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Mozilla, money, adverts and corporate speak

What to make of Mozilla.

Why? Well, Mozilla gave us Firefox – my browser of choice on Windows, Debian and Android – which slayed Internet Explorer. The online lives of millions have been improved immeasurably by IE’s demise. Too bad for Firefox Chrome mopped up to become the planet’s most popular browser.

Mozilla, unlike Google, is a not-for-profit organisation, which means it builds Firefox so you can browse the internet and control how you browse. Mozilla’s only motive is to build an excellent browser for its users. That’s a simple, useful and transparent relationship.

Your relationship with Chrome and Google is murkier. While Chrome is free (and a better browser than Firefox), Google’s ultimate motive is to direct you to its advertisers’ products and/or sell information about you and your browsing habits to advertisers. That’s why Chrome made the address bar a search box as well.

Making Chrome a shithot browser helps Google make money, but that’s not its raison d’etre.

Adverts and corporate speak at Mozilla

So until recently I had a romantic view of Mozilla. I assumed it was a smallish operation, staffed by talented designers and engineers and a few business types keeping everything running smoothly. I didn’t even think about stuff like income until I read this post on plans to put ads on the Firefox start screen. (Note: Mozilla pulled the post, but you can grab an archived Google copy. So it goes.)

I don’t think ads sit well with a not for profit, but the article’s language concerns me even more. Corporate and obfuscatory. A tech insider armed with some slick phrases and bad news. I sniffed money.

Mozilla, selling search to Google and (lots of) money

The reason you put ads in something is to generate income. Whatever Mozilla claim, it’s not to make your product better for users. So let’s take a look at Mozilla’s money.

The majority of Mozilla’s income comes from a deal it’s struck with Google. When you tap a search into Firefox it sends it to Google. In turn, Google makes money whenever anyone clicks on an ad in its search results. As Firefox still accounts for just over 18% of the world’s internet traffic, that’s presumably a lot of money.

This has been the case for several years, but you might ask whether it’s in the user’s best interests. I’m not sure. Our library PC home page features a big Google search box because our PC users more often than not equate search the internet with search Google, and the first thing they do when they login to a PC is perform a search.

We don’t make money from search (perhaps we should) – we’re doing what we think library users want us to do. If they wanted something different, we could change search engine easily, perhaps to Duck Duck Go.

Mozilla can’t change, so whether Google would be most people’s choice of search engine anyway is a moot point.

Again, Google provides the best product, but being the best search engine is not an end in itself. The ultimate aim is to get people to click on adverts, and businesses on Google Plus.

I’m not sure this sits well with a not for profit, and I’d argue it stretches points 2, 4, 5 and 8 of the Mozilla Manifesto (but hey, point 9 makes everything OK, and the whole thing’s too fluffy anyway).

Still, Google accounts for over 90% of Mozilla’s income, which means it’s in the odd situation of being funded by its biggest competitor. Chrome’s browser share has increased at Firefox’s expense. And the actual amount? Well, that’s subject to traditional confidentiality requirements, and we’re [Mozilla] not at liberty to disclose them, but it’s quite easy to work out. It’s just under $300m a year.

Which raises more questions.

What is Mozilla for?

Not for profits have a contradictory relationship with money. On the one hand they exist for an explicitly noncommercial purpose, while on the other they’re often under pressure to increase income.

How they negotiate this paradox is fundamental. If a not for profit makes lots of money but loses sight of its original purpose it becomes a bog standard business.

At the moment, Mozilla feels too much like a commercial organisation. It raises lots of income, but sells one of its fundamental features in the process. It’s making noises about selling ads on its start page. It signs nondisclosure agreements with its partners. It speaks in pettifogging, corporate lingo. All while asking for donations (and getting $800,000 a year).

300 million. I guess developing Firefox, Thunderbird and Firefox OS doesn’t come cheap, and nor do Erik Spiekermann and Clear Left. Just because you’re a not for profit doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get the best in design. But that still seems an awful lot, and I bet a fair old wodge goes on employing some expensive marketing and advertising staff.

Again, no reason why Mozilla shouldn’t hire the best, but it’d be a tragedy if it lost sight of what it’s for in the process. Let’s hope the corporate bods will learn as they go along, but don’t hold your breath.