Shame on Mozilla

by on February 10, 2009 · 11 comments

Over at Ars, Ryan Paul has an appropriately sharp-tongued response to the Mozilla Foundation’s troubling move to become a cheerleader for the European Commission’s ongoing antitrust efforts against Microsoft. Apparently Mozilla will assist the EC’s investigation “by offering expertise about the browser market.”

Paul focuses on what’s wrong with this in both a micro and macro sense. He rightly points out that the potential remedies here do not bode well for the future of this sector, since regulatory tinkering with high-tech product standards is bound to end badly and create a terrible precedent for future interventions. “It’s hard to find a rational argument in favor of mandatory standards enforcement,”  Paul says. “It would be punitive and unhelpful to the advancement of the web.” Moreover, Paul notes that things have never looked better on the browser front:

Claims that Microsoft’s monopoly status has eliminated competition in the browser market sound hollow in the face of the profoundly vibrant browser market that exists today. The record-setting launch of Firefox 3 added up to over 8 million downloads in the first 24 hours alone. Firefox’s global market share continues to climb every month and the browser has grabbed almost 30 percent of the European market.

And let’s not forget about those two little companies called Google and Apple who have competing products in the field! They’re making serious inroads in the browser wars. Moreover, Microsoft is struggling to hold on to whatever “dominance” they have left in their core market: OS. As Paul concludes:

To the observant tech enthusiast, all signs seem to indicate that Microsoft’s monopoly is on its way out. The Redmond giant is in no danger of annihilation, but it’s definitely not positioned to dictate terms to the rest of the industry anymore.

But what is perhaps most shocking about Mozilla’s call for intervention is the way that Mozilla Foundation chairperson Mitchell Baker minimizes the importance of not just Firefox, but the entire open source movement, when justifying EC intervention in this marketplace.

“The success of Mozilla and Firefox does not indicate a healthy marketplace for competitive products,” she wrote. “I am convinced that we could not have been, and will not be, successful except as a public benefit organization living outside the commercial motivations. And I certainly hope that neither the EU nor any other government expects to maintain a healthy Internet ecosystem based on nonprofits stepping in to correct market deficiencies.”

As Paul points out in his Ars story, “[Mozilla’s] position on this matter is highly questionable.” Indeed, I believe it’s more than just highly questionable, it’s a bit of insult to an entire community of developers. Paul is generally correct in his response that:

There are quite a few open source software enthusiasts who would argue that, for a broad range of software products, the emergence of a Mozilla-like model is actually desirable and highly advantageous for consumers. A point will eventually arrive for many kinds of software where there is simply no point in trying to derive value from shrink-wrapping it, and then efforts will converge around collaboratively-developed open source implementations that will displace and eliminate the need for proprietary commercial implementations. Why should that be viewed as unhealthy?

Indeed, but it actually goes beyond that. The message that Mozilla’s Baker seems to sending to the open source community is: You can’t change the world. Your voluntary, collaborative actions cannot correct market deficiencies or fulfill unmet needs.

Geez, isn’t that what the open source movement is all about?!  I’m hardly some sort of open source / free software fanatic — indeed, I envision a future full of plenty of open source AND proprietary types of software and service — but the beauty of the open source movement to me is the way it has so nicely filled unsatisfied niches of demand in the software universe.  And, here’s the really important point, as Paul points out in his Ars article:

The popularization of the open source development model arguably emerged as a response to Microsoft’s monopoly. Developers had to find innovative ways to compete with an entrenched product. If the government had intervened in the software industry at an early stage and those conditions hadn’t existed, the browser market could arguably be a lot less rich and competitive than it is today. If Internet Explorer had never gained the dominant marketshare to necessitate a change in the status quo, the only browser choices we would have today might be between an ad-encumbered Opera and a proprietary Netscape.

That is exactly right. I have been making the argument for many years that it is at a market’s supposedly darkest hour that we are likely seeing some of the most exciting innovation being spawned. People don’t innovate most when they are completely happy with the world around them. It’s when they are pissed-off that they get cracking!!  Mozilla’s Firefox is the perfect example of that. And so is just about everything that Google and Apple have developed in response to Microsoft over the past 10 years.

And yet, sadly, the folks at the Mozilla Foundation want to now become handmaidens to the state — and the European Commission, no less — in their pathetic effort to stick it to a competitor using the law instead of using more marketplace innovation and competition. SHAME ON YOU MOZILLA!  I would dump your browser today if I didn’t love it so much! And thank you to all the brilliant, dedicated people behind the scenes who do keep innovating and making Firefox even better. I sincerely hope that the Mozilla Foundation doesn’t speak for you on this matter.

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