Mozilla’s Real Customer is Itself

Let them eat cookies: Rolling in dough but out of touch

The Mozilla Corporation has recently experienced great internal dissension. The appointment of one of its founders as new CEO has angered many employees because he may have personal beliefs that they find offensive, and half the board members have resigned for other reasons and have not been replaced. These two things might not seem related, but I believe that they reveal an underlying problem.

Mozilla emerged only by historical accident. After Microsoft put the pesky Netscape out of business it went back to ignoring the Internet, leaving a hole that Mozilla’s Firefox browser filled nicely. At that time Mozilla had a clear mission. But since then its role as supplier of the leading alternative browser has been taken over by Google, its Thunderbird email program was unsuccessful and was cancelled, and it has little presence on mobile devices. New projects have failed to catch on.

Income has actually increased however. Mozilla gets almost all its revenue from sending Firefox web searches to search-engine providers. Even though Firefox has been losing market share, a bidding war to be the default search provider is presumed to have occurred: 2011 revenue from Google of $139 million doubled to $280 million in 2012.

Search-engine providers are Mozilla’s actual customers, but they don’t expect anything other than what they already get. So Mozilla has the luxury of serving whoever it pleases, namely itself. It’s a “by the geeks, for the geeks” organization that, despite its taglines like “A Web For All”, doesn’t pay that much attention to the needs of those who use its products. I once tried to use Thunderbird as my email program, but it was too complicated for me even though I have a computer-science degree and create software for a living.

Checking in with non-geeks and acting on the findings would solve such problems, as well as provide insight into new directions to meet actual needs. This will happen only if Mozilla cares more about non-geeks than about itself.

It doesn’t. With all that revenue, it doesn’t have to. The fiction of continuing the once-useful work of creating Firefox can be maintained.

Well, as long as Mozilla has internal consensus. It doesn’t any more.

My thanks to Steve Chapman for the subtitle, and to Steve, David Janes, Hasan Murtaza, Herb Paquette, and RJ White for their suggestions.