Mountain View, California: Boxes lined the cubicles and hallways in the offices of Mozilla on a recent afternoon, and its chief executive, John Lilly, seemed a bit disoriented as he looked for a place to sit. Mozilla, which makes the Firefox Web browser, had just moved from one end of this city to the other, mainly to gain more space for its growing work force.
Yet it was hard not to read symbolism into the move. Mozilla’s old offices were next door to Google’s sprawling headquarters. For several years, Google has been Mozilla’s biggest ally and patron. But in September, it also became Mozilla’s competitor when it unveiled its own Web browser, Chrome.
So it seemed only natural for Mozilla to move out from under Google’s shadow.
Success story: Software engineers at Mozilla’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. Firefox has captured nearly a quarter of the browser market by focusing on speed, security and innovation and its ascent is one of Silicon Valley’s unusual success stories. Noah Berger / NYT
“We’ve learnt how to compete with Microsoft and Apple,” says Lilly, a soft-spoken, earnest 38-year-old. “Google is a giant, of course, and competing with them means we are competing with another giant, which is a little tiring.”
Those big companies weren’t giving much thought to browsers when Firefox was released in 2004, and neither were most ordinary Web users. A browser was just a window onto the Web, and people often used whatever was already installed on a computer. Usually that meant Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.
Since then, Firefox has captured nearly a quarter of the browser market by focusing on speed, security and innovation. Its success is all the more remarkable because it was built and marketed by a far-flung community of programmers, testers and fans—mostly volunteers—coordinated by a non-profit foundation. It is a shining example of the potential of open source software, which anyone can modify and improve, and its ascent is one of Silicon Valley’s most unusual success stories.
In short, Mozilla showed the world that browsers matter. Now the challenge is to keep proving that Mozilla matters.
The rise of Firefox unleashed a new wave of innovation and competition among browser makers. Microsoft, which makes Internet Explorer, and Apple, which makes the Safari browser, have narrowed the gap with recent upgrades. That makes it less likely that people will take the trouble to seek out and install Firefox.
At the same time, the Web has been expanding accessibility from personal computers (PCs) to powerful mobile phones such as the iPhone. Firefox won’t have a mobile version ready until later this year.
And then there is Google. After introducing Chrome, a lightning-fast browser designed to run increasingly complex Web applications, Google upped the ante. This month it said it would put Chrome at the centre of a new operating system—the software that handles the most basic functions of a PC.
“Google, Apple and Microsoft can all throw a lot of resources toward improving their browsers. Mozilla, not so much,” says Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group. “When it was them against Microsoft, it wasn’t such a big problem. Now that there are other alternatives, it becomes harder for them to retain relevance.”
Despite Mozilla’s mighty and increasingly competitive rivals, the spread of Firefox has continued. Nearly 300 million people around the world use it, making Firefox not only the most successful open source consumer product, but also one of the most successful software programmes ever.
To a large extent, that success sprang from a disparate community that coalesced around Firefox and was harnessed by Mitchell Baker, Lilly’s predecessor. Baker, whom Lilly calls the “conscience” of Mozilla, remains its chairwoman and is actively involved in managing it.
Baker, 52, seems to embody Mozilla’s anti-corporate ethos. Unlike the clean-cut Lilly, Baker has a decidedly counterculture look. Her hair, dyed a reddish colour, is closely cropped on one side and shoulder-length on the other, and she is prone to wearing sandals with hiking socks.
She organized a recent meeting of non-profit groups at Mozilla that ended with what she called a “psychic group hug”—not a literal embrace, but a chance for everyone there to describe in one word how they were feeling.
For Mozilla and its millions of fans, Firefox is not just cool software but also a cause: to ensure that no company, whether Microsoft, Google or anyone else, can tilt the Web to its advantage by tweaking its browser to favour its products or applications. Microsoft appeared ready to use that tactic after its browser vanquished Netscape’s.
Baker envisioned Firefox as a counterweight to that possibility, and a way to make browsing safer. In the years after Netscape’s demise, Microsoft essentially stopped improving Internet Explorer, and the browser quickly became vulnerable to security threats, an explosion of pop-up ads and other annoyances.
Firefox was faster, safer and blocked pop-ups. It also offered some compelling innovations, such as tabs, which allowed users to have multiple pages open inside a single browser window. Word of its virtues spread quickly, first in the technology world, then through a rapidly expanding fan base.
Today the model remains the same. Only a small fraction of the people involved in building Firefox are paid employees at Mozilla, which has about 250 workers. An additional 1,000 or so programmers contributed code for the most recent Firefox release. There are also tens of thousands of other volunteers who help test and promote Firefox, write add-ons and help translate it into more than 70 languages.
“We succeeded because more people got engaged, helped us build a better product and helped us get the product into the hands of people,” Baker says. “We succeeded because of the mission.”
That community’s fervour was heard in a recent weekly conference call for engineers who build Firefox. The call, moderated but open to anyone, had 30 participants, some in Mozilla offices and others scattered worldwide.
The conversation bounced from one technical topic to another: user interfaces, bug tracking, security. Then someone interrupted to announce that in just a few hours, one million people had downloaded the new Firefox 3.5. The group erupted in cheers. (By the next afternoon, the number had topped six million.)
“Mozilla is about a community coming together and saying it can compete with the largest software company in the world,” says Sandeep Krishnamurthy, director of the business administration programme at the University of Washington at Bothell, who recently wrote a paper on Firefox’s success. “There really is nothing like it.”
Across the globe, Vineel Reddy, 21, an engineering student in Hyderabad, India, basks in the satisfaction of having contributed to that success. Drawn to the Firefox mission, but not particularly good at programming, he decided to work on promoting Firefox. He rallied some friends who were skilled at video editing, rented a camera and produced a flashy clip that compares Firefox to a slick sports car.
The video has been seen more than 33,000 times, and Reddy says he gets daily email messages thanking him. “This is the best experience I have had,” he says.
Lilly says it was that kind of dedication from volunteers that enticed him to move from a career in venture capital and to join Mozilla in 2005.
“As Americans we’ve lost the sort of civic engagement, the participation in making the world what we want and what we think it should be,” says Lilly, who became chief executive last year. “That, as a mission and as a product ethos, resonated with me.”
Lilly readily acknowledges that Google’s entrance into the browser market rocked the Mozilla boat. “Life was simpler before they did this,” he says.
That said, Chrome’s release does not signal a return to the browser wars of the 1990s, when Microsoft poured resources into crushing the upstart Netscape.
For starters, Mozilla and Google have long had an agreement that makes Google the standard home page when people start Firefox, and sends them to Google when they type something into the search box at the top of the browser.
The deal accounted for 88% of Mozilla’s $75 million (Rs363 crore) in revenue in 2007, according to its most recent tax filings, and it was recently renewed through 2011. (The gusher of income from Google prompted the non-profit Mozilla Foundation to set up a taxpaying subsidiary, the Mozilla Corp., in 2005.)
The deal has helped Google gain market share in search. But Google has also been among the biggest beneficiaries of Firefox’s success in other ways.
Google’s fortunes are tied to the advancement of the Web. As browsers become faster, more standardized, more secure and more capable of running complex Web applications, Google’s services, such as search, Gmail, maps and office software, become easier to use and more popular, and Google earns more money. Firefox’s innovations have helped with this.
“Mozilla has done an amazing job,” says Sundar Pichai, a vice-president of engineering at Google who heads the development of Chrome.
Pichai says that because of Mozilla’s vital role, the company thought long and hard about the impact Chrome would have on Firefox. Google eventually came to believe that it could help spur even more innovation in browsers by building its own, he says. And it made Chrome open source, so any advances it makes could be adopted by others, including Mozilla.
“We were all very clear that if the outcome was that somehow Mozilla lost share to Google, and everything else remained the same, internally, we would have been seen as having failed,” Pichai says.
So far, Chrome doesn’t appear to have hurt Firefox. Chrome has grabbed just under 2% of the browser market, according to Net Applications, a company that tracks browser use. During the same period, Firefox’s share has kept growing, to 22.5% from 19.5%. Microsoft’s has continued to decline, to 66% from 72%, though it argues that most of that loss has been on computers that don’t readily support Internet Explorer, such as those from Apple.
In many ways, Google and Mozilla are fighting the same battle, albeit not with the same objectives. They both contend that the Web should be open and based on common standards—Mozilla because it is its mission, Google because it is good for its business.
“Most days we are aligned with them,” Lilly says. “Their focus on the open Web is pretty amazing.”
But he says financial pressures may someday push Google to start using Chrome to favour its own services. That danger, he says, “clarifies for me how important it is for independent organizations like Mozilla to exist”.
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES