Archive for April 4th, 2005

Thinking About Search

April 4th, 2005

I’ve been thinking a lot about search these days. For quite some time we’ve been saying that the browser is important because it provides the mechanism through which human beings can access and use a range of web services. This is rather abstract though. What is a “web service”? The term is used a lot in the industry, but even there people mean different things. And for the general consumer who isn’t particularly interested in technology “web services” is probably incomprehensible.

But people understand search. It’s the perfect example of a web service that consumers use constantly and that helps define the Internet experience. Search is also a great example of how browsers can make web services (here, search) more accessible and more useful. Modern browsers do this through the Search Box. The Search Box is a feature that people love. I’ve personally had people tell me they do far more searches on, for example, eBay because it’s included in the Firefox Search Box drop down menu. And so search has become a great example of browser software improving the Internet experience through better access to services.

Search is one of the very few areas of functionality to which Firefox devotes precious screen “real estate.” I wonder if there will be other functions that rise to this level of centrality, or if search is the only one. I also wonder if and how the browser interface will change as search functionality becomes richer. The Search Box functionality in Mozilla Firefox already differs from that in many other pieces of software because it provides the users with choice and flexibility. Mozilla Firefox ships with a set of search engines already available — Google, Yahoo, eBay, Amazon, Creative Commons. The user can choose any of these search engines as the “active” search engine, meaning the search engine that will be used when a search is initiated. Once a search engine is selected as active, it is designed to remain the active search engine until the user changes it. In addition, the user can add additional search engines easily. (Just use the Search Box drop-down menu and select “Add Engines.”) Providing this kind of flexibility with a simple user interface is quite a challenge and I keep wondering what will come next.

Search is also an area of great innovation. There’s a bunch of very smart people thinking about the different directions that could be taken to improve search and to tie search functionality to other applications. The established search providers are tying new ideas all the time; a set of start-up companies are trying to commercialize new ideas. The increasing integration between search and maps is extraordinarily helpful; I’m sure there are many other examples on the horizon.

Search is also an aspect of the web that generates revenues and the search relationships related to Firefox generate funds for the Mozilla Foundation’s operations. These funds can play an important role in supporting our efforts. Raising funds at all is new to the Mozilla project. Before the Mozilla Foundation was formed funds were provided by the companies who employed participants and often funded other expenses associated with the project. Since the Foundation was formed we’ve raised funds through a number of sources, including charitable contributions from individuals and participation by companies interested in Mozilla technology. With the Firefox launch we started raising funds via a product offering.

There’s no doubt we need funds for the project to have the best chance of achieving its purpose — promoting openness and choice on the client side of the Internet. Funds allow us to employ a core set of people and do the myriad of other things a project of our scope needs to stay at its most vital.

So revenue from our search relationships is encouraging. It’s not as gratifying as the individual charitable contributions. Having people care enough about our efforts to voluntarily send donations is an extraordinary thing. I look at the names and addresses of contributors as I sign the thank you notes and this imparts a very tangible and gratifying sense of how much people appreciate what we’re doing. Revenue from search relationships doesn’t provide the same sense of directly touching people’s lives. But it brings diversity in funding sources and it may well provide a significant ongoing source of funds.

This revenue isn’t perfect however. Like so many arrangements with commercial entities, the terms of our search relationships are governed by confidentiality obligations and we are not able to say very much about them. It turns out that marketing and business data remains sensitive even for companies that have grown comfortable with developing in the open. Even before the Mozilla Foundation existed companies would want to talk with staff about marketing, business plans and product information but would not share that information publicly. So we have a fair amount of experience with handling marketing and other sensitive information while maintaining the absolute requirement of open development in compliance with our policies. It’s new to have that confidential information include a financial component and I am working to find ways to make more and more information available over time. For now we are living within classic confidentiality constraints regarding these agreements, while maintaining the absolute requirement of open development.

On the other hand, we’re learning about what’s involved in integrating the browser with services the Mozilla project did not create, we’re doing so in a way that users love, we’re exploring how to work with commercial entities, and we expect the revenue from this to make a significant difference to the project. So as much as I sometimes want to think about other things, search is on my mind these days.

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