Jumping over guardrails

My friend and colleague Eric wrote an impassioned plea to Browse Against the Machine. Like many strong points of view, there was a reaction. I think it’s worth pointing out that as our marketing lead, Eric has the tough job of coming up with direct messaging that is memorable in a increasingly distracted world. I would argue that he’s succeeded. Now that he’s done the hard work, I’ll take this opportunity to be the friendly PM and offer some of my own perspective.

  1. Google isn’t evil. They are an advertising company that uses their money and technology to improve both their core business as well as ensure the continued growth and survival of the 70,000 person enterprise.
  2. Chrome is a core part of that strategy. One way to put it is as Eric put it, to “maximize revenue from your searches and deliver display ads on millions of websites.” Another way to put it is that a well-run company of Google’s size is going to consider ARPU (average revenue per user) in determining where to make investments. At Chrome’s scale (and there are far more people building Chrome than Firefox), that return has to be significant.
  3. As a publicly traded company, Google’s leadership is accountable to a board of directors and shareholders, for whom continued revenue and profit growth is a key goal.
  4. Google has to have guardrails around their business. If I were working there, that’s what I’d do. I’d have to make decisions that balance user happiness with revenue growth. It’s hard to make a case to make a change that makes users happy if it causes quarterly profits to shrink.
  5. I count Googlers as some of the finest and most idealistic people I know. They have resources and scale, but not absolute freedom to innovate. For dominant revenue generating products like search and browsers, they have to stay between the guardrails- balance user happiness with the pressure to grow the business. It’d be great to give them freedom to push- more on this later.

Where does that leave us? Why does Firefox matter?

  1. Independence is an enabler, not a virtue. We’re going to do some things that change the experience, with the goal of having a browser that is tangibly different than the rest. These are ideas like Context Graph, one that we think has promise but is almost certainly less profitable than search. Any idea that results in fewer searches and less revenue is an idea we can consider and others cannot.
  2. We have not one but two Boards of Directors who exist to help us maximize our impact on the world, not our revenue. Yes, we have to pay the bills, but it’s a far cry from trying to grow a certain percentage every year.
  3. Related to independence, we can pursue ideas that aren’t inherently defensive. We want a better way to browse and navigate the web. We suspect that others could build one but can’t get past the guardrails established by their respective businesses. We have a vision that browsers should do much more than just be a place to enter a search or address. Because the inherent trade-off between utility and revenue is not a key concern for us, we can try new ideas solely for their value to their users and not for their bottom line potential. For instance, Firefox Focus is a mobile browser that has almost no revenue potential- we built it because we didn’t see anyone else willing to make the investment in a product that actively avoids all the obvious ways to earn money from an app.
  4. We want our ideas and technology to fall into the right hands. Every technology we create is open source. We want competition because we’re wired for impact and disruption, not defense and survival. When we succeed, one form of success we like to see is copycats taking our ideas and expanding on them. Safari, Chrome, and Edge are all the result of Firefox not only redefining what a modern browser should be but also proving that browser innovation was a sound investment for companies to make.

Why should you browse against the machine? Don’t do it because you dislike Google or think advertising is immoral. Do it because you want to see what a bunch of passionate and talented folks do when they get to jump over guardrails. Do it because you value not only the freedom of choice today, but the freedom to choose in the future- because when we get ahead, we hold the door open for an industry to follow. We’re going to be bold in both our product decisions and the way we talk about them. It won’t be perfect, but it will be exciting. That should be reason enough to see what’s up with Firefox.