Is Mozilla Selling Out?

As regular readers will know, I'm a big fan of Mozilla. I think it is not only one of the most important free software projects, but also one of the most innovative. Indeed, it single-handedly gives the lie to the tired accusation that open...

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As regular readers will know, I’m a big fan of Mozilla. I think it is not only one of the most important free software projects, but also one of the most innovative. Indeed, it single-handedly gives the lie to the tired accusation that open source just copies, never innovates. Here’s one new idea that Mozilla wrote about at the end of last year, called UP – short for User Personalisation:

Earlier this year, we announced a Mozilla Labs exploration of personalization on the Web in which users see content personalized to their interests while retaining control of their data. Since then, we’ve been listening to feedback and ideas from users, web publishers, and content creators, and exploring how this concept could work in practice.

We think Firefox is well-positioned to help users save time by finding content on their favorite topics more easily, and help publishers get the right content to the right users to keep them coming back for more. We’d like to share our latest thinking on how this could work, and have posted some initial ideas in the Mozilla Labs group for discussion and feedback.

Yesterday, more details about this approach were released:

The newest program is one we’re calling Directory Tiles, which is designed to improve the first-time-with-Firefox experience. Currently, if a new Firefox user opens a new tab, [they see nine rectangles.]

Their tiles – those nine rectangles that populate over time with the most frequent and recent websites they visit – are empty. The new tab page isn’t delivering any value for them.

Directory Tiles will instead suggest pre-packaged content for first-time users. Some of these tile placements will be from the Mozilla ecosystem, some will be popular websites in a given geographic location, and some will be sponsored content from hand-picked partners to help support Mozilla’s pursuit of our mission. The sponsored tiles will be clearly labeled as such, while still leading to content we think users will enjoy.

Translated, this means that Mozilla is experimenting with advertising on its start-up page for first-time users. To understand why Mozilla might be doing this, it’s enough to glance at the biography of the person who has written this blog post, Darren Herman:

As VP of Content Services, Darren Herman is responsible for diversifying revenue and sustaining Mozilla’s mission through innovation in content and personalization products and services. He joined in 2013 after overseeing digital media for MDC Partners Maxxcom Media Group and running the MDC Partners/kbs+ corporate venture fund, focused on advertising and marketing technologies. Previously Darren co-founded the first programmatic trading desk on Madison Avenue, Varick Media Management. Prior to joining the agency world in 2007, Herman spent 12 years as a marketing technology entrepreneur and raised over $40 million for his own ventures from top tier venture capitalists such as Intel Capital and NBC Universal. Over the years, Darren has received several awards, including being named as one of the Top 25 Marketing Innovators and Thought Leaders by iMedia and named a Media All Star by Media Post.

Not much doubt there about his role: he’s clearly been brought in to find alternative revenue sources for Mozilla, which is currently heavily dependent on deals with search engines – Google above all:

The majority of Mozilla’s revenue is generated from search and commerce functionality included in our Firefox product through all major search partners including Google, Bing, Yahoo, Yandex, Amazon, eBay and others. Mozilla’s reported revenues also include very important individual and corporate donations and grants, which are growing significantly, as well as other forms of income from our investable assets.

That revenue has grown substantially in recent years:

Mozilla’s consolidated reported revenue (Mozilla Foundation and all subsidiaries) for 2012 was $311M (US), up approximately 90 percent from $163M in 2011.

So a desire to diversify is both natural and prudent – although with an income of $311 million in 2012, you have to wonder what the rush is. The current experiment with “sponsored content from hand-picked partners” is reasonable enough, and I don’t have a problem with it as such. What I do worry about is the way this is being presented:

We are excited about Directory Tiles because it has inherent value to our users, it aligns with our vision of a better Internet through trust and transparency, and it helps Mozilla become more diversified and sustainable as a project.

This is not how Mozilla should be talking to its huge and loyal community, which includes people who have been with it since the early days, and who do not expect to be treated like dumb consumers that must be bamboozled with high-sounding but hackneyed phrases. If Mozilla wants to find new ways to earn money from its projects because it is worried about its dependence on one company, just say so. We’re grown-ups: we can take it. But don’t sell out to the world of marketing and lose all those other things that make Mozilla special.

Update: Mitchell Baker, Chair of the Mozilla Foundation (and Chief Lizard Wrangler) has now offered her thoughts on this topic.

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