Firefox: Doing it for love

Asa Dotzler, the community co-ordinator for the Mozilla Foundation, reflects on how grassroots marketing has spurred the growth of Firefox, and how a bunch of developers managed to create such enduring loyalty in their product

The Mozilla Foundation is envied throughout the software world for the buzz it has created around the Firefox browser. The media interest, which started primarily among technology blogs, quickly spread to the technology press and even the national press.

There are not many software products that can splash a flattering quote from financial heavyweight the Wall Street Journal on the front page of their Web site, yet the home page of the Mozilla Foundation proudly quotes a WSJ article entitled, "Security, cool features of Firefox Web browser beat Microsoft's IE".

Love of Firefox among mainstream press is not confined to the US; a quick search on Google reveals that the Web sites of the BBC, The Times and The Guardian have referred to Firefox 274, 147 and 190 times respectively.

Asa Dotzler is one of the main Mozilla employees responsible for this PR success. He coordinates over 100,000 marketing volunteers who have signed up to the SpreadFirefox Web site and was one of the original brains behind many of the high-profile advertising campaigns.

ZDNet UK spoke to Dotzler about the rise of Firefox in the enterprise, future marketing campaigns and how the browser managed to grow its user base so fast.

Although Firefox has undoubtedly been successful among consumers, we rarely hear of companies doing wide-scale migrations from IE. How do you think you're doing in enterprises, and what are you doing to change that?
If you look at all of statistics they average out to us being about 10 percent of the Web. There are estimated to be about 1 billion Web users, which means there are about 100 million Firefox users out there. It has only been downloaded about 65 million times, so the other users are people who got it some other way. The most likely place they are likely to have got it from is corporate deployments.

The early adopters of Firefox includes a lot of people in IT departments. Those are the people you want to have, as they will be the ones who can convince their management to migrate [the company] to Firefox.

We have high hopes that we'll do better and better in that space with Windows 2000 users. If users don't upgrade to Windows XP they won't get IE 7, but 50 percent of businesses are still using Windows 2000.

We're excited about Microsoft launching IE 7 — it will remind a lot of people that if they want better features they have to spend hundreds of dollars upgrading. Even if we stopped supporting Windows 98, a company can support [Firefox on Windows 98] themselves as it is open source. This is one of the advantages of open source — you can avoid the forced update cycle.

As we improve our tools for corporate deployments and people feel they're being left behind on Windows 2000, hopefully we'll see a real domino effect.

Firefox has become famous for its massive community marketing campaigns — the New York Times advert, the SpreadFirefox Web site. What have you got planned next?
The gimmicky projects, like the New York Times ad, these things we'll see less of. We'll be more focused on the grunt work of marketing. You can only get people covering you as a novel effort when you're novel. Now 10 other people are doing copies of SpreadFirefox, such as and We're not novel any more so don't expect that kind of coverage.

What are you doing to continue spreading Firefox though?
People are doing lots of crazy and wacky stunts to spread Firefox, like knitting a Firefox hat, or painting their face and going to a football match. An 11 year old kid wrote to us saying he wanted a Firefox tattoo, but his mum wouldn't let him so he did a temporary tattoo. One of most amazing stunts was done by the Linux user group at Oregon State University — they traced out a Firefox logo on the pavement at their college campus. That hit the local papers and the college paper.

This is how grassroots marketing works — small groups of people doing something in their area. A lot of this won't get into national papers, although we do have a couple of large projects planned.

I don't want to manage from the top down, saying, "I'm Asa, here's a project I want you to do." I would rather a group of kids in India said: "Lets get Firefox on an open source CD that the government is going to distribute across the country". We helped them campaign to get it on a CD. That's the kind of thing I want to support.

A representative of the Welsh Parliament recently made a proclamation to the parliament that they should be using Firefox. He sent me the minutes — it's now in their formal and permanent documentation. This is the kind of thing I would never have thought of. If you filter up from the bottom, good ideas will surface — much better than we can think of.

Why do you think that grassroots marketing is so effective?
When hundreds of thousands of people are doing it, it's more powerful than corporate marketing. For example, if I have a choice between listening to Sony tell me how great their walkman is, or hundreds of thousands of Sony users telling me how great the walkman is, I'd trust the real people over a marketing department any day.

We have real people who wouldn't say something if our product wasn't good. It takes a lot of repetition with a banner ad online, or a jingle on the TV — they need to keep hammering it to make a sale. When it's your best friend or neighbour it doesn't take any hammering.

The open source community generally has problems encouraging women to participate. Is it mostly men getting involved with SpreadFirefox?
We don't have any numbers on that as we don't ask about genders. Based on the interactions that I have had with people it seems that we have a much broader mix of females and males in the SpreadFirefox community than we do in the development and QA community; among developers there are several female developers out of hundreds; in QA, out of thousands there are hundreds of women; in marketing, of the 10 people who we recently gave awards to, three were women.

We have always had a global base, but it's nice to see we're growing the female component of the community, and the age component is also spreading — a lot of kids are spreading Firefox in their school. That's one of things I like about SpreadFirefox — it's very inclusive. It's fun to work in a community that's really dynamic and diverse.

Why do you think Firefox was successful?
A lot of things came together at the same time. Microsoft had disbanded its IE team. The web changed so there were more pop ups, spyware and viruses. People like my mum didn't like going on the web any more as they thought bad things happened there. Firefox took a lot of that pain away — you could go on web without being afraid of pop-ups trying to trick you into downloading spyware.

At the time 1.0 was released enough Web sites were becoming compatible. Our own rendering technologies were getting up to speed. This meant that when a user sat down with Firefox, the Web just worked.

Firefox was also becoming easier to use and getting smaller. Ben Goodger [the lead Firefox engineer] implemented some awesome installation tools so you could copy over your favourites, settings etc. It made Firefox seem like an upgrade for IE.

We also came on the scene about the same time as US-CERT advised people to use another browser as Microsoft didn't have a workaround for a couple of the major bugs affecting them.

This all came together in a critical mass, so we got to the first five percent pretty quickly. That had an effect — as we grew so quickly it got us a bunch more visibility. When Microsoft dropped from 98 to 95 percent, people looked up. Our early success spread more success.

Last year the Mozilla Foundation said it wanted to reach 10 percent by the end of 2005. You appear to have reached this now, so what is your next target?
I don't have any targets, my goals are to improve the product in every release and to expand the audience we're offering it to.

There's a limit to the audience we're targeting now — we're only targeting people who find and install software and a lot of people don't do that. My guess is that far fewer than half of the people on the Web will download a browser.

The next step is about reaching people that won't download software, through CDs, and deals with ISPs and OEMs. For example, [US-based ISP] Speakeasy is bundling Firefox with its set-up CD and one of Australia's big OEMs [Acer] is shipping Firefox.

Every time a popular computer magazine is shipping a CD, we need to be talking to them. We have people at SpreadFirefox who are in contact with CD producers and know when they're planning their next CD. We are also approaching ISPs, and have to approach OEMs to persuade them to pre-install Firefox.

We ought to target all places where we can get free distribution, but some things are going to cost us — if we want to be on desktop of one of top five OEMs, we will probably have to pay them.

Opera recently said it is unfair that it is criticised for putting ads in its browser, as they "don't have a rich sugar daddy like the Mozilla Foundation." What is your response to this comment?
When you don't have to worry about monetising the browser, you can think about user. As we're a non-profit, our goal is merely to sustain ourselves. I agree that Opera need to be profitable, but to do that they have had to make their user experience a little bit worse. Luckily, we can just focus on being sustainable.

We won't make an agreement with any company that negatively impacts our users. We won't do something that compromises our users' experience for money. We say no to more deals than you can possibly imagine — we say no to almost everyone.

Instead, we try to find ways to take what we're already doing and monetise that. Luckily, we have a good enough product that we don't have to do anything crazy to keep it going. Firefox has a lot of buzz, so people want to connect their products or services to it.

Firefox has been praised for being more secure than IE, but some say that the extension model introduces security risks. Do you agree with this? Why have you chosen this model?
I'm not terribly concerned about extension security or performance. Most extension developers host their code at Mozdev and the bad ones get weeded out quite quickly. It's unlikely that a malicious extension will get popular as you can view the source of extensions. You can't view IE's source.

Extensions are a compromise between ease of use for the people who want something that works out of box and those people who want control over the browser. The latter is an extreme minority, but an important group.

There are disadvantages to this model, for example, extensions are likely to be written by people who don't have the knowledge to make them the fastest they can be. Some things you could do faster or better if it was integrated [into the browser]. But it’s a worthwhile trade-off to keep the interface simple.

Have you used extensions in the core Firefox product?
Certainly — tab browsing came from the extension community in the pre-Firefox days. We're adding an extension called miniT, which lets you drag and drop tabs, in 1.1. We're not going to add all 800 extensions as if we integrated them all we would have a mess that no-one could understand.

Firefox has been an undisputed success, but the Thunderbird email client does not appear to have had anywhere near the same level of success. Why is this?
Thunderbird is a huge success. When you look at the Mozilla Suite, which had a browser and mail client, it had a few million users — mostly for the browser, some for the email. Maybe we had a million people using the email part. Thunderbird has already shipped more than six million downloads.

It isn't seeing the same kind of adoption that Firefox has, because people are scared about moving their email client — they don't want to touch it. It’s a difficult thing to get in and change. With a browser you can try it and if you don't like it, you can stop using it. With email you can't do that. We don't expect Thunderbird to ever to have the success that Firefox has, but it can still be successful.

So, what are some of the big features that are coming up in Firefox 1.1, the next version of the browser that's due in July?
Our big thing in 1.1 is a world class update system that allows you to get application updates in similar way to Windows Updates — it will automatically install patches and updates, so the user doesn't struggle to get each security fix.

Behind the scenes we're working on support for next generation web standards, such as SVG [the scalable graphics standard]. SVG allows clients to redraw graphs so you don't have to do a round trip to the server. This makes dynamic Web pages load faster. SVG is going to be huge. We're working to support SVG 1.1 and in Firefox 1.1 we hope to have a big piece done.

We're also pushing into the platform space with Xulrunner [a package that can be used to build standalone networked applications]. This will allow people to create custom clients for their web services.

So, what exciting new features have you got planned in the future?
I don't believe in next big thing. It's about user experience, not features. Blake [Ross, the creator of Firefox] says that he hopes with every release of Firefox, we can take away a feature. His motto is to simplify.

I think Google's Gmail is good because it takes email and simplifies it. They're not doing anything wildly innovative. It's the same with Google maps, isn't that how every map should work? That's not revolutionary — that's what my mum would expect the first time she went online and found a map. Let's do what the user expects. It's worth engineers doing extra work so users don't have to.

My goal is to figure out what the next feature is that we can remove — features are a hoop that users have to jump through.

And finally, do you enjoy your job?
I love this job, I wouldn't do anything else. I was doing 20 or 30 hrs for free before I got this job. People are doing this job because they love it. There's no IPO in a non-profit's future, so people work here for the love of the product and the community.

To read Dotzler's view of Firefox's and Mozilla's history, click here.

To see photos of the Mozilla offices and some of the people ZDNet UK met there, click here.