRISM program, and it’s important to remember that although Google doesn’t charge for Chrome or search, it did make $132 billion in 2018, of which $116 billion was from advertising. That advertising revenue is derived from user data, including tracking users around the web and using location data.
Chrome’s 4,600-word privacy statement reflects this complicated relationship, with its users on one hand and its advertising business on the other. It’s a gigantic document written in deliberately obfuscatory language, which conceals rather than reveals Chrome and Google’s actual privacy practices.
That’s the crucial difference: Chrome shares your data for profit, Firefox doesn’t. Behind Chrome lies a company that makes a hundred billion dollars a year in advertising revenue, and its chief product is user data. Behind Firefox lies a nonprofit with a vocal commitment to privacy. Firefox offers privacy and enhanced tracking protection settings that give users more control over their privacy.
The result is that for privacy, Firefox is the clear winner. “In a week of Web surfing on my desktop,” says The Washington Post’s Geoffrey Fowler, “I discovered 11,189 requests for tracker ‘cookies’ that Chrome would have ushered right onto my computer but were automatically blocked by Firefox.”
CPU and RAM usage
Chrome’s a memory hog and a processor hog. Its tabs work by treating each open tab as a separate program—open a few tabs in Chrome, check out your task manager, and you’ll see what I mean.
That means it eats battery on mobile devices and slows desktops down, especially if you’re a “tablerone” user. There are extensions that can help with this, but in its unadorned state Chrome leans heavily on hardware resources.
Because it uses a different codebase and handles data differently, Firefox starts off more or less neck-and-neck with Chrome in the data usage stakes. As you use more tabs, however, Firefox pulls ahead. If you habitually use 15 or 20 or more tabs, Firefox will generally be faster than Chrome, even though in a single tab, Chrome is the faster browser.
Firefox doesn’t have an inbuilt memory-saving tool, but you can set it to disable images on mobile, which can make a big difference if you’re on a paid data plan.
Ease of use
Chrome is an easy browser to use. In fact, it’s become the default, and all the easier to use because it defines our expectations of a user interface.
Firefox is also easy to use. There’s little to differentiate between the two browsers in this area. But Firefox does handle tabs slightly better from a UI perspective, as well as in terms of usage, moving to horizontal scrolling when you have a ton of tabs open. That suits some users better, though if you’re used to the Chrome model it can be confusing.
One of Chrome’s undeniable selling points is that it’s not tied to hardware or an operating system. (It’s not technically tied to a search engine either. You can change your default search engine in Chrome in “Settings” > “Search engine.”)
You can run Chrome across devices and locations, keeping all your settings, syncing your browsing history, and basically treating your browser like a web-based computing environment that you can use different devices to log on to. If you do a lot of work online or in the cloud that’s a massive benefit, and it’s also helpful if for one reason or another—say, you split work between home and the office, or between multiple client premises—you have to hop from device to device but continue the same tasks.
Safari can’t do this. It’s available on iOS and Mac but not Windows, Linux, or Android. Edge is available for Mac and iOS, though uptake is low. But Firefox is as platform-agnostic as Chrome and will perform great on anything—even some Chromebooks, though you’ll need to download the Android version of Firefox.
Firefox can be synced across devices, though it works differently than Chrome, storing user data on devices rather than on FireFox’s own servers. The result is that you have more control over your own data, but also more responsibility. For example, if you set Firefox to sync, but don’t add another device to sync to, your data is still stored in just one location and is vulnerable to loss.
In terms of cross-platform functionality, there’s little differentiation between the two browsers, though there is the privacy advantage to using Firefox.
Chrome recently deprecated support for ad blockers, with updates to its API meaning that most Chrome ad blockers will no longer work. It offers a built-in ad blocker whose main purpose is to exclude ads Google disapproves of—better than nothing, but hardly putting the user in the driving seat.
Firefox has a built-in ad blocker but most users add third-party ad blockers. Since they’re not affected by changes to Chromium or Chrome’s API, the pick of the internet’s ad blockers continue to work on Firefox.
Chrome blocks popups automatically, warns users of unsafe sites and non-HTTPS sites, and monitors downloads for malware. It’s updated and patched frequently and there have been cases of new stable builds of Chrome being rolled out early in response to the detection of purely theoretical, as-yet-unexploited threats (though related threats were being exploited).
Firefox comes with a popup blocker and blocks known malicious sites, using the Chrome safe browsing database. It also cautions you when you use non-HTTPS sites, though less obtrusively than Chrome does. Mozilla updates FireFox frequently, and its default settings include scanning for and installing updates on launch.
There isn’t much to choose between Chrome and Firefox on basic security, though there are important differences in how the two browsers handle security and privacy in their extension libraries.
Chrome’s library of extensions is legendary—and notorious.
With a focus on size and ease of entry, there’s been “an increase in criminal use of extensions,” says William Peteroy, CEO of security firm Icebrg. The firm found that in 2018, four malicious extensions from the Chrome web store had over half a million combined downloads. And while these innocuous-sounding apps were mostly click-fraud scams, they requested permissions upon download that could have given them access to user data and behavior tracking.
Many apps from the Play Store request wide-ranging access and control privileges. In addition, Chrome permits extensions to run remote code by default, which Firefox does not permit. Chrome allows minification but not obfuscation (hiding) code in extensions. Firefox allows both but insists that developers submit non-minified, non-obfuscated code for review before their extensions are listed.
However, the Firefox extensions library is substantially smaller than Chrome’s.
Using your browser’s password manager isn’t exactly what security pros want you to do, but they do usually prefer it to not using a password manager at all.
Chrome’s password manager isn’t foolproof, and all browser password managers are vulnerable to similar attacks, including malware attacks on devices that grant access to all your passwords. This is true for FireFox’s password manager too, but there are differences in the way the two browser-based password managers operate.
Chrome uses your computer user account password as its master password—the password that protects access to the encrypted file where all your other passwords are stored—and currently has no plans to implement a master password system. This means anyone who knows your computer’s password and has access to your computer could potentially steal all your passwords, all at once.
Firefox does have a master password feature, making it slightly more secure. However, while Chrome stores password information encrypted on Google’s servers, Firefox stores the same information on your devices. It’s also encrypted, but local storage arguably makes it more vulnerable.
Ultimately, if you’re concerned about getting secure password protection you should opt for a third-party password manager like 1Password.
Who should use Chrome, and who should use Firefox?
Most people would probably benefit from using both browsers, for different tasks.
Chrome is the favorite for developers and for work and education, where tracking matters less because everything you’re doing is work- or school-related anyway. Developers in particular are not going to step away from Chrome’s rich, expansive, and ever-growing repository of Dev Tools, whatever anyone says.
But if you’re concerned about privacy, Firefox is the best choice. For many, the best balance could be to use Chrome for work and Firefox for play.