Mitch Kapor recently announced the end of his involvement with the Open Source Applications Foundation and the Chandler project. Included in his comments is the brief note that:
OSAF also served as the fiscal sponsor for the Mozilla Foundation between its spinout from AOL/Netscape and when it secured its own tax-exempt non-profit status. In that respect, it played a small but important role in the great Firefox success story.
This is absolutely true but dramatically understates Mitch’s and OSAF’s role in helping Mozilla. Mitch began assisting Mozilla in late 2002. This was long before discussion with AOL about the the Mozilla Foundation began. 2002 was not the best of times for Mozilla. There was no Firefox. Our product was the Mozilla Application Suite. It was a good product, released in mid 2002. It far exceeded what anyone had expected us to produce and I remain proud of it to this day. But it wasn’t a well-adopted product. It wasn’t glamourous; it wasn’t elegant. It wasn’t the product that would spread like wildfire.
Mitch didn’t help Mozilla to join the bandwagon of something exciting. Mitch helped us because he knew that open source applications are important, and he knew that the browser’s place in an open source ecosystem is critical. I suspect we appeared more like an “ugly duckling” than anything exciting. But Mitch has a good eye for recognizing important things and he stepped up to help us.
I was working on Mozilla as a volunteer at the time, and had been doing so for about a year. I had been laid off from Netscape in early September of 2001. (I actually met Mitch face-to-face for the first time the day I was laid off from AOL. The meeting with Mitch was, as far as I can remember, the only thing that I did after I received the lay-off notice and before I left the building. At the time I knew it was interesting to meet Mitch, but I had no idea what that meeting would set in motion.) In late 2002 Mitch and I talked about me working at OSAF. I said I only wanted to work part-time because I wanted to keep volunteering with Mozilla. Mitch not only agreed, OSAF agreed to subsidize something like a day of week of my time for Mozilla.
Mitch and OSAF’s support of Mozilla grew from there. When the chance came to form the Mozilla Foundation Mitch’s assistance was invaluable. There was financial assistance. There was also Mitch’s personal involvement in helping the Mozilla Foundation get started and strengthening my courage to be responsible for the welfare of our initial employees and the fund-raising we expected to need. (Remember, at that time there was no Firefox, no Google, very little interest in the then-obscure piece of software known as the browser, and no obvious sources of funds.) A number of people thought we should take the $2MM pledge from AOL, hire 2 or 3 people to keep the machines running, and try to last as long as possible. Brendan and I knew more was required but it was a lot to take on. Mitch brought a level of sophistication and assistance that made a big difference in our ability to lay the foundations of the organization we know today. His assistance to me personally was enormous.
The Mozilla Foundation would have come into existence in some form without Mitch — an astonishingly dedicated and talented group of people were determined to see this happen. But it would not have started life anywhere near as strong without Mitch. Even with Mitch’s help, my role in building and funding the Mozilla Foundation was almost more than I could manage. Mitch’s involvement made a big difference. Mitch remains a member of the Mozilla Foundation Board of Directors and I continue to value his input enormously.