- 8 May 08, 13:33 GMT
What's the most valuable piece of web software you use every day? Your web browser, surely. So whoever makes the browser which dominates the market should also make riches beyond the dreams of avarice - shouldn't they?
In the early days of the web, that certainly seemed to be true. Netscape Navigator was, for many, the first introduction to web browsing. When Netscape made its stockmarket debut on the NASDAQ in 1995, it rocketed in price, lighting the blue touch-paper for the whole dot com frenzy. Then along came Microsoft's Internet Explorer and blew it out of the water - leading to years of conflict with the US Department of Justice and other regulators.
But does Microsoft actually make any cash from IE? Not as far as I can see. Does Safari make a significant contribution to Apple's bottom line? Again no.
So what about Firefox? The browser from the Mozilla Foundation is the poster-child for the open-source movement, and it seems to be making some serious headway in its battle with Internet Explorer. The Mozilla people have shown that users do want innovation in the way they browse the web - whatever the makers of Internet Explorer might say.
"If Microsoft's customers wanted new features they would have told the company about it," said one Microsoft executive in 2004, going on to explain that features such as tabbed browsing were not important to IE users. Well of course he was wrong, and Microsoft has been forced to refresh its browser with just the kind of features pioneered by Firefox.
June sees the final release of Firefox 3, the latest version of the open-source browser, and Mozilla Europe's President Tristan Nitot popped into our office the other day to show off some of the features.
Most of the thousands of changes are hidden so far beneath the bonnet that users won't notice them - except perhaps for a welcome increase in speed - but there is one impressive new feature.
The engineers who collaborate to build Firefox call it the "awesome bar" and it certainly grabbed my attention. The address window at the top of the browser now functions as a search engine for your previous web activity. So, for instance, I type in 'Yahoo shares' and it takes me to all those recent pages I've visited showing Yahoo's current share price and discussing the company's future.
Obviously other web browsers can show you names of sites you've visited - but not their content. So here we have another advance in search, which, as Google has shown, is the real route to making money online.
Which brings me back to my original thought. The Mozilla foundation is a not-for-profit organisation but on top of the thousands of volunteer coders around the world it does now have 160 employees, and they have to be paid. So where is the cash coming from? Tristan Nitot explained that originally it was T-shirts that were the main revenue earner - Mozilla has an online shop selling Firefox-badged products - but now it's found a more substantial source of income.
That search box in the top right hand corner of the browser generates a big chunk of revenue - almost all of it from Google, which is the default search engine.
So Firefox is dangerously dependent on Google for its income. But now, in the "awesome bar", it's got its own search engine which could, in theory, provide a very valuable stream of data about the browsing habits of hundreds of millions of internet users. Tristan Nitot claims that Firefox is approaching a 30% market share.
But there's one problem. Can an organisation like Mozilla really start making money out of its users' personal data - either by pushing adverts their way or passing the data on to other marketing organisations? I doubt it - that would go against everything it stands for. But who's to say another firm won't imitate the "awesome bar" - and find that it's a way of making a few bucks from a browser?
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