Mozilla CEO: Ties with Google 'complicated' since Chrome

Relationship between longtime partners has taken a turn since Google launched Chrome, according to Mozilla's CEO

Mozilla has a "reasonable" relationship with longtime partner Google Inc., but it's gotten complicated since Google launched its own browser, according to Mozilla's chief executive.

"We have a fine and reasonable relationship," John Lilly, Mozilla's CEO, said in an interview last week. "But I'd be lying if I said that things weren't more complicated than they used to be."

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Responding to questions about Mozilla's take on the upswing in browser competition, Lilly also knocked another rival, Microsoft Corp., for dismissing attempts to boost browser performance as merely a "drag race."

"It's a pretty good time to be a browser user," said Lilly. "There are more smart people hacking on browsers than in a long time. But when I hear Dean [Hachamovitch, general manager of Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE)] say JavaScript performance is for crazy guys to worry about, then that worries me."

Last week, Hachamovitch said Microsoft wasn't interested in joining what he called a "drag race" between browser makers that include Mozilla and Google in boosting JavaScript rendering performance. Both Mozilla and Google have debuted new JavaScript engines that they've bragged dramatically boost speed. Hachamovitch declined to say how the final version of Microsoft's upcoming IE8 will stack up against rivals in JavaScript benchmark scores, saying only, "It's definitely faster than IE8 Beta 2," the current test version.

"HTML and JavaScript are the languages of the Web," Lilly argued. "And what might happen, if modern browsers like Firefox and Chrome just run away from IE [in performance], wouldn't be very healthy. Sixty-nine percent of users still use IE, and if JavaScript on IE is three or four times slower [than other browsers], developers might think twice about whether they can push the limits with JavaScript."

But Lilly remained confident that his company can maintain its momentum, which has translated into a 24 percent increase in Firefox market share since the beginning of the year.

"At this point, one in five users of the Internet uses Firefox," Lilly said, citing statistics from Net Applications, Inc. "That's good, and we're proud of that. When we launched Firefox 1.0 [four years ago], the odds of getting to 20 percent, most would have said that was impossible."

Mozilla, however, is in a unique situation among browser builders in that the bulk of its revenue -- 88 percent, or about $60 million in 2007, the last year for which the company has released financial information -- comes from Google. Under a series of deals, the most recent inked last August, Google pays Mozilla for assigning its search engine the default in Firefox, and for click-throughs on ads placed on the ensuing search results pages.

Although Mozilla's reliance on a single revenue source has raised concerns before, the landscape changed in September when Google debuted its own browser, Chrome. That put it in direct competition with Mozilla, as well as the other browser developers, including Microsoft, Apple Inc., and Opera Software ASA.

Last week, Google brought Chrome out of beta, and a day later, swapped it for Firefox as the default browser in its Google Pack application bundle.

Lilly acknowledged that the situation may look awkward to outsiders, but defended the deal with Google.

"The Web matters to all of us, and I think Google is as good as it can be," said Lilly carefully when asked what outsiders, users included, should make of the relationship between the two companies. "But Google is in it to build the best business for Google that it can, and one way to take risk out of the situation is to own the software," he added, referring to Chrome.

"Companies cooperate in certain areas and compete in other areas all the time," Lilly said. "We're cooperating with Google because we believe that search is a fundamental entry point to the Web, and right now Google gives the best search experience."

But the relationship won't be forever, he hinted. "Our goal is to be an advocate for the Web for 50 or even 100 years, and you can't depend on any one organization. Our [current] three-year agreement is the longest we've ever had. This is a long-time horizon, so we don't have to do anything super soon, but in the next three years we can continue to build [new] products and develop [new] revenue streams."

Search may remain the primary, or at least a key, revenue generator, said Lilly, but there are other opportunities. Mozilla plans to explore diversifying search revenue, and perhaps partner with country-specific search firms that, in their own markets at least, are strong alternatives to Google. Lilly also pointed to the mobile market, an area that has been dominated by Opera, as a possible source of revenue.

Firefox is currently working on a mobile browser, code-named "Fennec," which it released in a public alpha two months ago.

Lilly said that Mozilla would release the finished product shortly after it wraps up Firefox 3.1, the browser upgrade slated for an early 2009 launch. Mozilla plans to produce both Linux and Windows Mobile versions of its mobile browser.

"[2009] will be an important year for mobile," said Lilly. "We'd like to make the mobile Web more like the Web and less like the mobile world."

But as far as Google's concerned, Lilly said Mozilla will compete with any and all comers. "We collaborate with Google, we talk to them and we have a fine and reasonable relationship," he said. "But we'll compete. This is, after all, user driven."

Computerworld is an InfoWorld affiliate.

This story, "Mozilla CEO: Ties with Google 'complicated' since Chrome" was originally published by Computerworld .

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