Mozilla Goes Corporate

Mozilla Foundation, the open source non-profit in charge of Firefox, stirred a lot of controversy Wednesday when they announced that they would be forming a new for-profit company. What is the Mozilla Corporation for, and does this compromise any of Mozilla’s principles? Our favorite flaming bird isn’t “selling out,” is it?

Mozilla has restructured and broken into two: the already existing Mozilla Foundation and a new Mozilla Corporation. The Mozilla Corporation is now responsible for the development of Firefox and Thunderbird, and it will be leasing the software licenses from Mozilla Foundation.

To end users and outside developers, the software will remain freely available and open source. This also doesn’t sound like much change when you consider that the development staff is basically the same. All but four employees have been moved over to the new company. The four people that reside in the Mozilla Foundation now oversee the actions of the corporation, being sure that its goals are on target for the Mozilla project.

It seems that the latest announcement brings Mozilla full circle. After all, Netscape Communications formed the Mozilla Project in 1998. They opened up the Netscape source code to developers under the non-profit’s name, in hopes of spreading the development process. Later that year, America Online bought Netscape Communications. With seeded funding coming largely from AOL, Mozilla formed its own foundation in 2003.

The Mozilla Foundation has deeply corporate roots. Companies were responsible for the creation of it and have kept it alive through continuous funding. One of the most recent and largest contributors has been Google. Now the non-profit plans to slip back into the corporate world. I must say it was not an unpredictable development. Where it will lead Mozilla is a larger question, however.

We wouldn’t want Mozilla to fall to the stress of restructuring, like its big brother Netscape did. After AOL bought the browser, Netscape.com became a ghost town. Though this largely had to do with Microsoft integrating their first competent IE browser into Windows, Netscape still lacked the resilience to make a strong reactive blow to Microsoft. As the innovator and brain of the browser market, Netscape had the potential to blow away IE7, or at least follow up quickly with something competitive.

But it took years (two and half to be exact) for the company to finally release the bug-ridden Netscape 6. The second-rate follow up to their first-class browser is what finally declared victory for IE in the browser wars. Netscape development had slowed down and disregarded quality after the management and development team shifted.

{mospagebreak title=The Challenge of Restructuring}

Can Firefox and Thunderbird fall prey to this peril of restructuring? Hardly. As mentioned earlier, the change is basically superficial as far as development is concerned. Mozilla announced that the open source development and bug reporting systems will all work as they previously did. The employees of Mozilla Foundation that worked on Firefox are now the development staff of Mozilla Corporation, and a browser developer by any other name would smell as… well, whatever good browsers smells like.

The reorganization of upper management might be a little new, but it’s nowhere near as drastic as the Netscape case. Introducing AOL management into Netscape was far-reaching and, according to many on the net at the time, spelled doom from the beginning. As for Mozilla, Mitchell Baker is going to serve in the foundation and also as president of the corporation; that sort of coordination and linkage is always good to see. Another executive that is moving to the corporation is Chris Blizzard, also an employee of the open source Red Hat Corporation. Other corporation heads will be appointed by and answer to the foundation.

Another thing that will prevent Mozilla from falling to Netscape’s fate is that the corporation will not have an IPO (Initial Public Offering). Netscape was a company that was traded in stocks before their demise. They had investors and were easily bought by a larger corporation. This isn’t the case with Mozilla. There will be no Mozilla stocks or investors, though people can still donate as always.

Mozilla Corporation will not even own the software they develop; if another company tried to buy the corporation it would accomplish nothing. The foundation retains the rights and will continue to direct the ongoing Mozilla project.  The goals of the company and the foundation are for all purposes the same: those of the Mozilla project.

Having a Red Hat employee on board really helps point at the direction for this project. Red Hat found that the way to reach a wider audience was not by working as an NPO. Corporations have a much easier time dealing with other corporations. Red Hat is more commercial than Mozilla will be, since it is traded publicly. While Red Hat’s flagship OS is no longer freely available, their Fedora project is regarded by many as one of the top Linux distributions. It has remained free, open, and powerful. Open source going corporate is not bad news for anyone; if anything, it helps to propagate the software.

{mospagebreak title=Is It All About the Money?}

Officially, Mozilla says the change will help them to promote and expand, not maximize profit. They do not expect to recoup losses, and employees will have competitive (though not large) salaries. Since they are not selling stocks, they don’t have to impress investors or meet arbitrary goals that compromise the browser, but it also means they will not turn a profit from an IPO. Wait a minute. Wasn’t the point of having a company to turn profit?

Firefox and Thunderbird will stay free. They will stay open source. Companies will continue to make donations. The development team isn’t changing. There will be no stocks to trade. So what is the point to the reshuffling?

The short answer: legislation.

Mozilla makes a lot of money. Their primary income is from “search relations,” according to Mitchell Baker. A shiny nickel for everyone who already guessed it was Google. The search giant employs two Mozilla workers of their own, in a kind of cooperation. Also, the search giant reportedly spends tens of thousands of dollars on being the default search and the homepage of the web browser. This may be a little hard for Mozilla to declare on their taxes, as evidenced by Mozilla not having filed their 2004 taxes yet. Being a non-profit lays many limitations on what kinds of money they can accept. Being a corporation means they can do pretty much what they want to, in charging for products and services.

It’s probably a sure bet that Mozilla wants to work more on business relations, and it’s a lot easier for corporations to deal with a commercial Mozilla. The tie Mozilla has to Google reminds me of rumors a few years ago that Google wanted their own internet browser to launch their own services. In light of the conflict developing between Microsoft and Google already, it’s not surprising Google would rather make friends with another strong company than start their own project.

Advertising and promotion can be limited for NPOs as well. Non-profits may face challenges that companies with advertising budgets don’t. Many argue that much of Microsoft’s success is a result of marketing over innovation; the best product can be stomped by a good brand name and flashy ads. Anyone interested in the success of Firefox will admit it needs some press and promotion outside the internet to really gain more widespread interest.

{mospagebreak title=Introducing Mozilla Corp}

To think of Firefox incorporating more corporate interests may fill you with disgust, but consider the Google search bar already looming over your desktop. That little panel is the definition of what corporate involvement brings to the browser. Firefox was popularized partially on the cooperation of Firefox and Google. Sure, you can customize the search bar to use other engines; you will probably be able to do this to any new Firefox features.

But to revive the discussion about a Google browser, think about what optional Firefox elements could be added. You could opt to access Gmail through a specialized tab (or maybe sidebar) that is essentially an email client for opening your Gmail. Loading times would decrease and the flexibility would be unmatched by any other webmail. A similar thing could be devised for Blogger, Google’s blogging service. Or perhaps Thunderbird would get a share of these features.

Maybe they could add new search software that watches the pages you browse and suggests other pages based on its content. This could border on spyware, especially if it records your browsing statistics. Yet if implemented optionally and fully featured, even borderline spyware could prove to be useful.

These “search relationships” are probably the struggling point of Mozilla as a non-profit. Opening their organization into a business makes these relationships easier to manage and declare on tax returns. It also opens the possibility of there being more web service plug-ins designed b the Mozilla team.

Like Red Hat, the Mozilla could now also charge for corporate customer service and custom software implementations. A lack of full customer support is a huge turn off for many large businesses that depend on Microsoft supported products. Being able offer and charge for a service system makes Mozilla more of a competing product to rival IE.

Mozilla could also customize their browser, for a fee. Some libraries and organizations like having a browser specialized for their workstations. A special browser can have a few custom buttons or also lack features that users shouldn’t be able to change.

This change is for these reasons and not anything that will alter an end user’s or developer’s experience. To anyone concerned with the source code becoming closed, consider that most of the browser is GPL-ed and cannot be closed (I say “most” because the error reporting tool has always been closed source). There would be no reason for Mozilla to sever its roots with the open source community which has developed and popularized it. That would do far more harm than good to their share of the browser market. I, for one, would consider becoming a loyal Opera user. Basically, selling out would kill Firefox, and I’m sure Mozilla knows it.

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