Mozilla fishes for Google alternative, reels in Yahoo

The new agreement between Mozilla and Yahoo gives Mozilla a fresh revenue stream and a new way to advance its pro-open-Web agenda

mozilla firefox san francisco

Mozilla's San Francisco office

Credit: Al Sacco

For years, the Mozilla Foundation has drawn much of its income from allowing Google to be the default search engine in Firefox.

All that changed on Wednesday, when Mozilla announced it was kicking off a five-year partnership with Yahoo, both to generate a new revenue stream and to find a partner with which Mozilla can fulfill its dream of an open Web.

The Mozilla-Yahoo deal "represents the most significant partnership for Yahoo in five years," according to the release, and will be used to provide a new search system with a UI design with "input from the Mozilla team." It also comes hot on the heels of other controversial experiments to generate revenue.

Google isn't removed entirely from the built-in list of search choices in Firefox. As explained in a follow-on blog post by Mozilla CEO Chris Beard, Yahoo is simply being made the default, with Google the second choice down in the list. Bing, DuckDuckGo, and a number of other search systems will also be included.

Strikingly, Mozilla claims that "under this partnership, Yahoo will also support DNT (Do Not Track) in Firefox." DNT was originally hailed as a uniform way to let users protect some vestige of privacy on the Web. Mozilla stumped for DNT, but Yahoo eventually decided not to implement it, claiming it didn't make for "a single standard that is effective, easy to use, and has been adopted by the broader tech industry." This agreement appears to reverse that stance and may signal further collaboration on such open standards between the two companies.

Google, by contrast, offers DNT in Chrome, but does not honor the flag through its own services.

Without a product to sell or a corporate support model (a la Red Hat) to provide, Mozilla raises much of its money by way of strategic partnerships with search providers. The previous partnership with Google had been going since 2005, and the contract between the two companies was renewed every few years, most recently in 2011. Those deals previously generated a sizable amount of Mozilla's income -- 84 percent ($103 million) in 2010, for instance.

Small wonder, then, that Mozilla is also looking to alternative sources of revenue apart from search engines. The company's "sponsored tiles" concept places ads -- labeled as such -- in the browser's new tab page. The concept has been greeted with a good deal of grumbling, as well as staunch reassurances from Mozilla that the browser won't become an ad-splattered mess reminiscent of an Indy 500 car. It's unlikely the sponsored-ad system will generate enough revenue by itself to offset the need for deals with folks like Yahoo, but Mozilla is determined to see where this particular road leads.

With its share of the browser market dwindling -- anywhere from 13 to 18 percent, depending on the source -- Mozilla may have to turn away from the browser as a revenue stream in the long run. With its recent emphases on Web development and systems programming, Mozilla might be able to monetize resources for that crowd, such as back-end app analytics along the lines of Famo.us. The hard part, of course, is scaling those projects to supplant the revenue returned from search.

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