Thoughts: Where are the mobile browser extensions?

Last week, I was putting together a Google Chrome extension for one of our clients to help debug Javascript events on a page and I started wondering why don’t we have mobile browser extensions? Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer but I think looking towards the desktop can help draw analogies to where we are on mobile now.

So this desktop thing?

Looking back to the desktop, arguably one of the strongest drivers of Firefox’s growth was its rich extension ecosystem. Compared to Internet Explorer, Firefox extensions were easier to develop, leveraged web technologies (XUL, JS, CSS), and offered powerful abstractions out of the box. Because of this, developers began building powerful extensions for Firefox which drove “power user” adoption and ultimately helped spur mainstream adoption. Developers built extensions like Firebug, Greasemonkey, and companies like Rapportive inside the Firefox extension ecosystem. Following Firefox, when Google Chrome launched it debuted its own even simpler extension infrastructure and eventually the Chrome Webstore to help distribute and monetize extensions.

Although largely positive, the extensions developed for Firefox and Chrome weren’t always user friendly. Between redirecting search traffic and surreptitiously injecting ads, “greyhat” extensions negatively impacted user experience while generating revenue without generating value. These “greyhat” extensions fueled what’s colloquially known as Israel’s download valley and ultimately millions of dollars in revenue.

Right so what about mobile?

Compared to the desktop, the landscape on mobile is notably different because of an Apple and Google duopoly with Apple primarily monetizing hardware and Google monetizing search advertising. Additionally, compared to the desktop, Apple and Google have an unprecedented level of control over user devices, all but ensuring that devices will arrive with either Safari or Chrome installed.

I think because of this control, Apple and Google have little incentive to open up Mobile Safari or Mobile Chrome to 3rd party extension developers since doing so would compromise the browser user experience for little gain over the competition. But what about Firefox?

Although Mozilla has released a Firefox build for Android, I think they’ve recognized that trying to win market share away from Chrome on Android is a losing battle and they’re starting to seriously pursue FirefoxOS. Because of this, I don’t think Mozilla will invest in Firefox mobile extensions since it’s clear that there’s more opportunity in powering the OS layer of a user’s phone.

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