Mozilla Firefox, the open source web browser, is developing a new feature that will allow sponsors to buy placement on the browser’s new tab page. Initial reactions have been quite negative, as many use the browser to escape from targeted advertising and other profit-oriented schemes that characterize competing browsers.
While the feature is not yet close to deployment to any public versions, Mozilla does seem fairly serious about the idea. In February, they pitched a similar idea to the public that involved suggesting services to new users, which would include sponsored listings. This idea was abandoned, but the company is still looking to increase its revenue.
This new idea, discussed in a company blog post, targets the new tab page. The starting point, says Mozilla’s Jonathan Nightingale, is the desire to make the new tab page more useful to Firefox users. Currently, it lists most visited pages and gives users the option to pin pages. While new features are being tested, there will be no sponsored listings. These changes are targeted to new users, who do not yet have a browsing history that would allow Firefox to generate a most-viewed pages list.
Soon, beta and alpha builds of Firefox will implement some of these proposed changes, once again sans sponsorship. Nightingale makes it sound as if any version of these features is pretty far from reaching the average Firefox user. In addition to suggesting certain web sites and pages, they are considering some content-specific recommendations, such as specific articles or blog posts.
Anticipating opposition, Nightingale says:
We’ll test a mix of our own sites and other useful sites on the Web. We’ll mess with the layout. These tests are purely to understand what our users find helpful and what our users ignore or disable – these tests are not about revenue and none will be collected. Sponsorship would be the next stage once we are confident that we can deliver user value.
While concern might be a reasonable response to seeing a browser and company beloved for its non-profit status looking for revenue generation strategies, there is more to it than just making money. First of all, Firefox would not be as useful as it is if it wasn’t supported by a company that pays its employees, invests in research, and the like. You can’t build something like Firefox with a bunch of volunteers.
In recent years, Firefox has been incredibly reliant on Google to cover its operating costs. Google pays Firefox (and other browsers) money for each search that its users do through the Google search box. You can change the default search provider, certainly, but most do not. All of the Google searches through Firefox combined to earn Mozilla over 90% of the revenue for the browser in 2012. Almost all of the other money Mozilla brings in is royalties from other search engines.
That means Google essentially controls the destiny of Firefox unless Mozilla believes they could fundraise the same $300 million or more they earn from Google via other sources. As of today, that seems exceedingly unlikely. Many people like to use Firefox because they like the privacy and other benefits offered by free and open source software. If those people want to escape from Google when they use Firefox, they might want to open their minds to Mozilla developing other ways to raise money.
Addressing the concern that Firefox could become overridden with sponsored content, Nightingale said, “That’s not going to happen. That’s not who we are at Mozilla.”
Nonetheless, opinions are strong on this one all around. Time will tell as to how faithfully this is implemented and how users ultimately respond.