Firefox at 5: the Google Cold War
Saving the interwebs from 'cable TV'
As Firefox pops the champagne on its fifth birthday, one of its founding fathers has warned the world against an interwebs ruled by a certain money-minded tech giant.
That would be Google.
The Mountain View Chocolate Factory was instrumental in the rise of Mozilla's open-source web browser, contributing not only code, but considerable amounts of cash. Since 2004, Mozilla has pocketed a slice of all Google search cash generated by Firefox traffic, and in 2006 and 2007, Mountain View dollars accounted for more than 85 per cent of the open-sourcers' revenues.
But following the debut of Google's very own Chrome browser last year, a certain chilliness has come between the two. Their financial relationship hasn't changed - Mozilla still needs the cash, and Google still needs the traffic - but in other ways, they aren't as close as they once were.
Firefox was founded to revive the mid-90s browser wars with Microsoft and Internet Explorer. But five years after the official debut of Firefox in November 2004, a kind of browser cold war has developed with Microsoft's biggest rival.
"I look at Google and I don't see a lot of alignment with the big picture of the internet," says Asa Dotzler, the ten-year Mozilla vet who was among the team of three or four who founded the Firefox project back in 2002.
"Google is essentially an advertising company. That's where they make their money. They provide a wonderful service - primarily their search service - but it serves their advertising goals. It serves their revenue goals. The more they can know about their users, the more effective they believe they can advertise, the more money they believe they can make. That is most fundamental."
He doesn't see Google as the new Microsoft. Far from it. But Google is still a threat to the Mozilla way. Redmond and Mountain View have absolutely nothing in common, Dotzler says, except that they're both public companies legally beholden to maximize revenue for their stockholders. He's adamant that if Google's ad-centric vision comes to dominate, the web will wind up as something we've all seen before.
"I hope that there is renewed competition in the search space and in the advertising space and in revenue models for the web beyond advertising," he says. "I fear that we would end up in a worse case scenario where the users of the web become consumers of content who sit in front of commercial advertising all day long and have no control over their experience. And that sounds like cable TV to me. The internet can be so much more."
The irony, of course, is that Google ads are still propping Mozilla's bottom line. But the organization has revenue deals with multiple search engines, and Dotzler insists that none of them - not even the most lucrative - has an effect on the company's egalitarian mindset.
As you might expect, he wholeheartedly nominates Mozilla as the outfit who can save the net from both Microsoft and Google. "Mozilla creates a product that makes sure that the non-commercial aspects of the web - those things which haven't purely been designed to generate revenue - are well represented and that anyone can come along and participate without having to be a part of the financial model of the web," he says.
"There are civic and cultural and educational aspects of the internet that needs a defender and an advocate. They won't get that from traditional commercial organizations who have a legal responsibility not to care about this stuff."
Phoenix from the, well, you know
The Firefox project was originally known as Phoenix, a standalone open source browser rising from the ashes of Netscape. The project was launched in early April 2002, but its roots trace back to 1997, when Netscape released its Communicator suite as open source software - before anyone called it open source software.
When Netscape's code went free, Asa Dotzler was among the first to file a bug report. And by 2000, after helping to build a thriving community of testers, he'd landed a job with the Netscape-backed Mozilla Organization, well before the outfit morphed into a standalone not-for-profit.
"I had always had some interest in the free software community, but I couldn't stand Linux. I was a Mac user and it was abhorrent to me," he remembers. "But here was a product I did use - the Communicator suite - and I said to myself: 'I should get involved somehow.'"
In those days, Mozilla's efforts centered around the development of the suite as a whole - a package that included not only a browser but several other online tools, including email, chat, and html editing. But two years later, Dotzler and a small group of developers launched another project on the side.
The group had worked on Camino - nee Chimera - a standalone browser that wrapped Netscape's Gecko rendering engine in a Macintosh front-end, and they soon decided to do something similar using Mozilla's front-end language: XUL.
Enter the Phoenix.
The Mozilla brain trust set aside some space in the source code repository, and within three or four months, Dotzler says, ten to fifteen thousand people had tried the thing.
The browser wants to be alone
In those days, Microsoft controlled 95 per cent of the browser market, a lead so large that the Borg actually disbanded its IE development team following the release of Internet Explorer 6 in 2001. The only way to chip away at Microsoft's seemingly unassailable position, Dotzler and crew soon realized, was through a standalone browser - not a suite bogged down with all sorts of other stuff.
"We were looking and saying 'No one is really taking browsers seriously,'" he says. "The only way to have an impact, to make something that was going to get millions of users, was to attract Internet Explorer users, and they didn't want or need to move over to a large suite of applications. We wanted to let them keep their email client or chat client and just give them a browser."
By the time the Mozilla Foundation was founded in 2003 - a way of saving the project from a sinking Netscape - the organization's focus had shifted from the original Mozilla suite to Phoenix. Firefox 1.0 was released on November 9, 2004, and in the five years since, the open source browser has reclaimed nearly a quarter of the market.
Based on the number of security updates downloaded each month, Dotzler and Mozilla estimate their browser boasts roughly 330 million active users - plus or minus 10 or 20 million.
Microsoft is still the market beast, with a nearly 65 per cent share. But Mozilla has proven that despite Redmond's grip on the desktop operating system market, an alternative browser can succeed - in spades. And in doing so, it forced Microsoft into (at least partially) updating Internet Explorer for a modern internet.
Google? 'It's awkward'
But this we know. The bigger question is how Firefox will progress on a web increasingly dominated by Google. At the moment, Google Chrome owns a mere 4 per cent of the market, but it will soon be the centerpiece of a Google desktop operating system, and with Android - which uses a separate browser based on the open source WebKit project - Mountain View is stretching its beefy tentacles onto mobile phones, an area where Mozilla - like so many others - is still searching for a foothold.
Since the Chrome beta was released in the fall of 2008, there's no denying that at least the logistical relationship between the two companies has changed. "[Google] actually participated in the development of Firefox and have worked on other Mozilla projects, so we have [Google] friends and allies who are programmers and testers and they've offered device and usability expertise and distribution help and all kinds of other things," he says. "That has changed a little bit. Some of the people who were working on Firefox at Google are now working on Chrome."
Dotzler tosses in that common argument that more competition is a good thing. But he acknowledges that such competition has put an added strain on the relationship. "It's a little bit awkward. And it's completely OK to say it's a little bit awkward," he says.
"Google has a different vision of the web than Mozilla and a different set of motivations for building a browser. No matter what happens in terms of feature competition and things like this, we have something distinct at Mozilla. We're trying to make sure that individual empowerment and choice and participation are fundamental pieces of the fabric of online life."
Yes, Google's vision is providing 88 per cent of Mozilla revenues - at least by last (public) count; the organization's 2008 tax return is due out later this month - but Dotzler doesn't see a contradiction.
Mozilla and the search for meaning
In so many countries - including the US and the UK - Google is Mozilla's default home page and its default search box. But Mozilla chooses those defaults independent of any revenue pact. Dotzler says that Google receives such prominent placement only because it's the best search option - in those countries. In China, the default is Baidu. In Russia, the default is Yandex.
Mozilla has revenue deals with myriad search engines, and Dotzler dreams of a world where more outfits are pushing Google for that default spot. "We believe that search is getting more diverse at least geographically, but within the States and Western Europe, it is dominated by Google right now. In some ways that's wonderful, because they provide a great service. But in other ways, it's little bit unfortunate, because it means there isn't a highly competitive landscape that's moving the state of the art forward," he says
"Less competition is not what we're after here."
In 2004, the not-for-profit Mozilla Foundation spun-off the for-profit Mozilla Corporation so that it could make use of the ample funds streaming in from Google and others. But unlike Google and Microsoft, Mozilla is not a public company.
"We are a mission-driven organization that is at its roots an open-source, non-profit, public-benefit organization," he says.
He even hints that there may be a way for Firefox to help spark some extra competition in the search market. "Maybe there is some opportunity for Mozilla to help feature or highlight emerging search organizations or features in a way we're not doing today," he says. "This is definitely something we're thinking about."
Cold war indeed. ®