Did Open Sourcing Mozilla Matter?

I finally watched Code Rush this weekend, a documentary about open sourcing mozilla and the sale of Netscape to AOL in the late 90s. There is no doubt that Netscape created the web as we know it. The web changed everything. But I wonder about Mozilla itself. Did open sourcing Mozilla really make a difference to it's success?

I know that Firefox has been a great force for good, encouraging competition and pushing the web forward. However, Firefox only became what it is today when the Mozilla foundation decided to stop the end-all-be-all Communicator effort and instead focus on creating a single product: the world's best browser. Firefox, while open source, is primarily developed by Mozilla.org. Mozilla is a company. They may be a non-profit company, but they have income from search deals that they use to pay staff. Did being open source make a difference? Couldn't a closed source Mozilla do the same thing?

I've been thinking about this all weekend and I'm still not sure. On the one hand being open source built up a community of interest around it, a rallying point for the open source world, even if most of the actual coding came from paid employees. On the other hand, Firefox's userbase is somewhere around 20% of the internet. That means most Firefox users don't know or care what open source is. They use it because it's a good browser.

In the end I think open sourcing ended up being a benefit. Not because it allowed tons of Mozilla forks and variations. I can't think of any high profile Mozilla forks, actually. No, I think the real value was that it freed the Mozilla code base from Netscape Inc. It was insurance. No matter what happened to Netscape the code would always be free, with the option to one day create a non-profit around the code in case the community didn't like what Netscape did with it. And in the end, after AOL bought the company, that's exactly what happened.

So, perhaps my real question is: did the people making the decision to open source the Mozilla code base have this in mind when they did it, or is it a fortunate accident of history? Perhaps we will never know.

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Posted November 9th, 2010

Tagged: essays