The Rise and Rise of Mozilla

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One of the most interesting developments in recent years has been the rise of Mozilla. Not Mozilla the browser, aka Firefox, which has become a serious challenger to Internet Explorer: that's old hat. Less well known is the way that Mozilla the organisation has turned from a rather desperate and leaky lifeboat for the open-sourced Netscape Navigator code into a mighty battleship blasting hither and thither against outposts of proprietary software.

Here's a good example of what's going on. As I wrote recently, Adobe has joined the SQLite Consortium, which was set up by Symbian and Mozilla. Mozilla's Chief Lizard Wrangler (no, really), Mitchell Baker provides some fascinating background to that move:

A while back Richard Hipp contacted Mozilla to see if we had some time to talk to him about sustainability models. He had a problem we at Mozilla were familiar with- difficulty in getting organizations to fund the development of the core. At Mozilla we have seen this repeatedly- many companies understand why it’s important for them to fund development of the particular aspects of Mozilla that specifically benefit their business. It was much harder to find companies that would fund the core development applicable to all users of Mozilla code.

Dr. Hipp was facing the same issue with SQLite. Many companies were willing- eager even- to enter into contracts to enhance SQLite to meet their needs. But few were funding the fundamental core of the offering. I was embarrassed to learn that Mozilla itself belonged to this group. We had entered a contract with Dr. Hipp some time before to do some work related to full - text indexing support. I knew about this of course but it never occurred to me to ask if the SQLite developers needed funding to maintain the core capabilities. (I should note that Richard didn’t raise this point with us; I asked directly and thus learned of my failing ). Fortunately the folks at Symbian were more perceptive. They had realized that providing stability and sustainability for long term development of the core of SQLite is important and were talking with Richard about how to do this. As a result Richard contacted Mozilla to see if any of our experiences could help him with his thinking.

Once I got over my embarrassment I spent some time talking to Richard to understand his goals for SQLite and to see how best Mozilla could support Richard and SQLite. Richard was clear about the main goals: keeping SQLite an independent project, and freely available for anyone to use. On behalf of Mozilla I expressed a strong interest in the current developers (Richard and his colleague Dan Kennedy) retaining technical direction over the SQLite project and in developing a sustainability model that does not diminish the effectiveness of the technical leadership. The Symbian folks agreed completely, and Symbian and Mozilla became charter members of the Consortium, which was launched on December 12, 2007. The Consortium is described in general terms on the SQLite website, and the form of Consortium Agreement is also available online.

What's interesting about this is that Mozilla has become a kind of patron of smaller open source projects. It's able to do that thanks to the deal it has with Google whereby it gets paid for traffic directed to the latter from Firefox's search box, which is set to Google by default. The sums are pretty significant: $50 million in 2005 and $66 million in 2006. That means that Mozilla can not only fund lots of interesting work around its own projects – for example the new Mozilla Messaging subsidiary – but also spread its largesse more widely. If, as seems likely, the money from Google continues to flow and even grow, Mozilla could well end up as one of the most influential forces in open source today.