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15 December 2011, 15:57

What Should Mozilla Do?

by Glyn Moody

Given the recent concerns raised about Mozilla's dependence on its relationship with Google for revenues, what does the future hold for the organisation? Glyn Moody looks at the directions that its stated commitment to an open web is taking Mozilla.

There has been a flurry of excitement about Mozilla recently. Not, as you might hope, about the latest version of Firefox; one of the unintended consequences of the rapid release approach currently adopted is that nobody really gets excited about the constant flow of new versions, which is a pity.

This excitement was of a rather different kind, and triggered by the triple realisation that Mozilla generates most of its income from Google search referrals; that the three-year agreement between them had just expired; and that there was no news whether it had been extended.

Despite that, it seems highly unlikely that the Mozilla-Google deal will not continue in some form. After all, Google's absolute priority is maintaining its commanding lead in search; its work on Chrome is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

It's certainly handy if lots of people use Chrome, but it's more important that users find their way to Google rather than to Bing, say; if they come via Firefox's search box thanks to the Google default there that's really not a problem. Even if Google has to pay for those referrals, the sums are minimal compared to its overall income, and certainly a small price to pay to keep them from going elsewhere, which might happen if Google ended the deal with Mozilla.

But there's another, quite different reason, why Google would be foolish to end the relationship. On both sides of the Atlantic, Google is increasingly under scrutiny for anti-competitive activities and possible abuse of its dominant position in internet search.

If it were to tell Mozilla to get lost, it would reinforce the impression that it is beginning to act as a typical monopolist bully. The last thing it wants is to make enemies – and the open source community can be a pretty vocal enemy when it's riled – and to hand ammunition to its competitors by seeming to push users towards Chrome at the expense of Firefox. Owning both the browser and the search engine would give it too much control of the internet stack – and make it a ripe target for government intervention.

But the discussions about Mozilla's viability have raised some other important issues. For example, it's clear that Chrome is taking over from Firefox as the number two browser around the world. There's a good reason for that: Google is spending not inconsiderable sums on advertising, something that Firefox simply can't match. So, it's not so much that Firefox is falling behind here, but that Google is buying – in a quite legitimate fashion – extra market share through marketing.

But given that fact, the question becomes: where does that leave Mozilla? If its primary role as David to Microsoft's Goliath is no longer the case, what should it be doing in the future? That is the key question that needs to be answered – not whether Mozilla has enough money to keep going.

Although Mozilla grew out of a desire to salvage something from the appalling mess that Netscape's browser had become, it soon found an important role for itself, not just as a promoter of open source, but as a defender of open standards. Microsoft's Internet Explorer 6 was tied to the company's own standards, and there was the very real risk that the internet would become some proprietary fiefdom of the company. The rise of first Mozilla and then Firefox is the story of users recognising that there was a better, standards-compliant way.

That battle seems to have been won: both Chrome and Internet Explorer take web standards as a given, and any attempts by either to move away to proprietary extensions would be viewed pretty askance by the developer and user communities. After all, open standards just make everything much easier for everyone (apart from predatory monopolists.)

Building on its success here, Mozilla has made openness a key part of its mission. Here's what the Mozilla Manifesto says on the subject:

1. The Internet is an integral part of modern life–a key component in education, communication, collaboration, business, entertainment and society as a whole.

2. The Internet is a global public resource that must remain open and accessible.

The Mozilla Foundation pledges to support the Mozilla Manifesto in its activities. Specifically, we will:

build and enable open-source technologies and communities that support the Manifesto's principles;

build and deliver great consumer products that support the Manifesto's principles;

use the Mozilla assets (intellectual property such as copyrights and trademarks, infrastructure, funds, and reputation) to keep the Internet an open platform;

Next: Beating the drum

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