Why Mozilla acquiring Pocket is a thing

Mozilla has acquired Pocket app. That may not seem like news, but it could be a bigger deal than you might think.

TL;DR

  • Mozilla’s acquisition isn’t just sensible strategy it’s political.
  • Represents a focus on mobile as well as content.
  • For content makers Pocket may become an even more attractive platform once it is being amplified by recommendation algorithms built into Firefox.

Overnight Mozilla announced on The Mozilla Blog they have acquired Read It Later, developer of the Pocket app.

Mozilla develops the open-source web browser Firefox (among other things). Pocket is a social bookmarking and content discovery platform. What it does was best described by Read It Later founder Nathan Weiner in an interview with TechCrunch back in 2011:

‘Weiner wants RIL to “do for web content what Tivo did for TV content”, in the sense that it lets them consume what they want, when they want it.’
 — Jason Kincaid quoting Nathan Weiner. 2011. TechCrunch.

The network they have amassed in their almost 10 years of operation is nothing to be sneezed at. The service boasts more than 10 million unique monthly users across its website, Android app and iOS app. Add to this the approximately 6% of desktop browsers market share Firefox has and you are talking about a significant number of people.

Pocket and Mozilla are high school sweethearts. Pocket’s offer may now include their own apps across all the major browsers and mobile operating systems, plus a bevy of integrations with third-party apps, but it started life as a Mozilla add-on. For Mozilla though, this is more than a sensible pairing – it’s political.

In Mozilla’s blog post, their CEO Chris Beard made clear their motivation for the acquisition:

‘We believe that the discovery and accessibility of high quality web content is key to keeping the internet healthy by fighting against the rising tide of centralization and walled gardens. Pocket provides people with the tools they need to engage with and share content on their own terms, independent of hardware platform or content silo, for a safer, more empowered and independent online experience.’
 — Chris Beard. 2017. The Mozilla Blog.

As Mozilla’s first acquisition, I think it is a hint at their future acquisition ambitions. By Mozilla’s own admission (reportedly) Pocket gives them a worthwhile pre-cut slice of the mobile pie. That makes sense given they unsuccessfully carved out a space with their Firefox OS mobile operating system. Add to that the very late arrival of Firefox for iOS and the decline of desktop internet usage, and Mozilla knows they need to get in on mobile.

Perhaps the purchase is also part of a bigger strategy to ease concerns raised when Pocket was integrated into Firefox in June 2015 when some Firefox users condemned the move. The central criticisms were that Pocket was a proprietary fused into an open-source product, it wasn’t essential to how the browser worked and users who wanted to use it could voluntarily use the existing add-on.

Even if both of these are the case, Mozilla want Pocket to supercharge their Context Graph initiative, Mozilla’s bold recommendation engine designed to uncouple content discovery from your social media connections. Looking past the utopianism weighing down the initiative, the idea is very important:

‘… we believe that developing an understanding of browser activity at scale unlocks the next generation of web discovery on the internet … [recommendations should be given] regardless of whom you’re connected to, because your social network shouldn’t be a prerequisite for getting the most from the web.’
 — Nick Nguyen. 2016.

We all know that recommendation systems suck, and the Facebook filter bubble (if such a thing exists) is showing us the same safe shit, is Context Graph the answer? (Sorry, I can’t give you an answer to that question)

What I can say though: given Mozilla has set their sights on content, and is taking a different approach to recommendations and content discovery, Context Graph has the potential to be lucrative for content makers. If Mozilla is as open with publishers as they are with coders, high-quality content may have found the greener grass rather than being put out to pasture.

Read It Later will be a wholly owned subsidiary of Mozilla Corporation, operating independently.



Edits:
Re-titled the article.

Photo:
Benjamin Kerensa, available for reuse under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.