Firefox is a Public Asset

August 9th, 2007

Recently a Mozilla observer and contributor asked why Firefox isn’t treated as a typical for-profit, commercial effort, and why we are giving up the chance to get rich. This is a great topic for discussion, I’m glad it was raised. I’ve got a very strong opinion on this, and am quite interested in what others think.

There are many reasons why Firefox is a public asset, built for public benefit rather than private wealth.

To start with, we want to create a part of online life that is explicitly NOT about someone getting rich. We want to promote all the other things in life that matter — personal, social, educational and civic enrichment for massive numbers of people. Individual ability to participate and to control our own lives whether or not someone else gets rich through what we do. We all need a voice for this part of the Internet experience. The people involved with Mozilla are choosing to be this voice rather than to try to get rich.

I know that this may sound naive. But neither I nor the Mozilla project is that naive, and we are not stupid. We recognize that many of us are setting aside chances to make as much money as possible. We are choosing to do this because we want the Internet to be robust and useful even for activities that aren’t making us rich.

It’s possible that some participants are deferring the chance for personal wealth rather than giving up on it. Contributing to Mozilla, passing up opportunities for stock and wealth now, and planning to step back into that world after a while. This is a topic I’d love to discuss further and may write more about before too long.

But for now I want to concentrate on why I have always believed — and still do — that Firefox can not become a tool for some people to get rich. And why I believe the organizational home for Firefox (the Mozilla Corporation) must remain dedicated to the public benefit.

Firefox is not the creation of a “company” or a set of employees. The Mozilla Corporation and its employees are important, but not enough. Not remotely enough. And even if we had 2 or 3 or 4 times as much money or employees it would still not be enough.

Firefox is a great product because thousands and thousands of people care about it, and contribute to making it better. And the Firefox phenomena is even further removed from anything that could be accomplished if Firefox was a private company. Imagine 50 million people, or 100 million people or more. Now imagine getting all those people to download, install, and migrate to Firefox even though they have a similar piece of software already on their machines.

That used to be known as impossible. Today it’s known as Firefox. It is happening because tens of thousands — I believe hundreds of thousands of people — have taken it upon themselves to create Firefox, to spread Firefox, to localize it, to extend it, to tell others, to install it for others, to help others use it.

Firefox generates an emotional response that is hard to imagine until you experience it. People trust Firefox. They love it. Many feel — and rightly so — that Firefox is part “theirs.” That they are involved in creating Firefox and the Firefox phenomena, and in creating a better Internet. People who don’t know that Firefox is open source love the results of open source — the multiple languages, the extensions, the many ways people use the openness to enhance Firefox. People who don’t know that Firefox is a public asset feel the results through the excitement of those who do know.

Firefox is created by a public process as a public asset. Participants are correct to feel that Firefox belongs to them. They are correct legally, since the Mozilla Foundation’s assets are legally dedicated to the public benefit. They are correct practically because Firefox could not exist without the community; the two are completely intertwined.

Periodically someone suggests that it’s possible to build a community like this around a core of people who own a company, and use that company for the express purpose of generating wealth for a few. I don’t buy it. I don’t buy it on practical terms. The participants I meet radiate the conviction that Firefox exists to benefit all of us. I don’t buy it on a philosophical level either. A people-centered Internet needs some way for people to interact with the Internet that isn’t all about making money for some company and its shareholders.

We need a public benefit aspect to the Internet. That’s why we started building browsers in the first place. That’s why we build Firefox. That’s why we build Thunderbird, and why we’ll build future products.

12 comments for “Firefox is a Public Asset”

  1. 1

    Asa Dotzler – Firefox and more said on August 8th, 2007 at 11:45 pm:

    read mitchell. a lot.

    Mitchell Baker says it like no other can. Go read her now….

  2. 2

    Paul said on August 9th, 2007 at 4:36 am:


    That was pretty inspirational Mitchell, sort of how politicians should make people feel about their causes. If there are any good ones with the public interest at heart.

    Agree with you 100%!

  3. 3

    jigar shah said on August 9th, 2007 at 9:58 am:

    I was thinking about what MATT asked. “to what extent can we have the best of both worlds? Access to external capital is also an important factor. This might seem irrelevant at a time when Mozilla is awash with cash, but doesn

  4. 4

    Al Billings said on August 9th, 2007 at 11:55 am:


    What does Google “pulling out” mean here? As far as I know, the arrangement with Google (and with Yahoo as well) are standard contracts that the search business provides to people that direct traffic to them. Do you mean ending the contract or not renewing it? Why would they want to drive *less* traffic to their search engine?

  5. 5

    Asa Dotzler said on August 9th, 2007 at 4:22 pm:

    jigar, there aren’t going to be massive layoffs at Mozilla. We’ll figure it out. We’ve been working on diversification for as long as we’ve had any revenue. When we first started, we had gifts of cash from AOL, Mitch Kapor, maybe IBM and Sun and other gifts from a few additional organizations. Even then, we knew that wouldn’t last and were working to add to it and diversify. Now we have some money in the bank and one large and several smaller sources of revenue so we’re in better shape than just 4 years ago. We’ll keep improving.

    – A

  6. 6

    Ian McKellar said on August 9th, 2007 at 5:33 pm:

    I completely agree that the power of Mozilla and Firefox is in its community.

    Why can’t the community participate in the Mozilla all hands meetings? It makes me feel like I’m not allowed to contribute as much and in the same way as Mozilla Corp employees.


  7. 7

    Tony Shepps said on August 10th, 2007 at 5:42 am:

    A fine piece. The only bit I don’t agree with is the notion that a for-profit company couldn’t get 50-100 M downloads and community participation in its projects. This is hubris. Look at the amount of free software going in AND out of Red Hat or even Sun and all the companies surrounding Linux. With the right licenses and the right attitude anything can be accomplished.

  8. 8

    Asa Dotzler – Firefox and more said on August 10th, 2007 at 2:36 pm:

    elementary education

    David Utter, a tech writer over at WebProNews, says Firefox Needs To Go To School and I think I agree. Though, I would probably approach things differently than he’s suggesting. Putting aside the discussion on Mozilla’s approach to improving retention …

  9. 9

    Asa Dotzler said on August 10th, 2007 at 11:00 pm:

    Ian, we have Mozilla summits, and are working to do more of them, when we get together as the larger community.

    – A

  10. 10

    Glo said on August 12th, 2007 at 9:11 am:

    I am not able to open my email since I updated to the new firefox version. I was always able to open it before. I don’t have pop up windows blocked, and I have added it to me secure sites…still won’t work.

    Firefox accepts my UN and PW, takes me to the page, but does not show my emails.

    Not an email issue. It works on Explorer, Safari, etc.

    What am I not doing?


  11. 11

    Stan Hershaw said on August 14th, 2007 at 2:32 pm:

    Very important consideration is that how to profit (even maximally) does not become a design consideration. Just think how significant a difference that becomes. You don’t do things to keep other companies out, or to make it hard for users to migrate away. The tone of friendliness isn’t to make a profit, but more to be friendly and helpful. That all changes when you do it to make money.

    That being said and true, I’d sure like to see it be as easy for software companies to integrate Thunderbird into their products as it is to integrate Outlook.

  12. 12

    Tapeten said on October 9th, 2007 at 4:30 am:

    I think Firefox am a genuine alternative to other Browsern like the IE. It is faster and above all safer. Probably also an argument straight Firefox is to be used as Browser.

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