I’ve been thinking a lot the past day or so about Noam Cohen’s piece in the New York Times about Mozilla. It’s really been rattling around inside my head because it missed so much of the essence of what Mozilla is and what we’re doing. It’s ostensibly a story about how Mozilla has sort of grown up — going from cute little underdog to corporate competitor. Here’s one line: “But in trying to build on this success, the Mozilla Foundation has come to resemble an investor-backed Silicon Valley start-up more than a scrappy collaborative underdog.”
But here’s the thing: by trying to categorize Mozilla with simple labels (SV start-up, scrappy underdog, cold war proxy (!), corporation, open source project, on and on…), he’s missing the point. Mozilla is a complicated thing, filled with tensions and subtleties.
We’re an open source project. We’re also a set of companies around the world.
We have distributed decision making. We also make some centralized decisions.
We’re a non-profit. We also pay people competitive wages for the industry and the geographies that they live in.
Our mission is to keep the Internet a medium of participation by everyone. We also care about Firefox market share because that’s our most useful tool at the moment to achieve the mission.
We do resemble a startup — we recruit talented techies who could work anywhere in the world, we work 24/7 on our technology, we participate in industry events. But we’re trying to build an organization — and an idea — that can last 50 or 100 years, and can make the Internet experience better for all.
We’ve got business relationships with Google, Yahoo, Amazon, eBay and many others. But we prioritize the user experience over any business term.
We have a mission, but we also compete, in direct ways, for the hearts and minds and clicks of humans using the Internet.
We have a lot of money in the bank compared to any other open source project. We don’t have much compared to anyone else who’s generally considered competitive with us.
We donate money to other projects, but we also use money that we have to further our public benefit mission.
We build applications that people use — Firefox is one of them — but we also provide a technology platform with an open license that many, many developers have built great things on, commercial or otherwise.
I could go on and on and on. Mozilla doesn’t fit into clean categories — it never has, in my view. It didn’t fit neatly into a category when it started as an experiment at Netscape nearly a decade ago. It didn’t fit neatly when the small team left AOL to start something completely new called the Mozilla Foundation. And it doesn’t fit now, as an organization/company/project/product with more than 100 million people around the world using Firefox and with something approaching $100M in the bank.
I think it does a disservice to the project to over-constrain Mozilla with simple labels. I’m glad that Noam got as many of the facts right as he did. And I’m glad that more people are starting to tell the story about who Mozilla is and what it’s trying to do in the world — it’s an important story. We’re trying to do a better job at helping folks understand the story, too, in all it’s messy, complicated, contradictory and uncategorized glory.