[Editor’s note: This post isn’t in the same style you’ve grown accustomed to from the Lizard. Given the topic at hand, the Lizard believes it is important that this post detail past events as well as the reasoning behind them. This is the post you can tell your grandkids about.]
A long-time Mozilla contributor emailed the Lizard back in November and posed:
If you really want to dig up some dirt, find out what happened between Google and Mozilla. Inquiring minds want to know.
The world has long assumed that the Google team working on Firefox simply moved off to another project. That assumption is true. The real question is: What project are they working on?
From the title of this post, you now know.
It was September 2006 when Mozilla Corporation CTO Brendan Eich removed Ben Matthew Goodger as owner of the Firefox project and placed Mike Connor at the helm. Goodger was first demoted to “peer” status, and from there he officially removed himself from all leadership positions throughout the Mozilla project. (Those outside of Mozilla should know that the project has a hierarchy for managing and running various parts, or modules, of its codebase. “Module owners” have final say over what features and bug fixes go into their module and provide leadership in determining the future of the code. “Peers” are secondary to owners but know the module well enough to make decisions about what code should be accepted.)
Goodger wasn’t the only one to leave, however. Long-time Mozilla contributors Brian Ryner and Darin Fisher, as well as Pam Greene, Brett Wilson, Peter Kasting, Tony Chang, Annie Sullivan, and others also removed themselves almost completely from the Mozilla project, though some would continue to participate through the launch of Firefox 2.
Months prior, Goodger, one of the original Firefox creators (alongside Dave Hyatt, Blake Ross, Joe Hewitt, and Asa Dotzler) and its long-time lead, had left the Mozilla Foundation to work for Google, charged with building a team that would contribute strongly to Firefox. As transitions in the Mozilla world go, it was a fairly clean and prosperous one for both parties involved. In one fell swoop, the Firefox project gained several new, competent developers (Google developers are some of the best in the world and were even more so in 2006) who proved critical to the success of Firefox 2. Meanwhile, Google worked the profitable end of the transition, furthering its message of openness and “no evil” while making mountains of cash off its position as the default option in the Firefox search bar and as the only option on the start page. The almost immediate success of Firefox 2 helped the Mozilla Corporation solidify a 2-year multi-million dollar deal (in total, over $60 million a year) with Google which would help it continue operations through, at the least, November 2008.
Why then, all things being beneficial to both parties, would Google pull its team off of Firefox?
Consider this: Since its inception, Firefox has pushed billions of search queries to Google, from which billions of dollars have been made. Not millions, billions.
As companies go, Google’s not a particularly evil one. Supporting open source in so many aspects of its business is a wonderful, non-evil thing. However, continuing to support Firefox fully would mean further reliance on Mozilla’s not screwing up a good thing. That is, Google needs Mozilla to keep making the right decisions as the browser maker grows its business. On the other hand, this same growth gives Mozilla a reason to start requesting a larger piece of the pie – and with reason.
As Firefox continues to grow – its market share is around 20% worldwide – Google keeps getting a better deal. For merely a few million a month, Google’s market share in the search and advertising industries has the ability to grow leaps and bounds and generate a five- to ten-fold return on investment. A win for Firefox is a win for Google … until Mozilla gets greedy.
Betting any large percentage of your business on one single entity is never a good idea. Once that entity desires more money and threatens to go elsewhere, your business starts hurting substantially. Even more importantly, once another browser, which you control even less, appears and begins to threaten Firefox growth, it’s time to start thinking about why your business isn’t fully under your control in the first place.
And so, in mid-2006, after several months of semi-serious internal discussion, the skunkworks project known simply as GBrowser was officially but quietly launched inside Google. It wasn’t until after that September divorce that the pace really sped up, however.
But what, really, is GBrowser? Simple Firefox customisations? No, friends, it’s much more than that.
The much-rumoured Google Browser is a complete browser built on top of WebKit. More than that, it will offer integration with many Google services, such as Gmail, Google Calendar, Blogger, and likely Google Talk.
The GBrowser team was smart in staying clear of the aging and fragile Mozilla technology. They looked for a streamlined rendering engine that would be easy to work with. It wasn’t hard to find Apple nearby, working on WebKit. In fact, Goodger was still in close contact with Dave Hyatt, who is one of WebKit’s initial developers and an Apple employee.
Rumblings of a Google browser have been carpeting the web for years, but it wasn’t until 2006 that an entire team was actually committed to working on what will become GBrowser.
Google, always known for iterating slowly on most of its projects, has taken its time on GBrowser for a very good reason: it only has one chance to get it right. Failing to succeed in its browser move means rocky negotiations with a core partner, Mozilla, and could negatively impact its financials in a significant manner. A move into the browser market requires perfection, and GBrowser has undergone at least one substantial rewrite and many major user-interface iterations.
The GBrowser team and Google leadership have also done well at keeping this project quiet internally. If screenshots or mockups leak from this project, it could threaten the relationship Google has built with several partners as well as lower the company’s credibility with its own employees as a supporter of open source software. No, this project must be developed “right” so that others can truly grasp the need for an all-new browser.
When will GBrowser launch? No one knows for certain, including the team itself. The internal target is an initial alpha/beta quality release this summer or fall.
The one point that hasn’t been mentioned yet is, quite possibly, the most important. Mozilla knows GBrowser is coming and discusses it at length internally. Mozilla employees, reasonably, believe that Google’s proven inability to create solid, popular desktop software will hinder the search giant and its play in the browser market. But most of these obstacles can be overcome with a leader who knows full well what he’s doing, having done the same thing with Firefox; Google’s hiring of Goodger in 2006 now seems like a prescient move.
While the importance and potential success of GBrowser are continually downplayed internally at Mozilla, the Lizard believes our new overlord, John Lilly, does not underestimate what Google can do.