Linux Foundation Interview with Mozilla's Mitchell Baker


It's becoming increasingly clear that one of the key players in the open source ecosystem is Mozilla. This is a due to two factors.

The first is the continuing move to browser-based ways of working: think Gmail, Google Docs, Facebook and the rest. The rise of cloud computing, which is also implicitly browser-based, will only accentuate this trend. This makes Firefox, with its steadily-rising market share, a pivotal program, and the organisation behind it a major force in computing.

The other factor is rather different, and comes down to the fact that Mozilla is positively rolling in dosh thanks to the deal it has with Google and other search engines for referrals from Firefox's search box. This gives it a power and room for manoeuvre that other free software projects can only dream of.

One indication of Mozilla's future ambitions is the recent confirmation of Mark Surman as executive director of the Mozilla Foundation.

As Mozilla's Frank Hecker points out, Surman comes with lots of experience in open education and open philanthropy (and openness in general), so we can expect Mozilla to reach out in all sorts of exciting new ways in the months to come, extending its influence yet further.

Against this background, the latest in the Linux Foundation's interviews with top figures in the free software world is particularly timely, since it's with the Chief Lizard Wrangler herself, Mitchell Baker, who more than anyone has helped forge the powerful institution that Mozilla has become. You can listen to the interview, or read the transcript.

For me, the most interesting thing to emerge from this interesting discussion was just how precarious the early days of Mozilla were, the role of chance, and how the mega-deal with Google was the result not of a blinding insight, but of gradual groping and sheer slog. Here's what Baker says on the subject:

we had this search box in the interface which we had had for a long time, which we had actually had Google as the search provider in it for, I don’t know, a while. And so we looked at these things and we thought, “Boy, you know, we should change these things so that they’re more understandable by a consumer. And we should talk to the search providers and see what they think; see if a Firefox start page is of interest to them, and see whether there’s any revenue to be had in this setting.”

You know, and by that time, the AdSense, you know, the Google AdSense program existed, and Yahoo had similar options. So when you went to look at a website, you could already see that the websites would have ads on them and there was revenue to be shared.

And so we thought, “Well, we might as well have those discussions.” And we had them for months. Because it was clear pretty early on that there was some revenue relationship that could be had. We didn’t know amounts or numbers, but what spent months—and this is both Google and Yahoo—what took months was to get to know each other well enough to understand this principle that the revenue relationship would not result in technical decision-making about the product.

Months well spent indeed....

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