What open-source culture can teach tech titans and their critics

THE GREATEST fear of an ambitious technology firm is to be condemned to “legacy”, tech speak for irrelevance. Its products may still be used, but out of inertia. The damning judgment could apply to Mozilla, the maker of the Firefox browser. Even on personal computers, where it used to excel, its market share has dropped steeply over the past ten years, from 30% to 10%, at a time when browsers have been losing ground to apps on smartphones. You could argue that Mozilla is kept alive by its main competitor, Google, whose Chrome browser accounts for 60% of the market and which provides most of Mozilla’s revenue in exchange for the privilege of being Firefox’s default search engine.

Put all this to Mitchell Baker, Mozilla’s intense but approachable chairwoman and spiritual leader, and she is unfazed. Quite the opposite: more than ever, she counters, the digital realm needs an organisation that “puts people first and doesn’t squeeze every last penny out of the system”—unlike most of today’s tech giants. Is Ms Baker right? And if she is, what does the 20-year Mozilla experiment mean for the penny-squeezing parts of Big Tech?

Mozilla has always been a strange beast. It began life in 1998 after the “browser war” of the first dotcom boom, between Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape’s Navigator. Even though the fight got Microsoft into deep trouble with competition authorities, which nearly broke it up, Netscape, an internet pioneer, had to capitulate. But as a parting shot it released the Navigator’s source code, so that an alliance of volunteer developers could keep the browser alive—and fight the “borg”, as Microsoft was called then, referring to a universe-conquering alien group from “Star Trek”.

Even compared with other such open-source projects, Mozilla remains an unusual hybrid. It boasts a volunteer workforce of nearly 23,000 that contributes about half of the company’s computer code in exchange for little more than recognition from their peers and the satisfaction of chipping in to a project they believe in. But it also has 1,100 paid employees, two-thirds of them programmers. It chiefly develops software, but offers services, too, including things like file transfer. And it is two organisations in one: the Mozilla Foundation and the Mozilla Corporation, both based in Silicon Valley. The first is a charity, which owns the second and makes sure that it does not stray from its mission. The corporate arm is in charge of products and gets the cash that search engines pay for appearing on Firefox’s start page. Together Google, China’s Baidu, Russia’s Yandex and a host of smaller firms forked out $542m for the traffic they got from Firefox in 2017, the last year for which data are available, more than Mozilla’s expenses of $422m.

The set-up is less than optimal. Firefox’s falling market share is partly down to slow decision-making, which must involve the volunteers. It took years to begin collecting data about how its software is used, which helps improve it but raised privacy concerns that were only allayed recently. Mozilla was slow to kill an ill-fated mobile operating system, which cost it hundreds of millions of dollars. It has yet to find sources of revenue beyond the browser; details of plans to charge for add-on services, such as secure storage or virtual private networks, are scarce. And, in an echo of founder-dominated tech firms, too much responsibility rests on Ms Baker, who chairs both the foundation and the corporation.

Yet Mozilla turns out to be much more consequential than its mixed record and middling numbers would have you believe. There are three reasons for this.

For one thing, Mozilla has shown that the open-source approach can work in consumer software, which even its champions doubted when the outfit got going. Some studies have shown that Firefox now beats Chrome in terms of speed, for instance. Second, an oversight board that looks beyond the narrow business can help tech firms live up to Google’s original credo, abandoned last year, of “Don’t be evil”—potentially useful when the likes of Google and Facebook stand accused of monopolising markets, playing fast and loose with user data, even undermining democracy.

Lastly, like Linux, an open-source operating system, and to an extent Android, Google’s semi-open software that powers mobile devices, Mozilla has demonstrated that a non-commercial alternative minded to defend users’ interests is good for consumers in digital markets. Although Mozilla is not solely responsible for the widespread adoption of open standards for browsers, even rival firms concede that it helped to chivvy them along. Firefox was the first browser to block pop-up ads and allow users to surf anonymously, prompting commercial browsers to offer similar features. Google’s plans to make it harder for other firms to track Chrome users on the web may have been precipitated by Firefox’s decision last month to turn on anti-tracking features as the default setting.

Don’t expect Silicon Valley to transform itself into an agglomeration of Mozillas anytime soon. But tech giants are toying with some Mozilla-esque ideas. Last month Facebook announced another step towards an independent “oversight board”—not unlike the board of the Mozilla Foundation—to make the tough calls on what content should be allowed on the site. Earlier this year Google convened an expert group to ponder the ethics of its artificial-intelligence endeavours (it was disbanded after employee protests over its composition).

Outfoxing Big Tech

To rivals and critics of dominant tech firms Mozilla shows a way to keep them honest. Hints of what it has done to browsers can be discerned in other corners of cyberspace, from open-source wallets where people can keep their digital identities to social networks that are not controlled by one company. Mozilla itself is working on Common Voice, a rival to digital assistants like Amazon’s Echo and Apple’s Siri. Breaking up the tech giants is a satisfying war cry—but probably futile. Perhaps it would be better to breed more Firefoxes instead.

This post was originally posted at https://www.economist.com/business/2019/07/20/what-open-source-culture-can-teach-tech-titans-and-their-critics.

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