The Mozilla Foundation has just announced a reorganization in which it’s created a new wholly-owned subsidiary, the Mozilla Corporation. In this post I wanted to provide my thoughts about the reorganization, why it’s being done, and what I think it means for the Mozilla project and the Mozilla Foundation.
Since my name was mentioned in the press release I thought I’d begin by very briefly describing my role in all this. As it happens it was almost eight years ago to the day that I became seriously involved with what eventually became the Mozilla project. Since then I’ve worked on a variety of Mozilla-related tasks as a volunteer, almost all of them involving policy issues and related activities. Recently I decided to participate even more actively in the Mozilla project, first by serving as chair of a committee advising the Mozilla Foundation board of directors concerning the reorganization, and now by taking a half-time position as director of policy for the Foundation.
In the course of working with the advisory committee and the board it became very clear to me that reorganizing the Mozilla Foundation and creating the Mozilla Corporation as a wholly-owned subsidiary is really the best way to promote the Foundation’s mission of promoting choice and innovation on the Internet.
First, we have a single mission but two distinct approaches to achieving that mission: Create and foster a vibrant open source development community, and create and distribute high-quality end user products based on that open source code. In the past, especially prior to the Mozilla Foundation being created, there was more focus on the project and less on the products; after the release of Firefox and Thunderbird this was reversed to some extent. I believe both approaches are needed, and in my opinion the best way to ensure that each receives the proper attention is to have dedicated organizations for each, in this case the Mozilla Foundation to focus on the Mozilla project and the Mozilla Corporation to focus on the Firefox and Thunderbird branded products.
Second, we have both a need and an opportunity. On the one hand it’s important (in my opinion) to have the financial resources to support a core group of people who can devote their full attention to the project, not just developing code but also doing testing and QA, documentation, UI design, and all the other tasks needed to produce high-quality end user software products like Firefox and Thunderbird—the types of products that can appeal to an broad audience and thus promote choice and innovation for everyone, not just for a few.
At the same time the success of Firefox and Thunderbird has created significant economic value, in particular around the tens of millions of Firefox users and the web traffic they generate. This economic value represents an opportunity for the Mozilla Foundation to generate revenue to support the achievement of its goals, and to do so in a manner compatible with its public purpose and its focus on providing a high-quality end user experience. In other words, Firefox and Thunderbird can continue to be what people want them to be and expect them to be: free as in speech and free as in beer, gratis products based on open source code developed in the context of a public community.
However doing this successfully requires rethinking the organizational structure of the Foundation. Establishing the Mozilla Corporation as a taxable subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation (as opposed to just another tax-exempt organization) provides more leeway to establish business relationships in support of the project, while still keeping the Mozilla Foundation itself as a traditional tax-exempt organization. As a wholly owned subsidiary the Mozilla Corporation is firmly tied to the Foundation and its goals and purposes—there are no outside investors, no stock grants or stock options for employees or others, and no possibility of an IPO, acquisition, or other “liquidity event.”
Why do things this way? Why not spin off the Mozilla Corporation as a true for-profit company? Why not forget entirely about creating the Mozilla Corporation, and forgo any business opportunities related to Firefox or Thunderbird? In my opinion the proper approach is to strike an appropriate balance, just as with the question of project vs. products. Creating a commercial spinoff (with all that entails) could certainly generate revenue, but there’s no guarantee that that revenue would go to support the public purpose of the project (and of course the work of project contributors, many of whom are volunteers, is the reason why there’s economic value in Firefox in the first place). On the other hand, rejecting all potential business opportunities would certainly remove any worry about to handle them, but then we’d be giving up income that could go to support the public purpose of the project and the Foundation.
Does structuring the two organizations in this way make it more complicated to balance the public nature of the project against the commercial nature of revenue-generating business relationships? Of course it does. But this is not a totally new problem for the Mozilla project, which after all was not originally created by a band of volunteers “scratching their own itch,” but rather by a for-profit corporation pursuing its own business goals. Overall I think the project has a pretty good track record in striking a proper balance between commercial and non-commercial concerns, and I don’t see any reason why that can’t continue to be the case in the future.
That brings me to my final point: The new organizational structure means that the Mozilla Foundation proper (i.e., excluding the Mozilla Corporation) doesn’t need to be involved in every minute detail of (for example) the Firefox 1.x release process. Instead it can concentrate its efforts on overseeing, assisting, and promoting the Mozilla project as a whole (which of course encompasses much more than just Firefox and Thunderbird). It’s getting (very) late and I don’t have the time or energy to blog more about this topic now, but finding new ways to improve the project for everyone is something that’s close to my heart and very much on my mind.
Sharing this goal are Gervase Markham and Zak Greant, the other folks who are now working at the Mozilla Foundation. Gerv you already know (or should know) from his hard work on a variety of Mozilla-related tasks, ranging from his work with Bugzilla to his assistance with creating the recently-adopted Mozilla trademark policy. Zak, who’s just joined the Mozilla Foundation, is a newcomer to the Mozilla project but is a veteran of projects like MySQL and PHP and has a wealth of experience in open source community development as well as in implementing programs to make community participation easier. We’re also very glad to have the assistance of Allison Randal, who’s now serving as an advisor to the Mozilla Foundation and brings her considerable experience as president of the Perl Foundation.
Together we’ll work with all of you to help make the Mozilla project better, and build on the project’s successes thus far. As a long-time participant in the Mozilla project I’m gratified by how far the project has come in the past few years, and I’m very excited about the prospects for the future.
P.S. I apologize for not providing the capability to post comments and trackbacks to my blog. I can’t be like everyone else and just run Wordpress or Movable Type, I just had to do something different, and I haven’t yet had the time to implement a Blosxom-based comment facility for my blog that provides at least some basic protections against comment spam. If you have questions or comments, please feel free to email me; I’ll also be checking out MozillaZine talkback comments and the like, and will respond to comments there as I have time.