Firefox fortune hunters

Mozilla Foundation's browser may be free and open source, but that doesn't keep insiders from cashing in.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
6 min read
Just because Firefox is free and open source doesn't mean developers aren't cashing in on the popularity of the Mozilla Foundation's new browser.

On the contrary, new businesses are cropping up to provide organizations ranging from museums to software companies to the U.S. Department of Defense with Mozilla-based applications--for a fee.


What's new:
New businesses are cropping up to provide organizations with Mozilla-based applications--for a fee.

Bottom line:
Are people getting involved in Mozilla and other open-source projects to get rich? Not quite.

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"Business is pretty crazy right now," said Pete Collins, who last year founded the Mozdev Group in anticipation of demand for private Mozilla development work. "With the popularity of Firefox and the economy rebounding, we've been swamped. We don't even advertise--clients find us and provide us with work."

The Mozdev Group is still a small shop--seven employees scattered around the globe, including two new hires. In response to demand, Collins intends to hire two more workers in January, and hourly rates, which range between $75 and $100 per hour depending on volume, are going up.

The rise of Mozdev Group and businesses like it is but a small part of a broader corporate interest in open-source software. High-tech stalwarts such as IBM and open-source originals like Red Hat have long embraced the open-source model, selling services and pitching platforms for use with software whose underlying source code is made available online for free and licensed use.

Pete Collins
founder, Mozdev Group

Open-source software businesses have lured even Microsoft veterans into the fold.

The demand for Mozilla development work comes as the Mozilla Foundation's recent Firefox 1.0 release enjoys good reviews and brisk downloads. Mozilla, which then-AOL Time Warner spun off as an independent foundation last year, oversees the volunteer, open-source development of the Firefox browser, the Thunderbird e-mail reader and other software.

Firefox's success ends a long drought for Mozilla, which had racked up a six-year record of extensive delays and suffered from a badly reviewed Netscape release based on its code.

Developers' enthusiasm for Mozilla also fulfills, at least in part, an original goal of the open-source group, which was to establish Mozilla technologies as a platform for application development. To the degree that Mozilla continues to progress in that direction, it succeeds in countering one of archrival Microsoft's most formidable advantages: a far-flung army of independent software developers building software keyed to the Windows operating system and the Internet Explorer browser.

"They've created an easily extensible architecture," Ross Rubin, an analyst with the NPD Group, said of the Mozilla effort. "Once you've done that, all you need is an installed base, and theirs is growing....Plus (Mozilla) is cross-platform, so it has the opportunity to attract a broader base of developers."

Mozdev Group is the corporate offshoot of MozDev.org, a

hosting service where developers can use programming tools for their work on Mozilla-based applications. What MozDev.org developers do for free, Collins and his employees now do for pay.

Clients include the Brooklyn Museum, which ordered an information kiosk; Linspire, which commissioned a suite of software tools; and the Defense Department, whose order Collins declined to describe, citing confidentiality agreements.

Independent Mozilla-based development is made easier by the terms of the Mozilla Public License (MPL), which, unlike other more restrictive open-source licenses, does not require developers to turn their Mozilla-based applications back over to the open-source effort.

Linspire, for example, is choosing to give back an automatic Web-based spell-checker the Mozdev Group created for the Linspire Internet Suite. Turning over that tool to the open-source development "trunk" means it will get free maintenance, Collins said. But Linspire may opt to hang onto other tools it paid for.

"The MPL lets them do that," Collins said. "That is attractive to clients. But the majority of them do contribute their code back. They're more interested in the solution than having this proprietary system locked up. And if they check it back in they have the QA (quality assurance), and they don't have to maintain it as much. So it's to their advantage."

The Mozdev Group isn't the only one squeezing dimes out of the free, open-source browser project. Bart Decrem, an original member of the Mozilla Foundation who oversaw its marketing and business affairs, this month left that group to lead MozSource, an unaffiliated commercial entity that manages the Mozilla and Netscape stores.

While his 2-year-old company has been selling T-shirts and CDs until now, Decrem plans to offer new software and services for Firefox users in coming weeks, including Web-based tech support and an antivirus extension.

Linspire, the company formerly known as Lindows that makes user-friendly Linux-based software, sponsored Mozilla volunteer Daniel Glazman's work on Nvu, a Mozilla-based HTML editor.

And several companies are paying their engineers to come up with versions of their own software that work with Firefox. These include Amazon.com's A9 toolbar, Bloglines and Vivisimo.

Nokia has invested in Mozilla's Minimo effort to create a cell phone browser. Even America Online, which has neglected the Mozilla-based products of its Netscape division in favor of IE, is devoting renewed development resources to refreshing its Netscape browser.

One result of these and other efforts is that Mozilla developers who cut their teeth as volunteers are now finding paid work in the Mozilla-based

marketplace--a trend reflected in the open-source ecosystem as a whole.

"These people are in demand," said Walt Scacchi, a research scientist at the University of California at Irvine's Institute for Software Research who studies the open-source world. "As Mozilla is moving into a wider public audience, software developers who are identified as core contributors are likely to have market opportunities that conventional software developers would not have. If you've contributed to a software system used by millions of people, you've demonstrated something that most software developers have not done."

"If you've contributed to a software system used by millions of people, you've demonstrated something that most software developers have not done."
--Walt Scacchi, researcher, University of California

Those core contributors can expect between 5 percent and 15 percent more in salary compensation than the average software developer, Scacchi said.

Mozilla Foundation representatives declined to be interviewed, but issued a statement stressing the not-for-profit nature of the foundation and its work.

"As to commercial opportunities in general, a number of us at the Mozilla Foundation have heard a range of discussion about how one might make money out of open source in general and Mozilla Firefox in particular," said Mitchell Baker, president of the Mozilla Foundation. "The focus of the Mozilla Foundation, as a nonprofit organization, is on our product, providing a good user experience and fulfilling our core mission of promoting choice and innovation on the Net."

Official statements aside, are people getting involved in Mozilla and other open-source projects to get rich? Not quite, Scacchi said.

"Free and open-source developers get involved primarily for the opportunity to learn about emerging or advanced tools, techniques or methods associated with those projects," he said. "But the consequence is that people who can demonstrate their expertise become the most valued people. So financial capital may follow social capital, rather than the other way around. If you do good and people recognize that, that translates into increasing the value for your personal brand."

"I think the open-source nature of Mozilla is its chief competitive advantage."
--Bart Decrem, CEO, MozSource

Despite IE's overwhelming lead, Mozilla backers say their applications and services will appeal to developers by virtue of being nonproprietary. Microsoft's browser comes preloaded on nearly all computers and enjoys better than 90 percent market share, according to most estimates.

"I think the open-source nature of Mozilla is its chief competitive advantage," Decrem said. "Firefox, Thunderbird and other Mozilla technologies provide a terrific platform for third-party endeavors such as ours. The millions of Firefox users are among the most active on the Web, and Mozilla offers a wide-open platform that's welcoming to all comers."

Like the open-source community it springs from, the Mozilla-based development economy is international.

Mozdev Group's seven employees, for example, telecommute from Slovenia, the Slovak Republic, the United Kingdom and Canada. A minority of the company, including Collins, is located in the United States.

Scacchi stressed the importance of the international component in open-source work-for-profit, especially for engineers in developing high-tech economies who want to build a resume that will attract the interest of established companies.

Perhaps more than the average Mozilla engineer, Collins is watching Firefox's apparent success with the satisfaction of someone who followed a gut instinct to bet on a horse with long odds.

"The more Firefox grows, the bigger the market," said Collins, who described his original investment in Mozdev Group as a gamble. "Then companies will see that they can start solving problems with these technologies, which means more clients, and more of that market we can hopefully service."