Is Mozilla's contributions program working?

A few months ago Mozilla gave add-on developers a tip jar as a way for them to get paid for their creations. But is anyone making any money off the program?

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
7 min read

It's been just under four months since Mozilla launched its pilot program for contributions, a way for users to donate to add-on developers for their time and effort.

The program was launched in tandem with a redesign of Mozilla's add-ons site that gave developers their own profile pages. Many add-on makers were already running donation programs through their own sites, but wanted the option to show up in Mozilla's catalog too.

Already it appears to be working, but on a smaller scale than some developers might have hoped. For the half dozen developers that CNET News talked to, none has made enough from it to, say, quit their day job. While Mozilla would not reveal specifics on which developers are getting the most contributions, it did provide us with the total amount given: around $20,000. An organization spokesperson said that most of that came in September and October.

Of the 500 or so developers who are participating in the program, the average contribution falls somewhere between $5 and $6, with the largest thus far being $150. All have gone through PayPal, which is the sole way to pay through Mozilla's add-on site. PayPal then gets a small fee out of each transaction, something that comes out of the developer's pocket, although this varies based on how much the user gives.

Other ways to make money

Some developers believe Mozilla has gone about the payment problem in reverse. With the current contributions program developers are given the chance to ask for money before the user even downloads the free add-on. So why not give them a way to ask for a contribution after a user has downloaded and installed it? At least that's an option for which developer Nate Weiner has been pining.

Weiner's Read It Later service lets users bookmark Web stories for reading when they have time. While Read It Later exists as a standalone site that can be used with nothing more than bookmarks, its real power exists as an extension which integrates deep into a user's browser.

Mozilla's contributions button is most often seen when a user is first downloading an add-on, but not after.

Despite joining the contributions program as soon as it started, and being in the top 50 of the most downloaded extensions of all time, Weiner says the extension has pulled in a little over $266 across 170 donations. To put that in perspective, Weiner's $3 iPhone app makes that much "every few days," he told us. "(Mozilla) could add a contribute button in the add-ons window that is shown after upgrading an add-on," he offered. "They do have to be careful as not to be annoying about it. Firefox's platform is inherently a free ecosystem. If users start feeling like they have to pay for every add-on, there is going to be a lot of push back."

However some other developers, like Eric Jung think a paid add-ons marketplace is long overdue. Jung has four extensions hosted on Mozilla's add-ons site, one of which--FoxyProxy Standard--has pulled in more than 6.4 million downloads. He has also been involved in two separate attempts to create a paid add-ons store. Neither panned out.

One of those attempts was with Matt Gertner, the co-founder of now-defunct P2P service AllPeers. The second time it was at Mozdev.org, where Jung currently sits on the site's board of directors. "To be clear, they were never actually working stores; they didn't get past the conceptual level," he said.

Jung eventually got so tired of waiting for a paid add-ons marketplace to appear on Mozilla's add-ons site that he ended up building his own storefront for selling a premium version of FoxyProxy. "(It) was something I did on my own with a mind towards extending it to N number of add-ons," he said. "As a result of doing that I know what it takes to build a store on a big scale. If anybody has been trying it they should contact me."

What about a store from Mozilla?

There are, in fact, a few signs Mozilla wants to get the ball rolling toward a paid add-ons store of its own. For one, the organization is working on making the payment system a bigger part of the browser. Mozilla discussed this most recently at last month's Future of the Web Apps conference in London. There, Aza Raskin, who is head of User Experience for Mozilla Labs, detailed a system that would let sites or services prompt for a payment option that's been saved on a user's machine. Having both that and a payment buttons within add-ons could make contributions a one- or two-click affair. It might also get developers out of having to use PayPal as the exclusive payment method.

Mozilla's upcoming built-in payment system will add a purchasing interface to Firefox. Such a system could make it easier for users to make contributions. CNET / Carsonified

The organization also has to act a little faster than in years past, with competitors like Google very quickly building up and out its own extension infrastructure. The threat is even more real since Google has its own payments service with Google Checkout.

And then there is the example set by Apple with its own App Store success. While the two are wildly different platforms, Apple has stretched people's comfort for micropayments outside of music and into software--something that could be perfect for little (but often useful) tidbits of code that can have a big effect on people's Web browsing.

In the meantime, the contributions pilot is a constantly evolving creature. Mozilla told CNET News that in the near future a more transparent system for giving money is coming. Mozilla will be giving extension makers something called the "pledge-o-meter," which will let them stick a gauge onto their add-on page that has a target goal of money. Each time a contribution is made, the gauge will show how far the developer is toward getting to a goal, something that could entice users towards pitching in. The organization has also mentioned offering developers a way to call out certain users as contributors, giving them a place of honor on their add-on pages, the same way a museum or school would put up a list of donors.

Success stories

So have some developers gotten rich off the program? No, but a few have made some extra cash.

Jason Barnabe, who created the extension Stylish which currently sits in the top 20 most popular Firefox add-ons of all time, only opted into the contributions program about a week and a half ago. Since then it's brought in $45. Prior to that Barnabe had it set so that when users relaunched their browsers after installing it, the extension would take them to a page with a donation button. But even then he says it was only pulling in $10 to $15 a month. "Asking for it on Addons.Mozilla.Org is much more effective," he said.

Chris Pederick, who created User Agent Switcher and Web Developer (the latter of which has been downloaded in excess of 13 million times and is one of the most popular downloads on Mozilla's site), had a similar sentiment. Like Barnabe, he accepts donations through his site, and agrees that the payments on Mozilla's site have far outweighed those because of the exposure.

Chris Pederick's Web Developer add-on, along with User Agent Switcher, have received about 10 percent of all contributions given through Mozilla's program. Addons.Mozilla.org

In fact, Pederick had done the best of those we talked to. He signed up both of his extensions for the program right after it was announced and since then they've brought in 224 contributions totaling close to $2,000, or about $500 a month. Based on Mozilla's $20,000 total, that means Pederick has brought in 10 percent of all contributions with just those two extensions.

Pederick noted that donations from any source are going to be dependent on what the add-on is, and that some add-ons have a better chance of getting contributions from people who use them in day-to-day business. "Web Developer is used by a lot of people for their job to earn money rather than just as a convenience," he said. "Generally when I see donations for $50 or $100 it appears to be from a design agency or someone who works in Web design, judging by the e-mail address of the donor."

That theory seems to have held true for extension ImTranslator, made by the Smart Link. The company provides a handful of free translation tools wrapped up in one extension. Since joining the program at the very end of August it has pulled in around 80 contributions totaling $807, the largest of which was $50.

In an e-mail to CNET News, Smart Link President Vladimir Ouzdin attributes most of those contributions to the text-to-speech utility that's baked into the product, which can read back text from any page a user is looking at. However he noted that the costs to develop that technology far outweighed what the extension has brought in by many orders of magnitude. Also, Firefox isn't the company's main source of income; it supplies language software for the U.S. government as well as NATO, and the United Nations.

Ultimately, what may be Mozilla's biggest problem is the same one a handful of online publications face today: they'll be asking people to pay for something that can be had for free elsewhere, and that has been free for a very long time.

What could end up helping that transition is an entirely new paradigm of add-ons, which the organization has taken the first steps toward with its JetPack project. This rethink of the add-ons platform does away with many of the annoyances that remain from the previous XUL add-on architecture, and will be giving many add-on creators a fresh start when it's a full baked-in feature of the upcoming Firefox 4. Whether Mozilla chooses to combine that with its upcoming payment tools, and add-on site in time for Firefox 4's release will be telling.