For a moment, it looked like it might all fall apart. Google and Mozilla, who together probably did more than anyone to break Microsoft’s hegemonic hold on the internet, had been partners for years, with Google occupying a premium place as the default search engine in Firefox.
After reportedly letting their longstanding revenue-sharing agreement lapse at the end of November, the two companies announced a new three-year agreement on Tuesday, less than a day before the release of the latest version of Mozilla’s browser. Terms of the deal were confidential and undisclosed.
Failing to come to an agreement would cost Google money — quite possibly a lot of money, as Mozilla’s Firefox still edges out Google’s Chrome in most measurements of browser usage — but probably wouldn’t have changed the overall trajectory of the company much. Mozilla, on the other hand, stood to lose its biggest source of funding (as much as 84%) and potentially frustrate already-fickle browser users for whom “search” means “Google.”
Firefox’s most likely backup plan — extending Most Favored Search Engine status to Bing instead of Google — would have been unthinkable just five years ago, with Mozilla positioning itself as the anti-Microsoft and Firefox as the anti-Internet Explorer.
With Bing waiting in the wings, just how close did Mozilla and Google come to the edge? Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, among others, didn’t think a split was likely.
“I think Google won’t let them go,” Wales told The Awl’s Maria Bustillos. “Bing is ready and raring to go, well funded, and the aggregate share of the browser market held by all versions of Firefox is still 25.3 percent according to Statcounter. Does Google really want Bing front and center for hundreds of millions of users?”
Firefox product head Asa Dotzler also played down concerns over Mozilla’s future with Google as hype:
I know some of you all have been reading crazy press articles about how Google’s going to quit paying Mozilla for Firefox search traffic and I understand that’s been unsettling to folks.
This is just a quick note to say that you don’t need to worry. Google loves Firefox search traffic and Mozilla gets a really solid revenue stream from that…. [The agreement] ensures that Mozilla’s going to have the income to make even stronger investments in the Open Web going forward.
This makes it sound like the Google-Mozilla relationship is and always been just peachy. But in December 2009, after Google’s Eric Schmidt famously dismissed privacy concerns by saying, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” Mozilla’s Dotzler was a lot less happy with the foundation’s key partner:
That was Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, telling you exactly what he thinks about your privacy. There is no ambiguity, no “out of context” here. Watch the video.
In October — just a month before their revenue agreement was scheduled to expire — Mozilla released a custom version of Firefox for Bing users, extending a second revenue partnership and creating a key insurance policy if the Google deal fell apart.
To me, this is the lesson of the Mozilla-Google standoff. Five to 10 years ago, the most powerful force in web browsing was the maker of the operating system — then, overwhelmingly Microsoft. Today, it’s the search and advertising engine — now, overwhelmingly Google.
There are plenty of other key differences in the browser market between now and then. We don’t have browsers adding proprietary features that break the web by rendering every site a little differently. Standards rule — probably second only to speed and resource consumption. (Even if Firefox doesn’t always win this battle anymore, it’s worth remembering that they set its terms.) And the rise of the mobile web and its browsers have changed everything: how websites look, how ads are served, whether they render at all, and whether you can even pick which browser you prefer to use or if your favorite site bypasses the browser altogether by way of an app.
But ultimately, it’s about how your browser, primarily via your search engine, collects data and monetizes it. You see this in Chrome; you see this in Amazon’s Silk; you see it in Microsoft’s partnerships with Facebook and Twitter; and yes, you see it in Firefox, the last major independent browser that’s still dependent on money from search to keep its employees in business.
That’s what today’s browser wars are really about. And for the first time, there’s real money on the line: enough to make the stakes that Netscape, AOL and Microsoft fought over 15 years ago look laughable.