Turns out the Mozilla Foundation actually makes tens of millions of dollars a year from Firefox, which it ploughs back into development projects. Who is this generous benefactor?
Ever wondered how Firefox has become such a feature-complete browser without the squadrons of paid programmers beavering away at the boring features?
Turns out the Mozilla Foundation actually makes tens of millions of dollars a year from Firefox, which it ploughs back into development projects.
Who is this generous benefactor? I asked Mozilla CEO Mitchell Baker.
Dan Warne (APC): I was going to ask you about the money you earn from your search box in Firefox because it is pretty widely known that Google pays for inclusion of Google search functionality, but people have very little idea of how much money Google pays.
Mitchell Baker: Well a couple of things to note here; it's not just Google -- they're not the only ones. One of the things that we pioneered - I mean people do think of Google because they are the default and the search box and the start page, but one of the things that we pioneered was multiple choices for the user.
If you look there's Google and there's Yahoo right next to each other and maybe people take that for granted now, but it was not taken for granted when we first did our early deals. Google is the default, but we were adamant that there had to be a choice and that other search engines that we thought users were interested in that made sense we might ship by default and that users can add anything.
It is very easy to add in a search engine. So that was a fundamental element of the user choice aspect. So we have arrangements with more than Google . We're non-profit so our numbers are audited and on the public record. We haven't finished 2006 yet so they're not public, but the 2005 numbers are around $US55million.
Dan Warne (APC): Wow! That's a spectacular amount of money. You could do a lot of work with $55million a year I would have thought!
Mitchell Baker: Yep it's I think unprecedented for an open source project like us. Of course currently that money comes into the corporation as taxable so you don't get that much of it, but nevertheless it was unexpected and very welcome and it allows us to do many things which is important because the browser is so fundamental to the Internet.
We were trying to do it on a shoestring and we were pretty remarkably successful through 1.0. The opportunities have grown and so trying to do it on that shoestring now would be very hard to be successful so that's been a boon particularly because users like it, search is useful as opposed to other things, like selling off buttons on the browser interface which might make money, but not be useful to people.
Maybe some day we'll find another one that people like and that would be great, but in the meantime there's a lot of opportunity to generate revenue out of the browser as it is now.
Conventional business processes say you absolutely diversify your revenue sources, which ideally would be nice to do but not at the cost of product.
Dan Warne (APC): Yes, many internet applications in the past have crossed the line and really annoyed users with intrusive add ons.
Mitchell Baker: Right ... so we ended up or started down this path of people really loving Firefox and sometimes I think it sounds funny to describe how much people actually love a piece of software and how excited they get and how much people are willing to do to help other people adopt that and to build it, and create it. But it actually happens [laughs].
So we saw our user base grow, we saw the level of excitement -and another overused word -- ‘passion' -- related to Firefox - extend beyond our core development community to unbelievable numbers of people and that is an asset that's priceless. And there is that sense of trust that yes it's a great browser and it's better than I had before, but I also trust it.
But that is the most fundamental aspect I think of Firefox and partly it's because the product is great, partly for those that know it's because we are a public benefit organisation and we are not trying to maximise our revenue and we're not trying to generate massive private wealth for a few people. The asset is owned by the public.
I think that many people don't know about the open source nature or how it is built, but actually somehow feel that in the product, that the end result reflects how it's made and it is made in a very community‑based, very user focused way and that comes through somehow.
Dan Warne (APC): Well it seems to me that one of the most attractive things about Firefox is the plug-in eco system and I think it's amusing to watch Microsoft trying very, very hard to replicate that, but their plug‑in eco system is full of "pay $30 to register this", "pay $50 to register that" - it's all commercialware and I think it is testament to the fact that in your open source model it's not easy to replicate that unless you are actually open source.
Mitchell Baker: Yes, yes well first of all it's hard to replicate interest in public benefit as opposed to shareholder personal wealth because fundamentally you're two different organisations and each has legal constraints that drive you in a different direction, so that, I think, by definition can't be replicated.
The framework that we operate under with decentralised voluntary action moderated by intense discipline and quality control at the centre also is pretty hard to replicate in a setting. Certainly Microsoft has had various shared source and sort of collaborative or sharing initiatives and good for them. I mean that's a step forward right but it is not the same as fundamentally sharing what you are doing through a leadership structure, but not an employment and financial structure.
So that's hard to replicate and then the ability to actually work with Firefox and the quality of the technology and the ability to work with it and make something interesting that solves your problem using Firefox, it's certainly nowhere. It is pretty extraordinarily hard to replicate.
Read more of the interview with Mitchell Baker: