Mozilla searches for more revenue, taps in-Firefox ads

Now dependent on Google for 88% of its revenue, browser maker will test ads out on new users

Mozilla has kicked off a project to show ads to new users of its Firefox browser, a move one analyst said is a search for revenue beyond the firm's overwhelming reliance on Google.

"They're in need of new revenue," said Susan Bidel, an analyst with Forrester Research. "It looks like they're exploring a 'native ad' strategy, which is the shiny new object for publishers and others searching for ways to make money."

Mozilla acknowledged that the project, dubbed "Directory Tiles," had a goal of raising revenue for the non-profit Mozilla Foundation, which in turn funds the browser maker. "Diversifying the source of revenue for Mozilla" was one of three goals a company spokesperson said Mozilla had in mind when it came up with Directory Tiles.

The concept is straight-forward: When new users start Firefox, they will see pre-populated tiles, some of them "sponsored" -- in effect advertisements -- on the New Tab page. For long-time Firefox users, that page, which has room for nine thumbnails, shows the most-frequently-visited websites. Someone new to Firefox, of course, would see nothing. To jump-start the experience, Mozilla will fill the New Page spots.

"Some of these tile placements will be from the Mozilla ecosystem, some will be popular websites in a given geographic location, and some will be sponsored content from hand-picked partners to help support Mozilla's pursuit of our mission," wrote Darren Herman, a former advertising executive and venture capitalist who joined Mozilla last year as its vice president of its new content services group. "The sponsored tiles will be clearly labeled as such, while still leading to content we think users will enjoy," Herman added in a Tuesday blog.

Mozilla is dependent on several deals with search providers for almost all its revenue, with the bulk stemming from an agreement with Google to use the Mountain View, Calif. company's search engine as the default for most Firefox users.

Revenue from the Google deal accounted for 88% of the Mozilla Foundation's $311 million total in 2012, the last year for which the organization has released financial figures.

Last time Mozilla and Google met at the table, an agreement was struck after the expiration of the previous deal, with Mozilla getting a major pay raise to about $300 million annually. That deal expires in November.

Mozilla created Herman's group late last year, hiring him to lead its effort to diversify the foundation's revenue sources into anything from advertising to subscription fees. The search for new income could be simply prudence at work, or Mozilla may believe an agreement with Google will be difficult to strike or result in lower revenue.

According to Web analytics company Net Applications, Firefox owned 18% of the world's desktop browser usage share in January, down from 22% in late 2011 when it last dealt with Google. Firefox has virtually no user share of the mobile browser market.

Herman spoke earlier this week at the Interactive Advertising Bureau's (IAB) annual leadership conference, talking up Mozilla's push into mobile with its Firefox OS and the new Directory Tiles ad opportunities.

Mozilla and online advertising groups, including the IAB, have crossed swords of late, especially over the now-moribund "Do Not Track" anti-monitoring initiative. When Mozilla last year said it would enable Do Not Track (DNT) by default in Firefox, online advertisers went ballistic.

Last July, Randall Rothenberg, president and CEO of the IAB, accused Mozilla of being anti-business, hiding behind a veneer of populism and harboring "techno-libertarians and academic elites who believe in liberty and freedom ... as long as they get to decide the definitions of liberty and freedom."

Yet earlier this week, Rothenberg shared the stage with Herman at the IAB's conference.

Mozilla never pulled the trigger on its DNT-by-default plans for Firefox.

"We are gratified that Mozilla has a greater focus on digital ad products and welcome the opportunity to work more closely with them in this shared space," Mike Zaneis, the IAB's general counsel who also leads the group's public policy, said in a statement Wednesday.

But Bidel, of Forrester, did not see the tiles project as a turnabout by Mozilla from its opposition to ad tracking. "I haven't perceived Mozilla as anti-advertising," said Bidel. "They've been anti-cookie and anti-tracking, and critical of the lack of transparency. To me, that's what Mozilla's been."

But the reaction from some long-time Mozilla contributors was negative.

"To be clear, I am skeptical about the value of populating those blank tiles in general, but it is specifically the notion of 'sponsored' tiles that is a terrible idea, which we should immediately recant, possibly to the extent of claiming that it was a joke, even if it wasn't," wrote Zach Weinberg on a planning discussion forum hosted by Mozilla. Weinberg is a security researcher at Carnegie Mellon University who formerly was a platform engineer at Mozilla.

Weinberg and some others objected to the idea of ads within Firefox, seeing the move as a step on a slippery slope that could result in future data mining of users' browsing.

In truth, Mozilla is already toying with something similar. In December, the group announced it was pilot-testing what it called "user personalized content," which would include ads, based on Firefox's browser history.

Others on the same thread -- including several current Mozilla managers and executives -- defended the Directory Tiles concept against critics like Weinberg.

"Can privacy-preserving ad targeting be done? I'm genuinely not sure, but we're never going to be able to find out if we simply said, 'We will never do targeted ads,'" wrote Gervase Markham, whose title is "Governator," whatever that means, at Mozilla.

"Darren [Herman]'s team looked at [the New Tab experience for new users], and realized that we could make this better for users and generate income for Mozilla if we were smart about it," said Johnathan Nightingale, vice president of Firefox, on the same developers' forum. "Pre-populating those tiles, like we already pre-populate search providers, is just a better experience."

Nightingale also assured those reading the forum that Directory Tiles, like all features added to Firefox, would go through testing, gather feedback and undergo changes before it's shipped with the browser. "This is early days, so if there aren't answers to some of those things yet, it's mostly because we're figuring them out together, not because they're devious answers that we haven't figured out how to 'message.'"

Bidel declined to speculate on how Firefox's users would react to the ad idea. "But I imagine that they have a very loyal user base," she said, implying that she thought any backlash would be short-lived.

But Mozilla said the sponsored tiles might not be limited to just new users who needed their New Tab page populated. "Directory Tiles are aimed at first time users of Firefox at this stage," a spokesperson said in an email today. "We will evaluate whether it makes sense to extend this after taking into account initial feedback."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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