Ask Jeeves and the Mozilla Foundation have begun discussions on the twin possibilities of a Firefox-based Jeeves browser and of donating Jeeves' desktop search technology to the open-source group.
The discussions come as relations between Mozilla and search king Google become cozier. Key Mozilla volunteers now also work for Google, and the browser showcases Google search in its interface.
Ask Jeeves, which made its name as a "natural language" Web search engine, has recently expanded into areas including blog aggregation and desktop search.
In a meeting with Mozilla late last month, the company discussed how the open-source group could help it use Mozilla technologies and the organization to help develop its products.
"The main purpose (of the meeting) was to discuss Ask Jeeves and mozilla.org working together and how Ask can make contributions to Mozilla that make sense," wrote Tuoc Luong, Ask Jeeves' executive vice president of technology, in a Feb. 11 blog posting.
The proposed collaboration could help both the company and the foundation increase their reach. Mozilla's browsers, including Firefox, lag far behind Microsoft's Internet Explorer. And in the search race, Ask Jeeves faces a formidable competitor in Google.
A third topic discussed at the meeting, in addition to open-sourcing desktop search and creating Ask Jeeves-branded browsing products, was the possibility of merging Mozilla's Extensible User Interface Language, or XUL, with Ask Jeeves' Octopus content aggregation tool. Jim Lanzone, the company's senior vice president of search properties, termed that "the furthest out" of the topics under discussion.
But Lanzone said Ask Jeeves was serious about the other initiatives.
"Open sourcing our desktop search is a very real project," Lanzone said in an interview. "We're strongly considering opening up our APIs (application programming interfaces). While we would still develop the core roadmap for it, at the same time we realize we're not going to be able to build every bell and whistle."
Ask Jeeves acquired its desktop search technology in July with the purchase of a company called Tukaroo.
Mozilla confirmed that it met with Ask Jeeves but otherwise declined to comment.
Lanzone described Mozilla as "open-minded" but noncommittal about the prospect of hosting development of the desktop search technology.
The idea of a Jeeves-branded browser based on Firefox comes amid lingering speculation that search king Google might be contemplating something similar. Google search is prominently featured in the latest Firefox release, and the company has lured top Mozilla talent into its fold.
Support for Mozilla's Firefox browser has spread in recent months. The foundation has seen more than 24 million downloads since the browser's November debut, and in recent weeks Yahoo has agreed to support it with a toolbar formerly available only for use with Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser.
In addition to a Jeeves-branded browser, the company is also considering Jeeves-specific plug-ins for use with Firefox.
"We already do toolbars and desktop search, so a branded version of a browser is not that far off," Lanzone said. "If it provided useful functionality that was unique, certain of our 20 million plus users would find that interesting."