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Can Mozilla be bigger than Facebook?

Mozilla makes a great browser, but its future is bleak unless it expands its vision to become a Web platform that can compete with Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Microsoft.

Mozilla has made a name for itself by taking on Microsoft Internet Explorer in the browser market, claiming as much as 30 percent of the global market with its open-source Firefox browser. Mozilla's second act, however, promises to be much more difficult, with increased competition from Microsoft but also from open-source competitors like Google Chrome.

What should Mozilla do next?

"More of the same" probably isn't going to cut it for the open-source foundation. Though Mozilla's progress is admirable (and, in some ways, amazing), it's also "an anomaly," as Mozilla executive Mitchell Baker has opined, one that may lose currency as Microsoft increasingly embraces open Web standards and both Google and Microsoft super-charge their browsers' performance.

So, yes, while Mozilla rightly celebrates its market-share gains against IE, it can't rest on these laurels, no matter how good those laurels may look:

Given Mozilla's traditional role as challenger to a bloated (but revitalized) Microsoft incumbent, perhaps Glyn Moody is right to suggest that "The real challenge for Mozilla now is finding the next big challenge."

Mozilla is actively working on improving performance, and is trying to distance itself from resource consumption and performance problems that Flash introduces.

But making Firefox faster isn't going to cut it. It's a piecemeal approach to what is, in fact, a much bigger challenge, one that Mozilla seems intent to take head on, as Mozilla CEO John Lilly told me.

At least two years ago, Mozilla started raising the suggestion that it could be the open platform for Web development. Today, this suggestion looks ever more credible as the company builds out functionality like Weave and Contacts.

Mozilla isn't interesting as the "open-source browser foundation." Not with Microsoft getting its act together and Google betting its future on a browser-based window to the Web.

Where Mozilla becomes interesting is as it ties together my contacts, browsing, e-mail (Mozilla Thunderbird), and more into a seamless experience that transcends any single device and follows me from laptop to laptop to iPhone to Android to...everywhere. Then let me start to intermingle these artifacts of my online life with others' and Mozilla's role becomes hugely interesting.

Bigger than Facebook. Bigger than Twitter. Bigger than just about any private outpost on the Web.

This could also be its undoing. I worry that sheer benevolence may be a poor taskmaster for such a broad mandate. Mozilla cares about money--it needs money to ensure long-term sustainability.

But it doesn't care about money in the same way that Google or Microsoft or any other private corporation does. Mozilla can afford to put design and users ahead of business decisions in a way that few commercial organizations would dare. Those same organizations, however, might have the upper hand in sheer hunger to grow bigger and expand further.

Greed is, after all, an insatiable beast.

But maybe Mozilla can muster the ambition to assume the mantle of leadership for the Web. If so, and if it can marry the social Web (Thunderbird, Contacts, etc.) to the "browsing-alone Web" (Firefox, Weave, etc.), Mozilla can more than pay the bills by enabling the sort of trust that could undergird the next century of commerce and community on the Web.

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