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Firefox faces growing pains

Success creates some new issues

Firefox's familiar logo represents a program coded by 1,000 to 2,000 volunteers, tested by some 10,000 people, with an estimated user base of at least 75 million. (DAVID ADAME/ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE 2005)

If the open-source software movement were an upstart political campaign, Chris Messina would be one of its community organizers -- the young volunteer who decamps to New Hampshire, knocking on doors and putting up signs.

In 2004, Messina, a 26-year-old Web entrepreneur from San Francisco, found his dream candidate in Firefox, the open-source Internet browser that is a rival to Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

Unlike the other candidate he volunteered for that year, Howard Dean, Firefox is still racking up victories. And unlike Dean, the people behind Firefox have a dilemma: What happens -- and what is owed to volunteer contributors -- when an open-source project starts to become successful?

Some 1,000 to 2,000 people have contributed code to Firefox, according to the Mozilla Foundation, which distributes the Firefox browser. An estimated 10,000 people act as testers for the program, and an estimated 80,000 help spread the word.

In 2004, with the release of version 1.0, Firefox became the dream of techies like Messina. Much in the way he helped coordinate supporters for Dean online, he got behind Spread Firefox, a campaign to rally the open-source base behind the browser.

That effort culminated in a fund-raising drive to advertise Firefox in The New York Times. The ad, a double-page spread designed by Messina, ran on Dec. 16, 2004.

"It was 10,000 people, putting in like five bucks to -- I don't know what the highest was," he said. "It was in the spirit of the Howard Dean campaign."

The Firefox campaign has been very successful, according to Mitchell Baker, the chairwoman of the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation that directs the project.

"The best we can figure, 75 to 100 million people are using Firefox," she said. "Those people did not get it in a box. That is 75 million decisions, somewhere around the world to put this piece of software on someone's machine."

According to outside estimates, Firefox has about 15 percent of the market, Internet Explorer has more than 78 percent, and Apple's Safari a little less than 5 percent. Mozilla has 90 employees and revenue of more than $100 million in the last couple of years.

Mozilla plans to make enough money to keep growing. But a windfall came in the form of a royalty contract with Google, which, like the other search companies, is always competing for better placement on browsers. Under the agreement, the Google search page is the default home page when a user first installs Firefox, and is the default in the search bar. In the last two years, the deal has brought in more than $100 million. (Google has a similar placement with Apple's Safari.)

So far, no one has figured out how to balance keeping an open-source or collaborative project fully financed while remaining independent and noncommercial. Wikipedia, for example, holds occasional fund-raisers, while its leaders debate if it should take steps toward some sort of sponsorship or advertising.

Thanks to the Google agreement, the Mozilla Foundation went from revenue of nearly $6 million in 2004 to more than $52 million the next year. The foundation plans to increase its workforce, and to add some engineering capability. In 2005, the foundation created a subsidiary, the for-profit Mozilla Corp., also led by Baker, mainly to deal with the tax and other issues related to the Google contract. (The foundation's 2006 tax return has not yet been made public, but Baker said the Google revenue will remain about the same.)

She described the decision to align with Google as an organic one that predates the official release of Firefox. "We had Google in a beta version for a long time, so we approached them first," she said.

Mitch Kapor, who is on the Mozilla board, said that accepting a deal with Google was a no-brainer. "Always on my mind, in all my involvement is, how is it going to be sustainable?" he said. "I am a big believer that begging is not the right business model. When it began to become clear there was a business opportunity, in monetizing search in the browser, I saw this as a great opportunity."

But with opportunities came changes. By creating a corporation to run the Firefox project, Mozilla was committing to be less transparent. In part, that is because Google insists on the secrecy of "its arrangement and agreements," Kapor said. (Google declined to comment for this article.)

Because transparency is one of the principles of the so-called Mozilla manifesto released in February, Kapor said, there was "some tension around getting the deal done and disclosure."

Another complication for Mozilla, some critics say, is that it could be perceived as acting as an extension of Google. For example, they note that one of Google's growth areas, Web-based software applications, would have a better chance of success with a browser not controlled by its biggest rival, Microsoft.

The exact nature of Mozilla's relationship with Google has been good fodder for bloggers. When Messina recently posted a 50-minute video of his thoughts about Firefox development, the comments included a back-and-forth between Asa Dotzler of the Mozilla Corp., and a commentator on the blog named Corey.

When Corey wrote that "it seems like half" of the top contributors to Mozilla "work directly for Google," Dotzler responded harshly, dismissing the claim outright: "No one who has looked at the actual development of Firefox recently could say with a straight face that Google employees are top contributors to Mozilla."

Finally, there is the problem of what Mozilla should do with the money, at least the portion that is not being reinvested in the Firefox. Throwing money around among volunteers can backfire, Baker said, though the foundation has been quietly assisting contributors who are hampered by poor equipment.

Instead, Mozilla's solution is to put money into what Kapor calls "community purposes." The foundation is looking for a new executive director who would focus on worthy projects, although no decisions on what constitutes a worthy project has been made. "We go out and ask," Baker said, "and even the community is not actually clear where large amounts of money should go."