What took Google so long to build a browser?

Owen Thomas · 09/02/08 07:00PM

Blogger Jason Kottke has been asking for a Google browser for seven years. So, too, have Larry Page and Sergey Brin. In 2001, Google CEO Eric Schmidt told them the company wasn't ready to take on Microsoft in a full-fledged browser war, Steven Levy reported in his Wired feature on Google's new browser, "Inside Chrome: The Secret Project to Crush IE and Remake the Web." But I don't think Google's project is really about taking on Microsoft. It's about Mozilla, the maker of Firefox, in a feud that stretches back almost two years.John Lilly, the CEO of Mozilla, has said he's "not worried" about Google Chrome. That's classic PR-speak. Mozilla and Google are financially intertwined; Firefox makes money for Mozilla by referring users to Google's search engine; that traffic, in turn, generates advertising revenues for Google. But Mozilla has shown some signs of independence, signing a deal with Yahoo for search in some parts of Asia. And the larger Firefox gets — its browser-usage share has reached 20 percent, according to some estimates — the more leverage it has over Google. Sure, in theory, Microsoft can tie its Internet Explorer browser to its Web search and mapping services, generating traffic. But that's been the theory for years. Can we say it? Microsoft's online services just aren't very good, which is why users avoid them and they're losing money hand over fist. A new browser won't change that. So Firefox, not Internet Explorer 8, is the real strategic problem for Google. Of course, it's impolite to say so. Firefox, as an open-source project, is beloved by geeks, even though its executives are well paid and the project is gushing cash. (Mozilla Corp., a for-profit corporation, is owned by the Mozilla Foundation, a nonprofit; the company's profits can thereby flow up to the foundation without violating its tax-exempt status. Neat how that works, eh?) Google would also face an all-out rebellion in the ranks if it came out and said it's taking on Firefox. But there's reason for the Googlers behind Chrome to start a grudge match. Several key engineers — Ben Goodger and Darin Fisher among them — devoted considerable volunteer time to Firefox before joining Google's browser project. An article posted on the Truth about Mozilla blog in February says Mozilla's CTO, Brendan Eich — a veteran of Netscape — removed Goodger as a Firefox "module owner" in September 2006. Being the "owner" of a module, while a volunteer position, carries considerable cachet. Goodger subsequently removed himself from the Firefox project, as did colleagues like Fisher and Pam Greene. Wired now reveals the motivation behind Eich's move: By June 2006, Goodger and others had created a prototype of Chrome. If Lilly wasn't worried about Google's browser, why would Eich take Goodger off Firefox? In any event, removing Goodger played into Google's hands, making him all the more willing to take on Mozilla. The infighting between the browser maker and the search engine shows the limits of open source's "sharing is caring" ideology. Open-source projects can be just as political as proprietary code — and as vulnerable to twisting for corporate priorities. The bottom line of Google Chrome's creation? The bottom line. Google was worried that Firefox was making too much money, and Mozilla was getting too independent. Mozilla had to be stopped — and the true Firefox believers at Google had to be cajoled into doing Larry and Sergey's dirty work. (Illustration of Ben Goodger by Scott McCloud)

New Mozilla CEO wishes Firefox browser's profits were invisible

Owen Thomas · 01/08/08 03:43PM

John Lilly, the new CEO of Mozilla Corporation, doesn't want you to pay attention to his new charge. The for-profit arm of the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation produces the Firefox browser and makes money largely by partnering with search engines — that's why the Firefox browser comes with a Google or Yahoo search box built in. "The most successful case for [Mozilla Corporation] will be when the corporation itself is sort of invisible," Lilly writes. Now, why would Lilly want you not to pay attention to his very profitable business — $66.8 million in revenues for the foundation, $56 million of which came from the corporation, in 2006, the most recent year for which it reported results? Perhaps it's because there are questions he'd rather you not ask.