Firefox maker remains 'utterly confident' as revenue growth sputters

After years of surging revenue, Firefox developer Mozilla saw a rise of only 1 percent in 2013. Still, it did reach $314 million, and Mozilla's leaders say they're upbeat.

Mozilla's 90 percent surge in revenue from 2011 to 2012 flattened out to a 1 percent increase from 2012 to 2013. About 90 percent of Mozilla's revenue came from Google, which shares a portion of search-ad revenue generated by searches in Mozilla's Firefox browser.
Mozilla's 90 percent surge in revenue from 2011 to 2012 flattened out to a 1 percent increase from 2012 to 2013. Data from Mozilla; chart by Stephen Shankland/CNET

After a four-year run with significant annual revenue increases, Mozilla's finances have flattened out.

The nonprofit organization, which develops the Firefox browser and Firefox OS mobile operating system, saw its revenue increase by 1 percent to $314 million from 2012 to 2013, according to financial details disclosed in a tax filing published Thursday. That's a sharp contrast to the 90 percent increase from 2011 to 2012 and lesser increases between 18 percent and 33 percent the three years before that.

In addition, the organization's expenses rose as Mozilla increased investments in its products by 40 percent. That means cash flows from operations nearly halved from $70.3 million in 2012 to $36.9 million in 2013.

About 90 percent of Mozilla's funding in 2013 came from Google, the same as in 2012, Mozilla said. The organization is paid when Firefox users send search traffic to Google, which sends back a portion of resulting search-ad revenue.

That'll change, though. On Wednesday, Mozilla announced that it's shifting Firefox's default search provider to Yahoo in the US starting in December. Terms of the deal aren't clear, but Mozilla is optimistic about its financial future.

"In the end, each of the partnership options available to us had strong, improved economic terms reflecting the significant value that Firefox brings to the ecosystem," said Chris Beard, Mozilla's new chief executive, in a statement about the new search deal and Mozilla's decision to move away from a global deal with Google to individual deals with a broader range of search providers. Firefox search already defaults to Baidu in China, will default to Yandex in Russia and will continue using Google in Europe.

At stake in Mozilla's finances is the organization's ability to pursue its mission -- keeping the Web open and ensuring people have control over their online activities. When Mozilla launched Firefox 1.0 almost exactly a decade ago, its foe was the dominance of Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser. Now it's redirecting its attention to proprietary mobile operating systems, where apps sidestep the open Web and where people are lodged in ecosystems that combine services, personal data, and purchases of music, video, books and apps.

"What iOS and Android have in common is they're jails. They are very shiny, but once you join these ecosystems, you're really caught in them," Andreas Gal, Mozilla's Chief Technology Officer, said in November.

Mozilla has an unusual organizational structure. Overall, it's a nonprofit entity, the Mozilla Foundation, but inside, the for-profit Mozilla Corp. handles product development and marketing and takes in the search-ad revenue.

Firefox's share of worldwide browser usage, shown here in yellow, has been decreasing. This chart shows Net Applications data since October 2011.
Firefox's share of worldwide browser usage, shown here in yellow, has been decreasing. This chart shows Net Applications data since October 2011. (Click to see full size.) Data from Net Applications; chart by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Mozilla chairwoman Mitchell Baker also spoke assertively of Mozilla's financial fortunes. "We're utterly confident in our stability and viability going forward," she said in an interview.

But Mozilla does face major challenges in achieving its mission. The Firefox browser, now 10 years old, and the Firefox OS, just a year and a half old, are the main tools it uses to pursue those ends.

One problem for Mozilla is the mobile revolution, as people now often use services in native apps rather than in Web browsers, and as the browsers they do use are most likely Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari. Another problem is that on the personal computer, Firefox accounts for a gradually declining percentage of browser usage, chiefly losing out to Google's Chrome.

According to analytics firm StatCounter, Mozilla accounts for 12 percent of global browser usage across all devices. StatCounter measures that data based on views of websites to sites in its network. A different analysis from Net Applications, which measures daily users rather than page views, gives Firefox 14 percent of usage on personal computers.

Given the hundreds of millions of people on the Net, Firefox still carries a lot of influence, but the downward trend doesn't bode well.

One possible solution to the problem is to tap into the growth of the mobile market, where smartphones and tablets bring a more personal, portable experience to the Internet. This is where Firefox for Android and Firefox OS are, so far, a small factor. On smartphones and tablets, Firefox is very slowly increasing, but still only accounts for 0.5 percent of browser usage, according to StatCounter.

That could change more dramatically if Mozilla succeeds in its ambition of making Firefox OS a successful, widely used alternative to Apple's iOS and Google's Android. Firefox OS phones are on sale in 24 countries so far, including some big ones like Brazil, India, Spain, Italy and Mexico. Mozilla is focusing its resources on inexpensive models in parts of the world where people only now are upgrading from more primitive feature phones to full-fledged smartphones that can download and run apps.

Firefox OS runs Web-based apps -- those built with Web technologies such as JavaScript, HTML and CSS. As Web developers adapt their sites for mobile devices, Firefox OS benefits with support that doesn't require the native apps iOS and Android often use.

It's a harder sell when programming full-fledged Web apps, which often are more interactive and require better performance. When it comes to apps, developer enthusiasm for native mobile apps is a powerful force.

Much of Mozilla's success expanding into this realm will depend on the Web standards it supports. Those are steadily, if slowly, maturing. For example, WebRTC is now good enough to power Mozilla's built-in video chat service, Hello. That means Mozilla has a chance to offer its style of openness as an alternative to the closed networks like Google Hangouts, Microsoft Skype and Apple Facetime.

It won't be easy. But Mozilla has shown dogged determination in the past, and even if its revenues have plateaued, $314 million is nothing to sniff at.

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