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Mozilla's nonprofit status key to its growth

Mozilla is giving Microsoft fits because its motivations are so different, which allows it to attract community development and focus on doing what's right for the Web, not itself.

In May, every major browser--Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera--gained market share against Microsoft's Internet Explorer, which dropped nearly 1 percentage point, according to data from Net Applications. No other browser, however, has taken as big a share as Mozilla's Firefox browser, which now claims 22.51 percent of the global browser market, and tops 48 percent in Europe.

The secret to Mozilla Firefox's success? Money, according to Chairman Mitchell Baker at last week's D7: All Things Digital Conference. Or, rather, the way Mozilla makes it, as the conference report suggests:

Mozilla can't be successful with a for-profit model. "We are only successful because of our current status."

There are many ways to read this, but I'd suggest the most accurate reading is, "We depend upon community and that community is motivated to contribute to us because we're a 'public benefit organization dedicated not to making money but to improving the way people everywhere experience the Internet.'"

This is similar to why the Linux Foundation and Eclipse Foundation work so well, and why I've suggested that the foundation model may be an ideal way to build open source. This model is critical to Firefox's past success and future ambition, as Baker implies.

Mozilla Firefox is arguably becoming the world's dominant Web platform, and some suggest it can even compete with such services as Facebook. Application vendors can't really afford to spread resources across multiple Web platforms, so it's critical that Mozilla continues to fend off competitors like an increasingly community-rich Google Chrome browser with optimal code and corporate policies that entice community.

In reality, I doubt there's much separation between Mozilla, the corporation, and Mozilla, the foundation, but there is a world of difference between how Mozilla presents itself to the open-source development community and the most community-friendly of open-source companies, like Red Hat. Mozilla Corporation is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation, and money always seems to take second place to community with Mozilla.

This makes Mozilla projects like Firefox a safe place for an open-source community to congregate, contribute, and win. For this reason, Microsoft and Google are going to struggle to compete with Firefox, because both have too much vested, corporate interest in steering the Web to their own parochial interests, whereas Mozilla can exist solely to make Firefox better for the world.

It's hard to compete with good intentions, well-protected by good corporate structure.

Correction @ 1:09 PDT: It was rightly pointed out in the comments that Firefox's market share in Europe is currently 31 percent, not 48 percent, as I reported. My apologies.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.