Who (still) pays Mozilla's bills? Google, mainly

Mozilla's dependence on search engine revenue raises questions about its effectiveness as a champion of the free, open Web

Mozilla released its financial statement for 2012, and in it revealed that once again, search engine partnership revenue was Mozilla's biggest source of income -- and not just any search engine, but Google in particular.

It's never been a huge secret that the creator of the Firefox browser relies on royalties provided by search engines, generated by people who search the Web through Firefox. But the exact percentage may come as a shock: 97.9 percent of Mozilla's revenue came courtesy of its deals with search engines.

It's safe to assume the biggest percentage of that revenue comes from Google, especially in light of a statement in Mozilla's financing FAQ about its partnership with the search giant. To wit:

Revenues from Google have increased significantly since 2011. What changed with that relationship?

Our search partnerships are designed as multiyear contracts. Near the end of each contract, Mozilla negotiates market-value rates from multiple search providers based on the present and future value our products provide. At the end of 2011, Mozilla negotiated a new agreement with Google based on growth and impact from our Firefox desktop browser.

Open source software companies generally have few options when it comes to making money from their products. For higher-end software like Red Hat Enterprise Linux or EnterpriseDB's editions of PostgreSQL, the most common approach is to sell support or to provide for-pay editions of the product that specifically target enterprises. Since Firefox doesn't lend itself to such actions, monetizing searches made through Firefox makes sense.

But several things about Mozilla's relationship with Google make this a troubling proposition. One is Mozilla's stance on the open Web that's increasingly at odds with the way Google has approached the subject.

It's going to get harder for Mozilla to continue justifying a partnership with a company with whom it disagrees so much -- especially if Mozilla comes under increasing pressure from its open source confederates to make a break from Google. Then again, it's highly ironic that the very revenue Mozilla makes from Google is being used to put it that much more back in its place.

What other possibilities exist for Mozilla? Licensing Firefox OS to hardware partners, for one. But that comes with a slew of issues all its own.

For one, Firefox OS isn't being marketed in the United States -- quite deliberately, since Mozilla wants to build a base with users who don't already have ready access to the Web. Another possible issue is whether or not potential hardware partners would skip dealing with Mozilla altogether and simply rebrand the core Boot to Gecko technology without having to pay Mozilla a dime.

The whole question of how to make open source a profitable venture has been raging for years. No one strategy fits all; each company -- and each open source offering -- has to find its own niche. Mozilla cutting an ongoing deal with Google may well be the least worst option, but that shouldn't stop Mozilla from looking elsewhere as hard as it can for something with fewer strings attached.

This story, "Who (still) pays Mozilla's bills? Google, mainly," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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