Mozilla vs. Apple on Safari flap: It's about the Google search box

Updated: Apple pushes Safari to you when you update iTunes. Mozilla CEO John Lilly blasted the move.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Updated: Apple pushes Safari to you when you update iTunes. Mozilla CEO John Lilly blasted the move. Meanwhile, there's enough hubbub to last a few weeks over these dueling point of views. But what this spat really comes down to is Google and the fees it pays to be the lead search dog within browsers.

A few quick thoughts:

  • The fact Apple is pushing Safari via its iTunes updates isn't surprising. In fact, Apple told you that this was going to be its move with Safari for Windows. In this respect, Apple is no different than any other software vendor that always tries to push you a bundle. Nefarious? Hardly. It's just Apple trying to grab more share. Ultimately, you are responsible for what you install.
  • So why the Mozilla hubbub? Firefox has more than a third of the browser market. If Apple leverages iTunes and the software update bundle Safari could grab more market share. Lilly writes in his blog post: "What Apple is doing now with their Apple Software Update on Windows is wrong. It undermines the trust relationship great companies have with their customers, and that’s bad — not just for Apple, but for the security of the whole Web."

What's stunning to me is that after three days of debate about this issue there aren't many folks who have mentioned that little search box in the right corner. Let's be clear: Google bankrolls Mozilla and accounts for most of its revenue. Google pays to be the leading provider in the Firefox search box. Sure, you can pick other search engines, but few do. As a result, Google accounted for 85 percent of Mozilla's 2006 revenue of $66.8 million. The more market share Firefox has the more Google pays to be top search dog.

In that context, it's pretty clear (to me) what this Mozilla vs. Apple rift is about. Apple also has Google in its search box and while details aren't disclosed it's safe to say there's some cash changing hands. Google's fees to Apple aren't likely to be material, but Safari's market share gains at Firefox's expense could be a headache for Mozilla.

Let's say Safari grabs 10 percent market share and Firefox falls to about 25 percent. Note: Firefox's market share about 16 percent, according to Janco. The aforementioned figures are for illustration purposes. That's fewer searches and less revenue for Mozilla. Sure, you can argue about whether Apple's Safari move is above the board. You can also question the security implications and a bevy of other issues. But in the end, Apple's Safari update and Mozilla's reaction is like any other story. To truly understand it you have to follow the money.

Update: John Lilly has a follow-up post to his first missive on Safari and Apple's distribution methods. His point: There's no subtext in his first post. Lilly has some good points--especially on security--but I still maintain that to understand the nuances of this spat you have to at least consider the monetary angle.

Update 2: Lilly and I have been volleying a few emails and on further review I may be coming off too strong regarding the money aspect. I still maintain it's a factor though. Here's what Lilly had to say:

I think it's appropriate to talk about motivations in analysis, and you're right that there are often monetary reasons for doing things. But at Mozilla we routinely make decisions without regard to revenue impact -- we really do try to make decisions based on user experience first and foremost. I feel like your post doesn't just bring up the point, but you assume (and assert) monetary motivations -- just look at your headline or this line: "But what this spat really comes down to is Google and the fees it pays to be the lead search dog within browsers."

It's fine for you to think that, or write it, but it isn't true. Not everything is about money -- most things aren't. We've set things up here so that we need a relatively modest budget (by IT industry standards) to survive and to make an impact in the world -- and not being beholden to shareholders means that we don't have to maximize revenue or profits.

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