How does Firefox make money again? – by “Adam P”

It’s a bit of a leap to make, picturing the three programmers sitting at their respective desks, ornamented with their respective bobbleheads, novelty coffee mugs, and other desktop clichés, each separated from one another, and yet they’re each contributing to a mutual project: one writes the source code, another, finds a bug, another fixes that bug.  They’re contributing to Richard Stallman’s revolutionary model of software development, free software.  It’s a simple, comprehensible example structure for Stallman’s model that leaves little to get confused about, but what if we scale up our example.  Take Mozilla, makers of the world’s most widely used web browser of the past 26 months (and remember, computer years are to dog years, what dog years are to people years).  How exactly does Mozilla, a non-profit organization making free software, procure the funds, the staff, and the initiative to create the world’s most prominent web browser? Well being an ignorant Chrome user, I’m not entirely sure. Time to investigate!

Well that didn’t take too long.  In short, the funds come from a few places.  In early 1998, Netscape funded the project that financed just three staff members and the support of hundreds of desktops and bobbleheads.  Soon AOL took over Netscape, but vowed and made good on continuing their support for the fledgling development company.  By 2003, they diverted their attention from the Netscape web browser and established the Mozilla Foundation.

Firefox was released in late 2004 and would procure funds by asking for support from it’s community through donations.  Soon enough Mozilla also secured rather lucrative deals with google and other popular search engines, such that whenever firefox provides a default search through these engines they get paid for the traffic generated, with the transactions monitored by the Mozilla Corporation. These deals account for over 80% of Mozilla’s funds.

 

It’s a fairly simple explanation really, barring those two little details: the Mozilla Foundation and the Mozilla Corporation.  What do those do exactly?  Well after a tad bit more investigation, my Chrome-addled mind managed to figure that out as well.

The Mozilla Foundation is “a small team of people [that] provide core services to Mozilla community and promote the values of an open Internet to the broader world.” The Mozilla Organization is a subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation that monitors business transactions and assures that Mozilla is fulfilling its non-profit status. The two entities basically reenforce Mozilla’s status as a non-profit organization, both legally and spiritually.  You can here the blistering pride as they discuss an open Internet.  Am I being a bit overzealous in my word choice? Blistering? No, no I think it’s justified.

 

Blistering.

 

The imagery and the the advertising behind Mozilla looks revolutionary in ways  that Richard Stallman would love (although he’d rather call it a free internet).  The dark red of the background and the extended fists in the the foreground instantly register as a political protest.  It’s as if Mozilla is the voice of the populous. With the statement describing  the way the Web should be and discussing its impact on humanity highlight the company’s justifiable self-importance.  They sincerely believe in this right and encourage people join in not necessarily to develop technologies, but to contribute to a movement.

 

In fact, they wrote a Manifesto. So Stallman-esque.

The third goal on that list of goals is such a standout: “[to] make Mozilla contributors proud of what we’re doing and motivate us to continue.”

 

Donations come with a T-shirt and gratification

 

And while financially Google and the other search engines contribute more, this excitement over one’s implicit internet rights creates a community beyond Mozilla the organization that is equally excited.  Users generate banners that others are free to post, while others dress up as fire-y foxes at fan conventions.  While the default search deals account for most of the money, it’s the excitement  from internet users fighting for their internet rights that accounts for so many developing software, downloading the software, and encouraging its use from others.  While the vast majority of these people don’t donate a penny,  they contribute to the company and the product directly leading to the company generating money from these search engine deals, and all because the users are excited.  And the reason they’re so excited is because Mozilla takes such pride in itself.  Those zealous mission statements and total disregard of profit margins are perhaps the actual source of funds for the organization. How pleasantly ironic.

The Viability of Free Software – by “Dennis H”

Moglen: The Theory of Free Software

Eben Moglen lays out a grand vision for the incipient changes to the landscape of intellectual property. His paper concludes with little difficulty that free software as epitomized by the GNU/Linux model is both more efficient and less restrictive than the software dominion of Microsoft that characterizes the status quo. Moglen gives an historical argument for why free software is bound to succeed with his claim that “legal regimes based on sharp but unpredictable distinctions among similar objects are radically unstable.” As for the presently existing standards of the current legal regime, “Parties will use and abuse them freely until the mainstream of ‘respectable’ conservative opinion acknowledges their death, with uncertain results.” Intellectual property is bound to change, he prophesies. At the rhetorical summit of this vision, he even tells a New York Magazine reporter, “The people who have short-term needs for more money and more power are an ancient regime on the verge of being swept away.”

Moglen’s theoretical-historical understanding of current trends in intellectual property — and software ownership in particular — is on point. Things do need to change, and at a certain point they will change. But Moglen’s arguments leave open the question of how and when these changes will take place. Moglen offhandedly proposes the image of a “bellum servile of couch potatoes against media magnates.” Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, but the image raises the question … is the notion of free software actually catching on? It’s clearly catching on with some geeks and law professors, but is it catching on with the public at large? In the lingo of Diaspora*’s consultancy firm: free software jives with the beards, but can it work for the girls?

Linux: The Bellwether for Free Software

Consider Linux. The open source operating system is the poster-child for the past, present, and future of the free software movement. Engineered in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, Linux has indeed made considerable inroads en route to its ultimate goal of world domination (or, toppling Microsoft). Most importantly, Linux currently powers over 60% of the world’s top 500 supercomputers, including the 10 fastest supercomputers in the world, a testament to its high-performance efficiency. Less importantly, but still indicative of increasing popularity, the government of Brazil has recently given Linux its official endorsement. “What interests the government is to give options, to give alternatives to the proprietary — to the almost monopolistic — domain,” said Brazil’s secretary general of science and technology in 2008. Other endorsements have come from the Russian military, the Chinese technology independence initiative, the Indian state of Kerala, and even the likes of France and Germany.

On the other hand, various sources estimate the desktop market share of Linux from less than 1% to 4.8%, while Microsoft maintains more than 85% of the market. According to Wikipedia, in terms of the usage share of web client operating systems, Linux sits at a minuscule 1.65%, in comparison with 81.97% for Windows OSs and 9.27% for Macs.

What will happen to Linux in the future? It has certainly grown by leaps and bounds over the past two decades, but while it has cornered the market for supercomputers and won the hearts of tech-savvy nerds around the world, it has yet to gain a strong hold on the general public in the United States. If and how Linux will overcome the Microsoft monopoly remain to be seen.

Diaspora*: The Viability of Baby Steps

But what about other “free software” efforts? Consider the makers of Diaspora*, who take Moglen as a primary source of inspiration. The Diaspora* crew see themselves as working towards Moglen’s grandiose vision of future digital communities — only, by a more immediate and pragmatic pathway. “[Moglen] sees way into the future,” says Max Salzberg, “We really like that conception, but there’s got to be a baby step.” The relevant baby step, says teammate Ilya Zhitomirskiy, is that “we want to move people from websites that are not healthy, to websites that are more healthy, because they’re transparent.” In particular, the makers of Diaspora* want to move traffic away from the perennial privacy villains Facebook, and onto their own, open, decentralized social network.

Is Diaspora* a viable project? Can it compete with Facebook for social networkers around the world? Needless to say, Facebook possesses one advantage that may prove to be insurmountable: the enormous inertia of its 600 million current users. Diaspora* will have a tough time recruiting Facebook users when they must abandon their present abode, leaving behind them the critical mass of friends and contacts already registered on Facebook.

Diaspora* can, however, offer a number of things that Facebook cannot. Share what you want, with whom you want, says its homepage, in stark contrast to Facebook’s offer to give you: “spying — for free!” Specifically, Diaspora* claims that it offers three innovations to the social network model: (1) choice, by which users can sort their contacts and share particular information with the precise audience of their choice; (2) ownership, by which users can maintain their claims to anything posted on the site; and (3) simplicity; by which privacy options are straightforward and transparent to users at every point. All three are significant improvements on Facebook.

Diaspora* certainly delivers on these promises — just set up an account and see for yourself — and what’s more, it even makes the effort to smooth users’ transitions from their Facebook accounts. For instance, while you can’t friend someone on Facebook via Diaspora*, you can now post Facebook status updates via your Diaspora* account.

So will Diaspora* succeed, over the next few years, in wooing the Facebooking masses? It’s certainly possible, especially when people start to realize that Facebook (a) isn’t all that special, and (b) isn’t all that great with its users’ privacy. As Moglen points out, Facebook’s promise essentially amounts to, “I will give you free web hosting and some PHP doodads and you get spying, for free, all the time.” This is not a very attractive offer, when stated in such stark terms. As Diaspora* collaborator Rafi Sofaer puts the thought, “We don’t need to hand our messages to a hub. What Facebook gives you as a user isn’t all that hard to do. All the little games, the little walls, the little chat, aren’t really rare things. The technology already exists.”

Whether Diaspora* flourishes or crumbles over the next two years remains to be seen. But at the very least, the young networking site has one deep-pocketed friend: Mark Zuckerberg himself. “I think it is a cool idea,” said Zuckerberg, who donated an undisclosed amount to the project. He admires the group, he says, in part because he sees “a little of myself in them.” Whether his donation was a gesture of condescension, a public relations gambit, or a genuine statement of support will remain a mystery, but the thought of Diaspora* as a new-and-improved Facebook in the making is certainly an exciting one.

Free Software: Not Just Operating Systems – by “Benjamin G”

GNU/Linux is the poster child for the free (as in speech) software movement. It is highly reliable and capable software that has beat out proprietary operating systems in fair competition, proving that people will in fact produce software even without the incentives provided by copyright law. If there’s a bug in the program or a missing feature, someone will be annoyed enough and competent enough to fix it out of self-interest, and everyone will benefit from the improvement. At least, that’s how GNU/Linux developed, and the theory is that the same principle will apply to any sort of free software. But does it? Will people voluntarily improve any program they use?

Games are probably the kind of program that would work least well with the free software model. Nobody has to play a game, so nobody will be forced to fix a bug in order to do his job. And if the sum of the experience of fixing the program and then playing the amended version isn’t better than the experience of playing the game as it is, it won’t be worth it for anybody to work on it.

wesnoth_main_menu

There are free games, though, some of which are apparently pretty good. Battle for Wesnoth, for example, is a free, turn based stragegy game licensed under the GPL. It is “the most played turn-based strategy game on the Linux platform, being probably the most polished, full-featured and addictive game in its category.” I’m not surprised that a turn-based strategy game has been successfully developed as free software; the programming challenges are less about window-dressing and more about the underlying gameplay. And that kind of coding can be fun in itself.

I am by no means an expert coder, but a few years ago I did write a blackjack game. I wasn’t collaborating with anybody, but the free software model did apply, to an extent. I found a shortcoming in the existing software (most computerized blackjack games shuffle the deck after each hand rather than dealing out six decks of cards before randomizing) and I took the time to fix it. I tried to build as many features as I could, but I’m sure I missed some; I’m also sure that, if I put the source code online, someone would be interested enough to fix it. (I’m glad to distribute the source code [it’s written in Java] if someone tells me the best way to do so)

I’m less sure that someone would take the time to design a really good GUI. To me, at least, designing user interfaces is labor intensive and boring- not worth the time. I may just be projecting my own biases here, but I suspect that fewer people will voluntarily work on the tedious but necessary tasks that are necessary for some types of games.

Of course, with a large enough user base, there will be some people who really enjoy doing graphics. But still, on average, free software will be weaker in these areas. There’s a certain amount of boring but necessary work that must be done, and most of the time that means you have to pay someone to do it.

Free software can be produced by paid programmers. Quake and its sequels are an example of software licensed under the GPL but produced by a commercial company. My point is only that the model of “the users will do a better job than any defined group of developers” works better for some tasks than for others.