Mitchell Baker is the chair and CEO of Mozilla, the organization behind the Firefox browser, the Thunderbird email client, the Pocket newsreader, and a bunch of other interesting internet tools.
Now, as you all know, Decoder is secretly a podcast about org charts — maybe not so secretly — and Mozilla’s structure is really interesting. Mozilla itself is a nonprofit foundation, but it contains within it something called the Mozilla Corporation, which actually makes Firefox and the rest.
Mozilla’s nonprofit ideals include protecting the open internet while still trying to compete and cooperate with tech giants like Apple and Google. And these are complicated relationships: Google still accounts for a huge percentage of Mozilla’s revenue — it pays hundreds of millions of dollars to be the default search engine in Firefox. And Apple restricts what browser engines can run on the iPhone. Firefox Focus on the iPhone is still running Apple’s WebKit engine, something that regulators, particularly those in Europe, want to change.
On top of all of that, some big foundational pieces of the web are changing: Microsoft is aggressively rolling out its ChatGPT-powered Bing search engine in an effort to displace Google and get people to switch to the Edge browser, and Twitter’s implosion means that Mitchell sees Mastodon as one of Mozilla’s next big opportunities.
So, how does Mozilla get through this period of change while staying true to itself? And will anyone actually switch browsers again? Turns out, it might be easier to get people to switch on phones than on desktops. That’s Mozilla’s belief, anyway. Okay, Mitchell Baker, chair of Mozilla, here we go.
Mitchell Baker is the chair of the Mozilla Foundation. Welcome to Decoder.
Thanks. It’s my pleasure.
We were talking before we started recording. You and I have been around each other, but we’ve never met before. I’m very excited to meet and talk to you. I think it’s going to be a good show.
So, let’s start at the start. I think most people know Mozilla because of Firefox, but Mozilla has a much longer history. You have a much longer history with Mozilla than just Firefox. Explain where Mozilla started and how you have been a part of the picture for nearly 25 years now.
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Yes. Mozilla started with the very beginning of the consumer internet, actually. In the time before time — meaning before the internet — when software wasn’t connected, there was a little innovative thing called a browser. It was first created by a company called Netscape. The browser was literally the beginning of the consumer internet.
Before that, if you were a grad student, mostly in the sciences, with a command line, you might actually use the internet, but most of us didn’t. The browser is what changed that. That was made public by a company called Netscape. Even in the Netscape days, the browser was called Mozilla inside the code. There’s a thing inside the code that talks to the servers, and every time a browser makes a request, it says, “hi, I’m this browser,” and sends what’s called a user agent. That has been Mozilla from the very beginning of the consumer internet.
So our history goes back to the source, actually. That was an engineer’s inside joke, inside Netscape. We used to laugh that Netscape is spelled M-O-Z-I-L-L-A. When it became time to open-source the Netscape Navigator code, Mozilla was a clear engineer’s insider, development way of thinking. So the open-source project became known as Mozilla, which started inside the company Netscape. That company was bought by AOL, and we eventually spun out of AOL to form an independent organization, which is a nonprofit. Because at Mozilla, the open-source is really tied to public benefit, so it was kind of a no-brainer that we’d start as a nonprofit.
There are so many interconnections here. The current CEO of Vox Media, Jim Bankoff, was at AOL when it acquired Netscape, and he was instrumental in that deal. There are all these winding connections, but Netscape and Mozilla have this winding corporate history. It was this incredibly important product. Obviously, Microsoft showed up with Internet Explorer. There was an entire antitrust trial about Microsoft trying to kill Netscape. AOL bought it. It became open-source. Not to dive too much into that history, but that seems like, to this day, it colors Mozilla as a foundation and a company: that it is independent of big tech. Is that just my perception from the outside, or is that how you feel as well?
We feel that way as well. We are unusual in having a nonprofit at the core of a global technology company. We like it, because it means the fundamental motivation is different. Our shareholder is not looking for maximum financial return; it’s looking for maximum public benefit.
We do run a business through a subsidiary that pays taxes. We want to run that business well, but the goals of the shareholders are not about every last penny or maximum financial return. We see that as quite different, and quite important to how we fulfill our mission about the internet.
And yes, there is a long history with Microsoft. A lot of times people want to cast Mozilla as if it used to be anti-Microsoft, anti-big tech, or anti-X. We have a positive vision of what the world could be. We try to identify ourselves by the nature of internet life that we want and how we can make things better. We try not to have a chip on our shoulder, but many of the things that were true in that antitrust case from the past are still true today.
The concentration of power is in the hands of a few large companies that have the distribution channels through their operating systems. It has come full circle, and it’s not that different than it was before. Obviously, it’s not Microsoft on the phones, but it is still a major player if you look at desktop computers. In some ways, it’s like a circle or a spiral, where we try to keep our role moving forward. We are currently working really hard to modernize ourselves for the next 25 years, so that Firefox is at the beginning of a history of great things.
I asked a good friend at a big tech company, “What should I ask?” They said, “Just say ‘European regulators’ and she’ll talk for an hour.” I promise we’ll come to that, but I want to take one step back and understand Mozilla as it is now, not the Mozilla of 25 years ago when it was defined by the battle against Microsoft. You mentioned that you have a somewhat unique structure. You are the chair of the foundation, but the foundation runs the Mozilla Corporation, which is for-profit and has a CEO. How does that work?
Yes. The parent is nonprofit and tax-exempt. It has a few subsidiaries, one of which is Mozilla Corporation, which produces most of our consumer products. For those who were around when email clients were beloved — and the Mozilla email client Thunderbird still is in Europe — there is a smaller subsidiary which houses that. But the main subsidiary over these years has been the Mozilla Corporation, which makes Firefox and our other products today. That is a taxable subsidiary.
Many people will think of it as a for-profit company; we think of it as a taxable subsidiary, because we run it to meet the Mozilla mission. Sometimes you can have a nonprofit that has a subsidiary, and the job of that company is to make money. The job of Mozilla Corporation is to build products that create an internet life that is more humane, more focused on individual and social benefit, and not so much on maximum engagement and maximum profit.
There’s maximum profit, and then there’s just profit. You need to have some money in the bank, you need to give people raises every year, and you probably need to hire people competitively against the big tech companies. The Mozilla Corporation reports to you. How do you think about setting those goals for them?
Our template for this is mission first, individual users of our product second, and business revenue third. We do indeed think about running a business and running it well, because it’s an expensive piece of work to fill the software and to have a chance to compete with the giants, but that is never our first priority. We do make decisions that go against our business interest.
“We do run a business, but there are forces that succeed that demonstrate why we don’t have to pull every penny out — and we don’t.”
For many years, Mozilla has been the leader and pioneer in anti-tracking technology, which is both technically tricky and hard, but also is not about maximizing the amount of money that comes out of your ads. We are an odd company, and there is a bit of dynamic tension internally and, of course, with our own business model. But we are so active in trying to limit the effects of tracking. That would be one example of how we do run a business, but there are forces that succeed that demonstrate why we don’t have to pull every penny out — and we don’t.
Let’s talk about that structure just a little bit more. You’re the chair of the foundation. Who reports to you? What are the responsibilities that you have, and how do you delegate them out?
Okay. Well, now you’re really deep into corporate structure.
This is a whole podcast about org charts, fundamentally.
So, the foundation has a board, and I’m the chair of that board. The foundation also has staff and an executive director, and that executive director is responsible to the board, of which I am one. I’m the chair, but of course, the chair has one vote on a board just like everyone else. What I mostly do as a chair is spend extra time with the executive director thinking through things — long-term things about Mozilla like, “What’s the kind of prep work you hope your exec does before they come to a board?” That’s one piece.
The foundation board elects the board of its subsidiary, Mozilla Corporation. The board of that corporation selects the CEO of Mozilla Corporation. So as CEO, I report into the corporation board, and that board is responsible to, engages with, and is selected every year by the board of the parent.
When it comes time to evaluate product decisions or some of the foundation decisions, what is your framework? This is the classic Decoder question. How do you make decisions?
On the product side, so MoCo, I gave you our basic decision-making piece. Mission, users, business. We have a manifesto that sets out the traits of the internet that we’re interested in. Some of them are very clear, like privacy and security, but it also talks about individuals having more engagement in what happens, some ability to create, and more influence in our own experience.
One of the things that people are experiencing with “big tech” today is feeling acted upon. What are the products that actually put you at the center so that you are creating your own life? Those kinds of things are expressed in our manifesto, and increasingly a sense of what the result is in the public sphere. That open source Mozilla came out with isn’t enough, not if it creates systems that are violent, misogynistic, racist, and all those things. We have stated in our manifesto some basic goals of what a better internet and better internet life would look like. So we start there.
One of the things that I think has been weak about Mozilla’s products in the last, say, 10 years, is that it’s easy to get wrapped up in the mission or the manifesto and this ideal world that we dream of, and not be well-grounded in what it is that people actually need or what problems they have today. I put mission first and users second, but part of the work of the last couple years has been to reduce the gap there because it’s easy for a mission-driven organization to get lost in itself. And I think Mozilla has done that. It’s easy to dream up the product that we think would make the world better, but that’s very different from the reality of what people living their lives find useful, fun, and engaging.
Mission is always first, but the decision-making is pushing the user, customer, consumer much closer to the mission piece so we get a better match for that. Mozilla is not here to create a product, even a successful one, that isn’t moving the mission for a better internet forward. If we were purely a product company, we should go off and do it in the normal structure, not as a nonprofit.
Yeah. This does seem a lot more complicated, but this is all because of the mission of the foundation, right?
Well, the mission of all of Mozilla.
You have both roles. You’re the chair of the foundation, and you’re the CEO of what you just called MoCo, which is a great name for the Mozilla Corporation, the taxable entity.
Do you feel a split? Do you have a dual personality sometimes? Are you like, “Well, we could make a bunch more money over here”?
Well, at Mozilla, we have had two hats forever. When we started, we were inside a company, so we were employees with a management chain and the goals of the company. At the same time, we were trying to run a serious and legitimate open-source project, which had distributed authority and was for the benefit of all of the people who contributed to the project. Those are two different things, but I was eventually fired over the difference between those two.
We have a long history of two hats because of that. You would say, “In my role as an employee, this is what I’m responsible for doing. In my role as a leader of an open-source project, with people from lots of companies and volunteers, this is what the project needs.” The multiple hats or multiple roles are kind of built in. To the substance of your question, money versus anything else is a topic, because Mozilla is growing into running a business.
We’re a bit opposite of the norm. We started as a nonprofit organization and an open-source project with a large global community of volunteers. We also came out of the very first days of the consumer internet, which we called the web, back when the internet was the World Wide Web, and had a lot of idealism in it. It was the beginning of the open-source movement becoming mainstream, an d it was really the first time in modern history where we would talk about sharing things or collaboration.
It was before ride-sharing or Airbnb. All of those things were crazy. But the open-source movement came first, and it came with very idealistic volunteers. “It’s not about the money, it’s about what we’re creating. We’re a community, we’re working together.” In a way, it was anti-revenue at all, and it was certainly anti-business. It was very much that individuals have power with technology. We can voluntarily form a community, create something together, and share the thing we have created.
“A lot of companies are built where the dollar is first and everything else comes second, whereas we’re the opposite. We had to grow into running a business.”
A lot of companies are built where the dollar is first and everything else comes second, whereas we’re the opposite. We had to grow into running a business and acknowledge that we are running a business. If we want to succeed and be here for another 25 years, donations are not going to cover that. The growth path for us is to have the ability to run a business, to build a product that people want that creates value, and to find an ethical way of returning some of that value to ourselves so that we can continue. Unlike many other organizations, our conversations about mission versus business are quite different.
We have talked to a number of different organizations that I would say are on the spectrum you’re describing. We had the CEO of Raspberry Pi on the show, who very much has the same model. There’s a foundation and there’s a company that makes money for the foundation. Then you mentioned donations and my mind immediately went to Wikipedia. I don’t think Wikipedia thinks of itself as a taxable entity. They feel no shame in asking you for money all the time, and that works for them. It’s just a very different model. You’re obviously in the middle here. Wikipedia doesn’t have a competitor. Microsoft is not trying to start Microsoft Wikipedia 365 and it’s not distributed through Google. Wikipedia doesn’t have to get through Apple’s operating system rules. They’re just positioned very differently. You have all these big tech partners who in some cases are gatekeepers and in some cases are revenue sources. Has that shaped how you think? “Okay, we need to be a company. We need to be more ruthless at the core here so we can support our larger mission.”
Well, I do sometimes envy organizations that don’t have the tech giants as competitors. If I were starting without the mission to build an organization, to build a company, or to build a startup, you can think of safer places to be than where Mozilla is. But we are where we are because that has some core aspects of internet life in the middle of it.
It’s tough to run a good-size software organization competing with the giants on a volunteer basis. Signal is in this space where they’re much more focused on donations. We’re looking at that, but when we formed Mozilla, we realized there were ways to get some of the value we’re creating back for ourselves. We decided that was a better model. Fundraising isn’t free.
Wikimedia is a pretty lucky organization because there are multiple small donations. It’s enough. For a large fundraising organization, normally your funders have a lot of say in what you do. It often feels pure, but you have to work very hard to have a set of funders who are so aligned with your mission that either you’re working together to create what you’re doing or they’re not dictating it. And at the size and scale of something like a browser — and we’re still a fraction of the size of the Chrome team; really, a fraction — part of the competitive challenge is, what do you really need in a browser with a team that’s multiples the size? So yes, I do think the fact that we are in this very competitive space and building this core platform-level technology, which is complex, really pushes us to be in the world but not of it.
I like that phrase. We brought up Chrome, which means we have to talk about Google. The relationship with Google is complicated. The largest revenue driver for Mozilla Corporation is the deal that makes Google search the default engine in Firefox. That’s what I’ve always known to be true. How much is that deal worth to you?
I have $450 million written here. Is that right?
That deal, is that in perpetuity? Does it expire? Do you have to renegotiate that deal?
That deal is not in perpetuity. I don’t know if Google does deals in perpetuity.
I guess perpetuity is the wrong phrase. Do you have to renegotiate it? Is it contentious to renegotiate that deal?
We have renegotiated that arrangement multiple times over the years. Also with Microsoft and a few others. I wouldn’t say it’s contentious. We do take it seriously. Sometimes people think because we’re small that we’re naive, that we’re Google’s mouthpiece, or that we’re Google with a different name. That’s a little frustrating, given the amount of energy and focus we put into it. We do take those seriously. In 2015 or so, we did shift from Google to Yahoo, and then we shifted back a few years later. We treat those as business deals.
One part of the relationship with Google — which is sometimes not clear — is that Google and Mozilla are aligned on some fundamental things about the structure of what we used to call the web, and we now call the internet. Sometimes people think it’s all a business relationship, and certainly that is important, but the open internet, as we call it today, comes down to architectural changes. What are you doing? What are the standards? How do you build things? Are they interoperable? Do you engage with standards bodies? How do they work? What’s the actual goal?
I’m not claiming Google is altruistic, but their search business depends on being able to get to content and find things in a way that’s very, very different from Facebook. In the structures of Facebook, information goes in but doesn’t come out. A Facebook-like model pulls information in and then it all stays in this private space. It’s not of the web or the open internet, or whatever you might choose to call it, which has some pretty deep design implications for us — and of course some pretty deep revenue implications as well.
There are a bunch of basic areas, like how the internet is built, where our view of the world is aligned with Google. We see that relationship. When you say it’s complex, that’s very true. There is no question that it’s competitive. It is this business partnership piece. Also, what is the nature of the underlying system that we’re trying to build? Now, Android’s a different story, but on the browser and website.
I think this brings me to Firefox. When we talk about your relationship with Google, we are distinguishing Android from Chrome. That’s because you make Firefox, and almost all of your revenue comes from setting Google search as the default search engine in Firefox. Is there another set of products that could make that much money for you? Is there another way to make that much money out of Firefox?
Let me step back for just a sec and say that we have been increasing the diversification of our revenue over the last few years. It’s still the case that the bulk of our money comes from search and the bulk of the search money comes from Google. We haven’t fundamentally changed it yet, but we have a pretty significant effort coming close to double digits in revenue that’s not from that, maybe 15 percent now. Which again, it’s only 15 percent, but from where we were three years ago, it’s a pretty dramatic change.
Are there other ways to generate revenue? Yes. Are there other ways to generate that amount of revenue in the current product Firefox? That, I think, is unclear. In our revenue diversification, some of that is through Firefox, so there are ways to diversify. Is there another half-billion-dollar business inside Firefox right now? I don’t know.
Search has certainly been the killer app and business model of a generation, so it’s hard to say that we’re going to find something that equals that in the same product. That said, we’re early in the diversification piece. We do have some other things that we’re exploring and might help bring to market. The thing about search is that people still want it and are drawn to it. It’s a really valuable tool. We can see, even with the interest in generative AI, that some of the questions are, “Well, how does it change the core use cases?” No one thinks that the question of trying to find things online is going away.
This is really interesting. Just by dint of coincidence, I am talking to you after I was in Redmond, where I spoke to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella about generative AI. There’s a new version of the Bing search engine, which has ChatGPT technology built into it. They have a new version of the Edge browser with that built into the sidebar. I’m sure you’re going to laugh at this, but I was like, “Oh, we’re just doing toolbars again. All right, here we go.” Microsoft very clearly sees that as a way to take market share in search from Google. They’re explicit about it. They see it very directly as a way to take market share in browsers back from Google with a new revenue model for the browser attached to it.
As we’ve been talking — and I think the audience has probably sussed this out by now — the revenue architecture of the web belongs to Google. They can afford to pay for that search deal with you, for that multi-billion-dollar search deal with Apple, because as long as people are funneling through Google search and then out to the web pages with Google ads on them, Google is making money. So this is great for them. If you try to make a browser with a business model that is not monetizing the entire web, then you’re in a fairly challenging spot. Or, in the Microsoft case, you have to come up with something entirely new that replaces all of that architecture with something state-of-the-art, like generative AI.
You’re kind of in the middle of that dance. Do you think, “Oh boy, we better go out and find a generative AI solution so people can start typing to us, and we can start answering those questions and rebuilding a search product”? Or are you thinking, “Okay, we have to build some other businesses and hope that our browser business doesn’t decay as fast as it might otherwise”?
Well, we’re interested in other products, in any case. We could take the generative AI piece out and say, “Are we interested in other products?” The answer is yes, for a couple reasons. There are more ways to engage with people and more ways to improve the internet with multiple products. So absolutely, we have a very strong interest in multiple products.
As I said, we have been spending a lot of time really modernizing Mozilla as an organization to be able to do that. Our tradeoff with, “We’re running a business, oh, and we’re building the web through the browser,” it has to be remade for other products.
Then on the generative AI piece, it’s pretty interesting. It is framed in the browser and business model, but first of all, it’s pretty interesting. It’s also pretty new. I guess it’s a good week for Microsoft and generative AI.
They are enjoying themselves.
Exactly. We’ll see if there is a first week, first month advantage and what that actually ends up being. I think it’s probably a mistake to discount Google based on a bad week.
A particularly bad week, but I’m with you.
Well, where’d the core technology come from? We’ll see.
Do you think there’s an opportunity to capture share and web browsers back? I mean, Nadella said this to me, and I thought, “I haven’t heard this in ages,” that w”e think we’re going to take market share back from Chrome.” Is that an opportunity that you think about from your chair?
If the use cases change enough. The muscle memory of all of humanity that has used search is the Google search, the SERP [search engine results pages] — and I’m sure Microsoft’s experience is the same here. We’ve tried a lot of different ways in Firefox to give people different options, and the muscle memory is intense. People will find surprising workarounds to get themselves back to a search results page, even if we’re pretty sure we can give them what they want faster.
I do agree that when you have enough change and expectation, that is an opportunity. In that sense, I think the browser space could change. It wasn’t that long ago where even [OpenAI CEO] Sam Altman was saying you shouldn’t be using this for anything serious.
I think he would still say that to you about ChatGPT, which runs on GPT 3.5. I think there is an awareness there that this was a tech demo. But Bing is a product, right? It runs on a new model, it has all of Microsoft’s values wrapped around in it, and it has a monetization engine in it. It’s a product. They seem pretty confident in it. That’s a product that competes with a Google advertising funnel that is worth a $500 million payment to you all. It is just lead gen. They’re paying $2 billion or whatever it is to Apple, and it is basically lead gen to their advertising business in search. If you take that away, if you remove that, is there still a huge business model for browsers as a whole?
Oh, well that’s the experimentation piece. Yes, I do think it’s a time of potential great change. Microsoft has a model for it that may or may not be the right model. Sometimes the first mover advantage works, and sometimes it’s notorious that it’s the second or third attempt at a product that is the one that actually succeeds. I think there’s a lot of change coming.
Is it going to be instantaneous? Probably not. Where is it actually going to work well in products? Does it work well for general search? Does it work well for long-term search? Does it work well for shopping? Does it work well in the places where people spend money? Those are the kinds of questions that are just beginning to be understood. Do I think that disruption is coming? It is much more likely in the browser space than it was six months ago, for sure where it was really locked. Even Microsoft with its vast distribution channel couldn’t compete.
So that’s actually an interesting question. For competing browsers, was that all due to search? Was it because Edge had Bing as a default, that Google was able to take so much market share, or was there some other reason? We’ll see that. In our case, the distribution piece has just been hard. Microsoft routinely updates, making it hard to use Firefox. I mean, Microsoft uses its distribution channels to its own advantage pretty ferociously. People often ask us about Google and distribution, and I’m like, “Well, Microsoft too.” I think there are a lot of questions about why Chrome beat Edge. Is it all Bing, or is there something else? All of that could be up. The basic question you’re asking, “is there more opportunity for a change in these default use cases where people will look at a new browser?” Absolutely.
Do you think that you have to build generative AI products into Firefox to take advantage of that disruptive moment?
Well, at some level the answer is yes, because that’s the new technology. The question is how much, and what does it need to do? There’s an OpenAI level of investment, which Mozilla will make, that’s for sure. That’s billions from Microsoft there. But what is it that provides the use cases that people want? I think AI in general for sure, but generative AI is a particularly non-step function, a particularly steep kind of change. I think we will see some changes. I think unanswered is how quickly people change their use cases in the places where they spend money, where if you’re in that part that’s just wrong, you have to be careful.
All right, you brought up distribution, which means my threat of talking about European regulators is coming true. We’ve mostly talked about the desktop in this conversation. Microsoft’s distribution advantage is on Windows PCs, it is not anywhere else. I don’t think you’re trying to put Firefox on the Xbox. It’d be amazing if you were. Can you break that news today?
Fair enough. You brought up Android earlier as well, and next to Android is obviously iOS. These are both much more closed systems, on balance; iOS is much more closed than Android, but Android is still closed in its own way. The browsers are deeply integrated into those operating systems in a way that to play with the new Bing, I just downloaded Edge on my Mac, ran it, and set it as the default, and Apple was fine with that — and it runs Blink, which is Google’s. Technologically, it’s very open. It’s like Microsoft’s wrapper and Google’s technology running on Apple’s operating system, and that’s all fine. If you want to do that same sort of thing on an iPhone, you cannot. At almost every level, you are not allowed to do that thing.
This is where I come to European regulators. There’s a lot of action around something called the Digital Markets Act in Europe, which would make Apple open up to other browser engines and make Google open up to other browser engines. Is that something you’re looking at, to say, “Okay, this is our opportunity to go take share in mobile again, because we’re not just going to be a wrapper around Apple’s WebKit”?
Oh, absolutely. There are two things. There is some evidence, we find, that the use case of browsers on phones is not so set. The muscle memory isn’t so crisp.
People are at least more willing. I mean, you’re used to downloading apps on your phone, that’s what you do. So we’ll see.
To your larger question, the closed nature of mobile phones is absolutely worth looking at and being engaged in. It’s what engine you can use at the technological level, where of course, we can’t build our full product on iOS, but it’s also system level defaults. Even after you set something else as your default browser, what does a link open in? I mean, there are a lot of ways that the operating system can thwart choice.
I’ll say again, Microsoft on the desktop is a perfect example. We shouldn’t leave them out, but the law that allows it was really built by Apple. There was that antitrust case you mentioned where the use of the operating system was determined to be illegal in both the United States and Europe. Then when Apple came out with its phones, it had no market share. It ultimately created this very closed system when it had very low market share. Our antitrust rules aren’t really set up for that. As it became so dominant, it kind of went back to an old closed model. Android is close to it, although Google has made efforts in some areas to be more open. We’re absolutely engaged in that. There’s a deep level of implementation stuff that’s really important. We’ve seen a set of EU remedies that aren’t always effective.
Yes, I was going to ask you about it.
You have to be deeply engaged, deeply committed, and also technically savvy to be able to implement well. That will take some time.
There were some reports this week that in anticipation of the Digital Markets Act, Mozilla is working on an iOS browser that does not use Apple’s WebKit engine. Is that true?
We’re always kind of working on it and looking at, “Well, what could we do if we had the ability to offer the product we want?” So we’re always looking at it.
You have mentioned several times that you’re not the size of Google; you’re not even the size of the Chrome team. When you think about resource allocation, is it, “Boy, we better be ready for the moment when the regulators open the doors and we can ship Firefox on Apple and compete head-to-head with Safari”? Or is it, “I’ve diversified the revenue 15 percent, we have to get to 30 percent in case generative AI flips the table on web monetization and Google doesn’t pay us”? How do you make that decision?
On the information as it evolves. A lot will depend on what the implementation pieces look like. Browser engines, we’ve done a lot of work on that. The actual incremental cost of that might be less than you might think for those things. It will depend as we go on. We’re pretty committed to browsers because they’re really powerful. But it will also depend as our other things come into line, and what needs resources at the time.
You said you’re always working on it. Do you have a version of Firefox for iOS that runs on your own engine instead of WebKit?
When we’re ready to talk about that, you’ll see it up here.
One place where Google is very successful in expanding the reach of Chrome, without having to deal with Apple or Microsoft, is Chromebooks. They partner with hardware vendors and sell laptops that are basically just running Chrome as an operating system to schools and others. Is that something that would make you say, “Okay, we have to get away from the two big operating system vendors and do it ourselves”? Why not make a Firefox-Book?
The “Firebook,” yeah. The distribution channel without the full operating system piece is pretty tough. Once again, that would be picking another area with the same product to go head-to-head with Google, in an area where they’re really better set up for it and have multiple resources.
Have you asked to put Firefox on a Chromebook?
I think all the Chromebooks are built on Chrome. It’s almost a non-sequitur.
Yeah. I was just wondering.
The distribution piece there is a resource-intensive game. Choosing that as the area to go head-to-head again seems bound to be difficult and not likely successful.
Have you engaged directly with Apple on some of these concerns about default browsers and distribution?
Oh, I think I’m not going to go there.
I figured not, but it was worth a shot.
You mentioned there have been all these remedies in Europe and they haven’t really done anything. I hear jokes from people that are like, “The Europeans have been trying to get people to not use Chrome or Google Search for over a decade, and the market share is rock solid.” I mean these are big interventional remedies. You boot up your Windows PC and it puts up a browser ballot, and people still pick Google. You boot up your Android phone in Europe and it’s like, “Do you want to use Google Search?” People pick Google over Bing. The government has installed these choice screens, and they don’t seem to do anything. I mean, the numbers are the numbers, right?
“I don’t understand why the US DOJ thinks it’s going to do whatever it wants to Google by forcing Mozilla to fight against our customers.”
Yes, exactly. The DOJ has this lawsuit about browsers. Someone like us couldn’t have Google as a default. I don’t understand why the US DOJ thinks it’s going to do whatever it wants to Google by forcing Mozilla to fight against our customers. We see that very close to home as well.
I think for consumers, the question about browsers on their phone is not about browser engines. That’s a systematic-level question of, “What’s the architecture of the world that you want?” For consumers, it’s much more, “What’s the experience? Is the experience good? Do I want it?” It’s our job to make a product that has stuff that people want in it. Stopping the operating systems from hindering that would be very helpful.
I mean, it’s just a simple thing to set your default browser, but links are still going to open in something else. On a phone, you can’t really set things to be default. There are a lot of ways where the phone operating systems also fight against people choosing what they want, which I know about in the browser space. I think that’s helpful, but you have to have some competitive piece that makes sense. That’s what the EU remedies to date really show us.
To bring it back around to generative AI, Microsoft thinks it can get share back from Google Search and share back from Chrome because it has a cool new feature. That’s it. They’re like, “We’re ahead. You can talk to a robot, and the robot will write you a poem. People want to use that so badly, we can be like, ‘Install Edge on your computer and use it.’” We were laughing about it in the Verge newsroom today. It’s a wait list, and if you set your default browser to Edge, you move up the wait list.
That’s how much they think there’s demand for their cool new feature.
I could make an argument that of course it’s okay.
They have a cool feature that they’re giving away for free, and they’re like, “Just change your default to our technology instead.” Like, “Fine.”
But it is something that no one else can actually do. Google could do it on their own things, but it is a privileged position in that setting.
Is there another feature for the web that you could gate against? “Set us as your default. Download Firefox, set it as the default, and you can get this other thing”? One of the tropes we have on Decoder is that people pick convenience over quality all the time. It comes up most often when we talk to music executives, where they’re like, “Now there’s 95 channels of audio.” I’m like, “Yeah, but are the file sizes small?” People are going to pick convenience over quality over and over again.
What you have here is that there has been nothing — except that the browser is faster and it respects your privacy — that has trumped convenience for people, and even that hasn’t really trumped convenience. There’s one feature in the past decade, this chatbot that’s built into it, that is making people think, “Oh, I should do something that’s less convenient.” Do you need a feature like that to compete in browsers, or is it, “We’re flipping the table on the Google-built revenue framework of the web and it’s just open season”?
You can tell I care about this quite a bit.
It’s not my wish in the world, but I think history shows us that you need something really significant now for people to think about changing their browsers. It’s deeply locked in, especially if you’re using Google or Microsoft systems.
Yes. You need something on the phone. Although, more people will change Safari on an iPhone than in some other places.
That’s fascinating to me.
So yes, you do need some real change, and this might be it. I think Microsoft has invested a lot and it’s the first out the gate, so we’ll see what it is.
To your core question, yes. As I said, the muscle memory of browser use is just deeply, deeply ingrained. “Why would I change from something that I’ve been using for a long time?” You need something. You’re right. There has not been a lot in the last five, eight, 10 years.
A long time ago, Firefox was the small, fast browser. It was like, “Look at all this bloat of IE.” Fine, it was the default. Firefox was fast, nimble, open-source, and you felt great using it. It took a lot of share at that point in time. Then Chrome did the same thing to Firefox, and in pretty much a direct lift, Firefox became old, bloated, and no one but your IT administrator wanted to use it. You could just install Chrome; it’s fast, nimble, and Google made it. Is there another turn where you can do that to Chrome, which I think a lot of people would complain is bloated and full of Google’s revenue ideas instead of user experience ideas?
Yeah. Okay. A couple things. The fast and bloated piece? I’ll own up to that when Chrome came out. There’s a few other things actually about product stuff. Data was one of them. It’s an interesting case study, where when Chrome came out, the instrumentation of the browser in the first versions of Chrome frankly appalled us at Mozilla.
Oh, absolutely. And we were each right. Google was right that you need to instrument your product and you need data to build something today that responds to people and that people want. We suffered because we didn’t do that for a long time. But we were right that the wholesale vendor instrumentation and collection of whatever data was useful or could be had for my own purposes was a problem too. So you see that. So Chrome had the advantage when it came out as a new generation built by Mozilla people who understood the flaws of the old one, for sure.
The next-generation technology was faster and better at the time. Their view on data, and data collection practices, were pretty radical for us at the time. We spent a decade trying to figure out and build telemetry for our products that allows us to build what we need that we’re comfortable with, and if our privacy-conscious users dove in, then they’d be comfortable too.
“Firefox is performant and has a bunch of benefits that Chrome doesn’t now.”
Firefox is performant and has a bunch of benefits that Chrome doesn’t now. I do think it’s possible. I think we’ve done it. To get that wholesale order of magnitude or next-generation technology in the browser space, I haven’t seen that on the horizon with the browsers the way they’re configured. Could you make something smaller? If it turns out what we really want to do is talk to our browsers and not read so much, then maybe you could get something much smaller. A lot of the complexity of the browser is rendering all this stuff. If you’re not doing that, you probably can be a lot smaller and lighter, so you might be able to get that kind of massive change.
Anyway, right now, I do want to come back and say Firefox as a product is a good product. The performance characteristics are worth looking into. I can’t let you, even about the past, leave that unaddressed.
I appreciate it. I’m sure your team will appreciate the fighting spirit there. There was some news about Thunderbird today, which is the email client from Mozilla. There’s a long video about why Thunderbird is the way it is and that a new version is coming out. It occurred to me, as I was watching this video, that Firefox is the instantiation of a very important protocol. It’s HTTP and the web and all this stuff. Thunderbird is about email and the internet protocols that run email, which are open-source and anybody can plug into. This is where the successes have been.
How do you build values-based products around these open protocols that anybody can interact with and that comprise the internet at large? The web that we’ve been talking about all this whole time has been radically commercialized and closed down, and those protocols aren’t really up for grabs. When I got my first iMac, there were like 10 browsers you could use and that just isn’t the game anymore. Is there another protocol that you can see on the horizon that allows you to enter with another values-based consumer product and say, “This is the way it should be”?
The obvious one today is Mastodon, which is a decentralized protocol. You’d say it’s much more like email than a closed garden.
Are you thinking of Mastodon as Mastodon, or Mastodon as an activity pub, which is the sort of protocol that underlies it?
In the consumer space, if there’s anything at all, it’s Mastodon, the protocol itself. I think that’s a really interesting question. What is the nature of the community around Mastodon, right? When we think about it, how much is the protocol itself, and how much is actually the community of people engaging with it, building things, and trying to do something new? The protocol itself is a distributed protocol, and they take time and energy and stuff to build. They’re complicated. But the real success also needs a set of people who are interested enough to do something different. I think that is the larger Mastodon question. Who knows where it will go? As we’ve said, Mozilla is going to shortly stand up our own instance of it so that we can learn more, understand more, contribute to the community, and really begin to explore hands-on how far might this protocol go.
Do you think it’s about standing up an instance — so I don’t know, mozilla.social or whatever it will be — where people can sign into a social network that Mozilla controls that is part of the Fediverse? Is it, “We’re going to build tools that let anybody stand up a server”? I think Squarespace announced something like that today. Or is it, “We’re going to build a client for this larger protocol that is very difficult to use,” the way that Firefox is a client for a set of web protocols that a normal person could not themselves use?
The first step is to actually be an active participant in that world and do some learning, and not roll in as the gorilla or some giant thing that’s like, “Sure, we know everything, and we’re going to tell you how it is.” That’s not what we want to do.
There’s a question about the Mastodon Open Source project and protocol and its development. I think Mozilla has a fair amount of history in open-source, so that might be an area, but that depends a lot on the project. There’s also a user experience for people that’s easier or comes from a name that people know and trust. The current Mastodon instances are community-based. So it’s possible that Mozilla could be the place where a broader group makes sense.
If that’s to occur, there’s a client, but also, if you run an instance, you’re running a server. You’re running a service, and those things can vary a lot. So there’s some exploration in what would make sense as a service. You have a current community, and then you’re trying to think about what a broader set of users would be. It’s a bit of an art to be able to span the two of those.
That’s a piece I really want to emphasize. It’s a learning piece for us, because when you build one big successful product it’s easy to think more of yourself than you should and roll into an existing vibrant community and do stupid things. We’re learning. To answer your question as to what other protocols are out there, that is certainly one. I think it’ll take some time for us to understand the impact of blockchain separate from crypto.
Interesting. Mozilla had done some early crypto stuff, but there was a lot of pushback and you kind of walked away from it, right?
That doesn’t sound quite right. There was some pushback against us accepting donations in crypto form.
That’s what I meant by early crypto stuff, which is just taking money from the crypto people. Sure. Yeah. Fair enough.
We’ll see. I think that’s going to be a few years down the road, to really have an evaluation of the underlying technology separate from the use case. I mean, when your use case is money, everything’s going to be overblown and hyped — it’s money. Money brings out the best and often the worst in people. To understand whether that is a form of decentralization and whether there might be interoperability among chains, I still think that’s a long-term question about what I call decentralized technologies, but I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of that in the next couple of years.
Do you think more of your energy is pointed at Mastodon over crypto right now?
You have a new C-suite in Mozilla Corporation, and your team referred to them in the call earlier as “big tech refugees.” The whole C-suite worked at big tech companies like Twitter and Facebook. One of the frameworks you kind of used earlier in the conversation was, “Okay, there’s Google, which is the open web. We align on some places and we compete on some places, but this core piece of the information should be accessible. We believe in that.”
Then there’s Facebook, which is a closed ecosystem. If you publish an Instagram reel, no one can find it unless you use their products. As you talk about Mastodon and decentralization in that instance, you are now competing against Facebook. Mastodon is a social network. It is different in a meaningful way — in that it’s composed of all these distributed servers — but it’s a social network. It’s a competitor. It’s where people are going instead of Twitter today. Is there a piece to having a whole team that came from that world that says, “We can build a better, more idealistic version of that”?
Well, that may be true in their psyche.
It’s true at the bar after work, is what you’re saying?
As a business practice, and as a question of where we can have impact, it’s hard. One of the things that Facebook really taught us is that social is really valuable in a lot of settings. Is Facebook the be-all or end-all forever? Probably not. I mean, there’s Instagram, so I guess the answer is no. Not doing something because it could be social media is a really broad exclusion, which we would never make.
Here, I think it’s the combination of, there is a decentralized protocol, it allows for a kind of experimentation, and it allows for the development of something new. I certainly don’t have a desire to make or clone another Twitter or to try to do a better Facebook. The question is how people can engage with each other in a way that’s fun, healthy, and doesn’t have all the drawbacks that we have. Mastodon is interesting because you do have a lot of that experimentation.
The questions of content moderation and what it’s like to be in this community are decisions much closer to the communities themselves, not one centralized decision-maker. That’s an interesting piece on many different fronts. And sure, we would all love to see a way to engage online with large numbers of people in a social media flavor that isn’t so great for negative actors, racists, misogynists, state actors, conspiracy theories, and mental illnesses. We would love to see that, but it’s not a question of, “Oh, go take on Facebook,” or, “Go be the next Twitter.”
Do you think it’s a question of whether those things may have also run their course, and a decentralized version of those things might improve on all the metrics you just mentioned, but also harness a consumer demand for something new?
I’m not sure the architecture alone is going to harness or even speak to consumer demand. Again, that’s the piece about the rendering engine underneath your browser.
Well, I mean you’re talking to The Verge audience, who’s like, “Come on, give us the rendering engine.”
Hello. Yes. I do think it is likely time for our social media experiences to evolve, and they should. I don’t know. Has Twitter run its course? The thing that Twitter was built to be, are people done with it?
At Mozilla, being a smaller alternative is a fine thing for us.
Is microblogging the way it is? Is that over? It didn’t seem like that for its core audience. It wasn’t growing. There’s something about the Twitter experience that’s really gripping for a set of people, but it’s a smaller set of people than the other things that we’ve seen.
Certainly, again, at Mozilla, because of the way we’re set up, being a smaller alternative is a fine thing with us. Firefox at its height was maybe 28 percent, 30 percent market share, but it was certainly never dominant. Even at those market shares, you can have change. You can show the possibility of something different. Firefox had the impact that most is open-source now, except for Apple stuff. Lots of changes came out of that 30 percent market share, including a bunch of things about how the web was built. A smaller alternative that is better and different is fine. Showing the promise of what could be is intensely valuable for us. We don’t have to take it to the dominant, “control everything” piece.
I think we should learn, as Mozilla, that you don’t want to give up too much, because things can change. You can find some of the world that you’ve built gets twisted in ways and you’d like to have more impact on it. I’m not advocating that Mozilla aim for small shares, but that it is possible to have a pretty big influence at a smaller number than people suspect. Again, for us, that’s a really successful case.
I think that’s a great place to wrap it up. What’s next for Mozilla? What kind of timelines should we be looking at on some of these ideas? What’s next in your priority list?
We’re starting our second quarter-century this year. Our priority list on the full Mozilla piece has multi-product, multi-effort ways of impacting the internet. On the product org that I have, as you pointed out, there’s a lot happening in browsers still, or right now, today, so keep looking for things from us on that piece.
Across the range of things that we’ve talked about, there are multiple products. We have a product called Pocket, which we’re in the midst right now of a kind of expansion of capabilities about that. I’m not going to announce those things now, but you’ll hear about them. I keep looking for those things that are interesting. As I said, our Mastodon experiment and exploration will go live pretty soon, so you’ll see those things. You’ll see more focus on helping people. Privacy and security has always been part of our core. As you said, people opt for convenience very often, but increasingly, you do have to take care of yourself, and so you’ll see and hear more from us about that.
We have launched a broader Mozilla piece, Mozilla Ventures, which is a small fund for investing in other organizations that we think can help build a better internet. There’s a Mozilla AI organization. We’ll come back and say more about that as we go forward. Keep looking for Mozilla modernizing multiple efforts, more focus on the user and consumer, and a range of new products and offerings coming.
Amazing. Well, Mitchell, thank you so much for taking the time to chat today. I hope you come back soon.
I’d love to. It was my pleasure. Thank you.
Decoder with Nilay Patel /
A podcast from The Verge about big ideas and other problems.