Firefox is a Public Asset, part 2

August 9th, 2007

I understand what Matt over at AllPeers says about finding new ways to combine open source, public benefit and the economic incentives of commercial enterprises. I’m also quite interested in seeing this happen. But we still have a different point of view about Mozilla and Firefox.

Firefox is not the place to test the effects of the profit motive.

The difference might be in a view of the fundamental platform. Matt believes (as I understand his argument) that the Mozilla platform is the fundamental building block right now. An easy way to think of the Mozilla platform is as everything that an application needs to work that a human being doesn’t touch directly. This may not be 100% correct technically, but is close enough for this discussion. In other words, the Mozilla Platform is the giant chunk of code that understands networking, is able to get information from a web server, convert that info into something a human being can understand, present that information to people and allow interaction with that information. This is sometimes called “XULrunner.” Firefox is built on top of a version of XULrunner. Myriads of other applications, are built using this Mozilla technology. So it is possible to separate Firefox conceptually from the Mozilla platform.

But the browser is not just one of many applications that understand the Internet. It is the closest thing there is to a universal client. By that I meant that the browser is the mechanism for delivering an overwhelming majority of web content to people. As more and more web-based applications (from classic style applications like spreadsheets to newer applications like maps and social networking activities) develop, more types of activities flow through the browser.

So we think of Firefox as a part of the web platform. As the entry point for actual human beings to interact with the web. Browsers aren’t the only entry point, but they are closest thing to a universal entry point that exists today. They may not be the major entry way at some point in the future but that’s a way off. And there is certainly a debate to be had about when the “next big thing” will displace browsers vs. how what we call a browser will evolve over time.

For the foreseeable future, browsers are a fundamental part of Internet life. Firefox is a key component of keeping the web open, interoperable and participatory. Thus the importance of its public benefit nature.

7 comments for “Firefox is a Public Asset, part 2”

  1. 1

    Asa Dotzler said on August 9th, 2007 at 5:04 pm:

    Mitchell, in your post on the Internet and the Public Good you partly described the distinction between three terms as they’re used by economists:

    1) public “good” – which I understand to be the actual product or service utilized by the public,
    2) public “interest” – which I understand to mean the benefits derived by utilizing public goods, and
    3) public “provision” – which I think refers to the type of organization delivering the good. ex. a public charity rather than a private foundation.

    So, an example might be: a local government (public provision) giving away food (public good) so that people can live (public benefit).

    If I’ve got that much right, then the Mozilla organization is a “public provision” (MoFo+MoCo) delivering “public goods” (Firefox, Tbird, etc.) to promote a “public interest” (choice and innovation.)

    Is that how these terms would apply to us?

    If I’m still not way off, then what is a “public asset”? Is asset synonymous with “good”? Can those terms be interchangeably?

    Also, are “public benefit” and “public interest” similar enough in meaning that we can use those interchangeably as well?

    I think that being able to understand and make these distinctions will help me articulate what is Mozilla a lot better.

    – A

  2. 2

    Frank Hecker said on August 10th, 2007 at 3:57 am:

    Asa: Firefox, Thunderbird, and other open source products are indeed public goods in the strict economic sense: Anyone is free to use them without restriction (they are “non-excludable”) and anyone can use them without interfering with others’ use (they are “non-rivalrous”). “Public provision” of goods in the strict sense is done by government; however one can think of the Mozilla Foundation and other nonprofit organizations as acting as agents of government, in the sense that they are granted special status in return for their engaging in activities deemed to be in the public interest (or “public benefit”, if you will).

    In your example of a local government providing food, food is not a “public good” in the economic sense, but rather a “private good”: you can control access to it (excludable) and only one person can eat a given piece of food (rivalrous). Standard economic thinking is that private goods are most efficiently provided by private actors through market mechanisms, which is why (with very minor exceptions) everybody gets their food from groceries and restaurants and not from city hall.

    I agree that the plethora of “public foo” terms is confusing; if I have time I’ll do a blog post to address these questions in more detail.

  3. 3

    Asa Dotzler said on August 10th, 2007 at 10:21 am:

    OK. Thanks, Frank. I see where I got it wrong on food. Substituting something like “clean air” might work better.

    The reason I ask, is that I want to be able to clearly articulate how these terms would apply to Mozilla’s efforts to educate the public about the importance of the Internet, the Open Web, etc.

    This gets a little recursive, but couldn’t it be said that a Mozilla education program focused on raising awareness of the importance of the Internet as a public good is itself a public good/service provided by Mozilla? Could “education” be a product right alongside Firefox, provided as part of our public benefit/interest mission?

  4. 4

    Daniel Glazman said on August 11th, 2007 at 12:58 pm:

    From my perspective, the problem can be summarized that way : we (the community) and you (Mozilla Corp/Foundation) have a false view of our ecosystem because we/you are taking the problem the wrong way. Instead of looking at Firefox built upon XULRunner, we should see Firefox Runtime, the core of Firefox.

  5. 5

    Frank Hecker said on August 13th, 2007 at 8:50 am:

    Asa: First, you’re correct: “clean air” is a better example, in fact it’s one of the canonical examples of public goods.

    Re education, I don’t think we need to get wrapped around the axle debating whether a particular thing, whether it be education or the Internet, is a public good in the economic sense. (And IMO we can’t just unilaterally declare “the Internet is a public good” in an economic sense.) I think the better way to approach it is to ask, “Is an open Internet in the public interest?” (not, “Is it a public good”). Clearly the answer is yes; in economic terms the Internet as it has existed has “positive externalities”, i.e., good things have happened as a result of the Internet existing, and those good things have accrued not just to the private entities who helped build the Internet and the services that run on it, but to the general public as well. Given that answer, then clearly promoting the idea of the open Internet (as in the Mozilla Manifesto) is in the public interest as well.

  6. 6

    George Rypysc said on August 14th, 2007 at 11:12 am:

    I’m having trouble seeing how discussions about the Mozilla/XUL platform versus Firefox itself have anything to do with ensuring the public interest. It seems the software licensing terms themselves do that. Then it becomes a popularity contest between “open” licensing (support of open standards too) versus the “closed” competition. Since MoFo/MoCo has made great gains in this popularity contest, then it’s important to ensure its future. I think Matt sees a dose of capitalism as helping ensure survival and future progress, while the licensing does the job of ensuring “openness”.

  7. 7

    Timbuk2 Tasche said on October 28th, 2007 at 12:37 pm:

    Good informations. For me Firefox is not the place to test the effects of the profit motive.

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