Where does troubled Mozilla go from here?

Where does troubled Mozilla go from here?

Summary: Controversial Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich has left the open-source Web company, but its path forward remains unclear and the clock is ticking.


Once upon a time, it was simple. Mozilla, thanks to its open source web browser Firefox, was the feisty David to Microsoft's Internet Explorer Goliath.

Under the technical leadership of Brendan Eich, Mozilla co-founder and creator of JavaScript, Firefox became a force to be reckoned with in web browsing at a time when most people had conceded the web to Microsoft.

If Mozilla is not to burn out, it must find strong leadership and it must find it now.

Thus, when it came time to choose a new CEO for Mozilla (after outsider Gary Kovacs resigned after only two and a half years in the job), it only seemed to make sense to pick not just a Mozilla insider, but someone who had helped shape the very Web itself: Eich.

He came to the job with a new agenda. Mozilla would no longer focus on its browser. Instead, job number one would be to make Firefox OS, the company's Linux-based mobile operating system, a major player in the smartphone and tablet wars.

An impossible job, you say, to compete with Apple's iOS and Google's Android? People had told Eich, and his fellow co-founder Mitchell Baker, that before when they took the remains of Netscape and shaped it into Firefox and aimed it straight at IE.

Besides, in recent years Mozilla has become far too dependent upon the largess of Google for its finances. In 2012, 90 percent of Mozilla's income came from its Google advertising contract. This contract expires in 2014 and with Google now supporting its own mobile-friendly operating system and both Chrome OS and the Chrome Web browser on the desktop, Mozilla has little reason to trust that Google will continue to support them.

So, while a fundamental change in strategy may be risky, it seemed to Mozilla insiders like the best move, and Eich the best possible leader, to manage the company as it entered the hard-to-break-into mobile operating system market.

And, then everything blew up. In nine days Eich went from Mozilla's savior to a pariah. The overt cause? Eich's donation of $1,000 donation to the campaign supporting California's anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 in 2008. Eich back-pedaled from this position, but it was too little, too late.

And it wasn't just that. As the weeks have gone by and Mozilla still appears to be no closer to finding a permanent CEO, it's coming to light that Mozilla's board was never completely sold on Eich.

There is no question, however, that the firestorm about Eich's political stance, which led to Web sites banning the use of Firefox, hastened his departure. Eich himself simply stated that, "I resigned because I could not be an effective leader under the circumstances."

His resignation, in turn, caused another backlash. This one against the "political correctness" that had forced him out of the CEO suite. 

Mozilla Foundation Executive Director Mark Surman gave perhaps the most nuanced explanation of why Eich left when he blogged that while Eich had "led a band of brilliant engineers and activists who freed the Internet from the grip of Microsoft," at the same time he wasn't able to "connect and empathize with people." In short, he was a fine CTO, but not CEO material.

When the job called for the finesse of dealing with a major public relations disaster, he was unable to cope or to find enough allies within Mozilla to successfully support him. As Surman said, "Over the past three years, we’ve become better at being a Company. I would argue we’ve also become worse at being Mozilla. We’ve become worse at caring for each other. Worse at holding the space for difference. Worse at working in the open. And worse at creating the space where we all can lead."

Today, months later, under the temporary leadership of acting CEO Chris Beard, Mozilla doesn't appear to be any closer to finding a new CEO.

In a June 3 blog posting, Surman wrote that one of the things on the top of his mind is "Finding the right balance between clear goals, working across teams and distributed leadership. If I’m honest, we’ve struggled with these things at [Mozilla] for the last 18 months or so. Our recent all hands in San Francisco felt like a breakthrough: focused, problem-solving, fast moving." How this will translate into true leadership remains an unanswered question.

The clock is ticking. Mozilla is making progress with Firefox OS's technology and it's finding more hardware partners for its low-end smartphones. But with its over $300-million yearly Google contract expiring in December 2014, Mozilla can't possibly keep up its annual expenditures of over $200-million (PDF).

Mozilla needs to find strong leadership and it needs to do it now. With its cash reserves, Mozilla can make it through 2015, but it must, must, find its way soon or it will follow Netscape into becoming part of the Internet's past instead of its present and future.

Related stories:

Topics: Mobility, Browser, CXO, Mobile OS, Networking, Open Source

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  • Who, besides "everyone" benefits from Mozilla's existance

    They need a sugar daddy. IBM? Samsung? Even MS?

    Who benefits from their being three Web browsers in the world?

    I can't think of anyone. Maybe it's time we all started pitching in and giving our own money to one of the most important open source projects in the world.

    We should start by ditching Chrome and IE.
    x I'm tc
    • Ditch

      Chrome and IE so firefox can become the dominate browser? How is that "better" than IE being the dominate browser?
      • Who said dominant?

        A third choice means that, if it is reasonably successful, that no one choice becomes dominant - although he is forgetting Safari and Opera, plus the branched wannabes.
      • Low_tech--What browser do you use?

        Chrome is absolutely the worst memory hog I have seen. I only had a couple of add-ons and couldn't figure it out. So I watched the processes. I added another add-on, and it reloaded the "previous" file plus the one with the new add-on ??? Double PLUS ? Please tell me I am wrong. IE ? We are already a slave to microsoft--don't make it worse and be forced to only have the choices they want us to have...
      • ....

        Firefox is already the best and dominate browser. IE is in last place behind Chrome. Opera is actually better then Explorer.
        • Not according to usage statistics. IE is #1 by a wide ...

          ... margin. I am not fond of Chrome but I will use it over Firefox. Vendors who rest on their laurels ultimately become irrelevant.
          M Wagner
          • not according to statistics..

            just wondering WHO's statistical sampling are you relying on ?? .. Did Google pay them to figure those statistics ?? Google = Chrome ? Maybe they included very remote areas that just buy their PC, sit down, and go with whatever comes up first??? Of course-windows pc--Windows everything installed ready to go.. Of course maybe 4 times a year, I do need to go to IE, for some reason--maybe they categorized that with their rating of usage ??....
      • Mono-OS culture

        Why is it bad that IE is the dominant browser? Quite simply because it only runs on Windows. Why is that difficult to understand?
    • Competition keeps innovation going.

      "Who benefits from their being three Web browsers in the world?"

      Remember IE6? If it weren't for Firefox and chrome, I dare say Microsoft would have sat on their duffs and we'd still be using IE6 today.

      Competition keeps innovation going, plain and simple.

      The answer is simple: Everybody benefits.

      . . . and personally, I prefer Firefox's choice of addons, and it seems to handle a large number of tabs better.
    • Nobody cares really

      Most users just care about having a fast browser. They could less about open source or freedom or some noble gay fight to eject a person like Eich because of that. Mozilla may be open source or so they claim. But they are purely Google's bitch and have been for a while.
      Mozilla would not be today without Google. I gave up on Firefox a couple years ago when they stopped being relevant and innovative. Then they copied Google in releasing rapid updates but failed at actually fixing broken stuff. I support open source but not just because its open source. Give me a valid product that takes advantage of that and I can support it. Give me Firefox supported by Google ads and I will go elsewhere. If open source Mozilla was really interested in being open. They would reject being so reliant on Google for funding.
  • There's your problems in a nutshell.

    Between a world where "openness" crashes hard into "political correctness" and "survival" really means "being the dominant one" the old ideals of Mozilla are doomed. It is, for better or worse, a modern 21st Century corporation like any other.

    Their first problem was exactly that, a sugar daddy. The problem with sugar daddies is eventually they move on. And then, just about the time that was the fear, then their new CEO goes and does something that (and this was his mistake) would never, EVER have flown in Hipster SanFran. So what, the man favors traditional marriage. But no, that could NOT be. Then the ejection and subsequent problem is handled with the same adeptness as the NBA is handling their problem with a cranky old man. Oh well, done now.

    So what is the solution as their relationship with one sugar daddy is ending - well why not find another one and then if not, brush off the entire world as if "boycott the infidels, all for Firefox" will solve it all too. Sorry, the world has moved on. And unfortunately, the once (and for some perpetual) enemy Microsoft is not the real one here. It's their very current sugar daddy Google. So far, they have figured out the same thing now that Microsoft figured out when it propped up Apple initially - it only takes two. And now, just like Microsoft is facing not one in Apple but two in Apple and Google, Google sees three - Microsoft, Apple and Mozilla. But not really, since all they have to do is turn off the tap and Firefox is not long for the world.

    Unless they do become a REAL corporation. Hippie mantras and sugar daddies will not save them in the end. They have to have a compelling reason to be. And right now, unless you count cheap phones that are not widely available, that's not it.

    Shame really, having IE, Firefox, Chrome and Safari all around was a nice balance.
    • Sugar Daddy ?

      Doesn't everyone need/use them at one time or another ?? What I noticed.. as long as Google still "struggling" (years ago of course) -- sorry growing... they gave lots of support / $$$, to the FF world --then suddenly they dropped huge amount of "support" to the organization ?? Wasn't that around the time they got on a roll, and they presented the "new Chrome" browser--that they must have been designing awhile ?? Then they started the "let us LINK everything in to one" business... and I innocently got "linked" myself--just to save my old youtube account-- I just wanted google+ because of the PS, Arts, photography... sure made a mistake there...
      Honestly, if we only had "Chrome-Google" browser to choose from, I would return to IE, who I "loved to hate" in the early years.. I know Google could "count the hairs on my head"-- but sure hate them throwing it in my face now-- 2014 ..
      Better question .. Any working method to "un-Google" myself ??
  • Mozilla has outstayed its welcome

    I agree that having a diverse range of choices is good - but Mozilla has only survived due to Google's charity (funny how the Google haters rarely worry about that), and Firefox has led from behind for a long time now.

    In Mobile - the future - Firefox has not particularly marked out a unique position.

    And, best of all, it is an open and competitive market these days; nostalgia and sentimentality really aren't reason enough for charity and subsidy.

    Others will step forward ...
    • Just one more thing ...

      ... unlike its rivals, FF has taken the crapware route, taking money from the likes of Ask and Yahoo!, not only to grace their program - but also to overwrite your search choices.

      If I want Yahoo!, I'll get it myself. If I want Ask - please shoot me now.
      • ...

        You know you get to pick your prefered search engin with Firefox right? Its not like your forced in to some plie of crap like Bing or yahoo.
      • Re: Just one more thing..

        Man, if you know how to avoid yahoo -- sure like to know , just curious, how you use your computer at all, to avoid Yahoo ?? Course I am stuck in the AT&T monopoly down here -- they use Yahoo to run their email, so my choices are a no-brainer..
    • Agreed

      Mozilla took a honest open source project and made it a hybrid of commercialism vs open community with Google backing. Reminds me of how Canonical has kind of gone that way with Ubuntu. Maybe in order for open source today to stay relevant they need a corporate crutch to survive. They become so big that their coffers need to be supplied. After all a Mozilla does not sell a Firefox or any product for that matter. Maybe a web browser is a good example of a product nobody makes money on? Mozilla wants to move on to bigger and better things. But I don't see them at a point where their early stuff is doing that well?
      How can you attract people to a OS, when your browser is dying a slow death?
    • Heenan73 -- How long do you stay in front of a computer a day?

      Of course I am obviously a Firefox only user. All of the add-ons are one of the reason it is a fast browser !! How many TOOLS does IE have anyway...15??
  • Third Browerse

    Although limited into its on eco system, I predict that Silk, the Amazon browser will become the third most dominate browser. IE goes with the OS. Chrome goes with the advertising, and Silk goes with the commercial ecosystem. All three have good self funding mechanisms.
    • Silk?

      Have you ever seen - or heard - of silk, other than on Amazon devices?

      No. Nor has anyone else.