Forget Facebook. The Web's platform is Firefox

Mozilla has a huge opportunity on its hands with its Firefox browser. The key will be to shepherd its growth so that it remains a viable community offering.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
6 min read

Correction: This post was updated to correct the time line of John Lilly's meeting with Jerry Yang.

John Lilly, CEO of Mozilla Matt Asay

I spent an hour Thursday with John Lilly, CEO of Mozilla, and Mike Schroepfer, Mozilla's vice president of Engineering, and learned a few things. For one thing, I once argued that Mozilla should hire more "capitalist pigs." John's riposte Thursday was, "We have more capitalist pigs than you think."

John didn't mean that Mozilla is just another commercial open-source company. It's not. Clarifying that comment, John went on to point out that four out of its five executives are entrepreneurs. In other words, though Mozilla is tiny compared to its proprietary competition (and big by open-source project standards), Mozilla's team and community are well-architected to compete. It's not going to fall over at Microsoft's feet anytime soon.

But while competing, Mozilla is heavily focused on its customers first and its competitors second. As John indicated to me:

Our question is always, how do we grow in a way that is leveraged? We always lead with the user experience and think about the money secondarily.

That user experience is starting to evolve beyond today's browsing experience. The most interesting topic discussed in our meeting was just how compelling Mozilla's Firefox will increasingly be as the platform for much that happens on the Web. Forget Facebook, MySpace, the iPhone, and other so-called platforms. Firefox could well prove to be the most disruptive Web platform on the market. Here's why.

To understand Mozilla's potential, it's useful to review a bit of its history. By the middle of 2005 the Mozilla Foundation was making around $4 million per month from Google...with only 10 to 12 people on the payroll. Those are revenues that any small start-up--open source or otherwise--would kill to achieve. Mozilla was largely doing it in its sleep through the Google relationship.

Even so, it was hard to operate as a nonprofit. There was plenty of money but the Mozilla Foundation had no clear idea of how to build a sustainable business. In fact, the Mozilla Foundation found it increasingly hard to keep its hefty profits contained within the confines laid out by California's nonprofit tax law. In 2005, Mozilla Corp. was born.

A visit from Jerry Yang
The $48 million run rate should have been a clear indicator that Mozilla had a huge opportunity on its hands. A visit from Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang in 2005, however, made it incontrovertible.

As it was related to me, Lilly had previously met Yang back in 2005. In John's first few days with Mozilla, he paid Yang a visit. This was no courtesy call. Instead, Yang arrived 30 minutes late for the appointment and laid into John over Firefox's tie-up with Google. In one fell swoop, scads of Yahoo customers saw their MyYahoo pages become Google landing pages. While troubling to Yang, this was the only reassurance that John needed that he'd made the right decision in joining the Mozilla Foundation.

Clearly Firefox mattered. And it mattered to many, many people.

Now we start to get into the platform. In 2005, 15 Mozilla employees serviced 15 million Firefox users. In 2008, there are 150 Mozilla employees servicing 165 million Firefox users. Those employees are scattered around the globe: Mozilla Europe (30 percent market share), Mozilla Japan (10 percent market share), Mozilla China (3 percent market share but growing fast), and Mozilla US. With two-thirds of its user base outside the United States, Mozilla must be global, too.

Mozilla's organization chart, which John drew up for me, looks much like a normal software company's organization chart. The office space feels like typical Silicon Valley office space. (People were playing ping-pong when I walked in and a woman was walking her dog out the front door.)

But Mozilla's potential is anything but standard. The stakes are huge.

A true community platform
John argues that the Firefox platform is actually more robust and easier to use than "rival" platforms like Facebook, iPhone, etc. Unlike these others, Firefox is a true community platform, reflecting the tastes, requirements, and whims of a broad array of users. It plays host to a wide array of third-party plug-ins. But the community angle doesn't end with plug-ins. 40 percent of the Firefox code wasn't written by Mozilla. This has stayed constant as Mozilla has grown. This is exceptionally impressive when you consider that Firefox is 6 million lines of code.

This community input is demonstrated by the last launch of Firefox. It came out of the gate localized into 37 languages. Mozilla wrote one of those, the English language version. By comparison, Microsoft's Internet Explorer 7 launched only in English, despite having far more internal resources.

Still another way to look at it is through its quality assurance program. Mozilla employs a few people (8 to 10) internally to focus on QA, but 10,000-plus people download and install its nightly builds. The feedback from this community is immediate and very pointed: "You broke Thai on X page," etc. Mike noted, "It's a little bit unnerving at times," but it's also a significant indicator of the "outside" buy-in that Mozilla garners.

Clearly, Firefox has the community. But does Mozilla have the ambition?

Weave: A Schematic Mozilla

To gauge this, I asked John and Mike where Mozilla is putting its resources. What are its big, strategic bets?

The first order of business for Mozilla, John suggested, will be to continue to orchestrate a better browser. The steps beyond the "vanilla browser" experience primarily involve Weave, mobile, Firefox as a platform, and Statistics. These are the four that John thinks about a lot.

What are they?

  • Weave. Think "cloud" services to the browser. It's similar to Adobe's AIR in blending the desktop experience with Internet-based services.

  • Statistics. Given Mozilla's spread of customers, it could do an opt-in ComScore/Nielsen-type service. Even a low hit rate with its users would result in much better information for Operations than these other services provide. Mozilla recognizes that it must shepherd customer information carefully, but believes that allowing customers to determine how much information to share is the right model, and will provide plenty of data.

  • Mobile. I actually first discussed mobile with John years ago when he started and I was considering building an open-source mobile start-up. Not much has happened with Firefox and mobile since that day but John and Mike argue that things have changed to make a mobile browser viable. While the carriers used to control virtually everything that was installed on their phones, Apple is forcing them to open up.
    Importantly, Firefox's mobile efforts have caught the attention of Nokia and other industry heavies, which are stepping up as significant code contributors. As the web blurs between desktop and mobile, mobile Firefox will be ever more important.

  • Mozilla as a platform. The items already discussed above suggest ways in which Firefox can function as a platform for Web innovation, but the possibilities are much, much broader. My browser knows (or could know) how I spend my money, where I spend my time, who I like, etc. Would I allow--indeed, beg--Firefox to collect information on these things in order to provide me more tailored advertising, social networking, etc.? Absolutely. The key is user control of her data.
    Or maybe it's as simple as building Facebook-like services as third-party plug-ins for Firefox? Perhaps Firefox wouldn't operate such platforms so much as enable them. The meta-platform, as it were. Mozilla could take a transaction fee on the commercial exchanges it enables.

John and Mike were less forthcoming on this last item, or quite possibly are simply still thinking it through (more likely the latter as they were quite open and transparent). It is a massive opportunity for Mozilla, one that requires real discretion and forethought.

The good news is that Mozilla's team of "social entrepreneurs" is well-suited to take on the task. This isn't a group looking to strip-mine open source for cheap profit. It's a group of seasoned entrepreneurs that take open source very seriously as a disruptive influence, but also as an ethical influence.

Besides, even if they didn't, they'd have 165 million people yelling at them for getting it wrong. It's open source. Things like "voice" and "choice" still matter in open source. Perhaps no more so than at Mozilla.