Where does troubled Mozilla go from here?

Controversial Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich has left the open-source Web company, but its path forward remains unclear and the clock is ticking.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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