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It was the summer of 2004, and a group of 10 techies huddled together in an office in Mountain View, Calif., facing a daunting task. They had embarked on an ambitious effort to create a Web browser that could go mano-a-mano with Microsoft's Internet Explorer. But having spent much of the $2 million that got them off the ground, they lacked the budget to build a mass consumer brand.
So they decided to take a marketing gamble. This group, who would later form the Mozilla Corporation, comprised die-hard believers in the so-called open-source method of software development, where power to shape programs is ceded to a vast army of developers, rather than small teams of corporate engineers. Could that same ethos, they wondered, be harnessed to build a brand?
So a member of the group, Asa Dotzler, along with an engineer named Blake Ross, scoured the Web for blogs or sites that had taken up the browser, called Firefox, then in test mode. In two days they contacted almost 100 sites, asking if owners would put a "Download Firefox" button on their homepage. A staggering 85% said yes. Dotzler then enlisted a community of supporters, who used e-mail to spread the word further. Within weeks, a handful of volunteers built a "Spread Firefox" Web site where people could grab their own buttons and brainstorm other ways to spread the word.
The gamble paid off. Within a month Firefox was ready to end its testing phase, and more than 10,000 sites included "Download Firefox" buttons. Today the number has grown to more than 65,000. Firefox has not only managed to wrest 10% of the browser market from Microsoft (MSFT) in about two years, it zoomed past other browser upstarts Opera and Apple's (AAPL) Safari, which together have less than 3% share.
Even Microsoft can't ignore Firefox. Earlier this month a team of Mozilla developers was invited to Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash., to noodle over how Firefox could work better with Microsoft's Vista operating system.
But as Mozilla prepares for the October release of the next version of Firefox, the group is facing its biggest challenge yet: Going mainstream. Firefox's share of the market, however impressive, has been flat after rapid growth in 2004 and 2005. Analysts say that's because Mozilla has largely reached the natural Firefox constituency—hip college students, Microsoft haters, and tech geeks.
To continue to grow, Firefox will have to start winning converts from the rest of Internet-using society. These are the people who don't know or care what open source means, many of them assuming that all it takes to get on the Internet is clicking on that ubiquitous, oversized lowercase "e." "The problem is Internet Explorer works," says Geoff Johnston, analyst at Internet analytics company WebSideStory. "I don't think they'll ever get to 15%."
Mozilla’s order will only get taller once Microsoft releases the latest version of Internet Explorer, now available in test mode. The new Microsoft browser already contains many of the innovations that have set Firefox apart. These include "tabbed browsing," or the ability to have several sites open at once without running several Internet windows. Microsoft has already followed other Firefox features, like pop-up blockers. Some fear Firefox could even lose market share.
But the Mozilla crowd has faced its share of challenges in the past. The core that formed Mozilla had been involved with the ill-fated Netscape since the 1990s, only to experience frustration after AOL Time Warner (TWX) bought the browser, cut funding, and reduced the business to a shadow of its former self. Firefox got its start as part of a fledgling open source effort that Netscape and AOL supported for a time.
Meantime, Mitchell Baker, who had done work organizing the community for Netscape and AOL, was laid off in a wave of corporate restructuring. She and Mitch Kapor, of Lotus 1-2-3 fame, began organizing a nonprofit to support Mozilla around the time AOL announced it would no longer support the project, although it later made a $2 million grant to the foundation.
Dotzler says the Mozilla community is undeterred. "We know we're going to continue to innovate," says Dotzler, who as community coordinator supports and organizes different volunteer groups and makes sure they're heard at Mozilla. "You can trust us." That assertion is backed up by Mozilla’s unusual structure. It supports operations through advertising revenue generated by the Google (GOOG) search tool in the browser. But since it's 100% owned by the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, the goal isn't making a profit.
The group is focused on what they consider a mission: To make the Internet a better place. In an open source world that's increasingly straying from idealistic roots in a bid to lure venture capital money, Mozilla is something of a standout. Kind of like the grinning Godzilla-like dragon that serves as its mascot.
The structure was largely laid out by Baker, "chief lizard wrangler" and president of Mozilla. She's hardly your average startup executive, and not just because she's a woman. She sports bright red hair, long on one side and closely cropped on the other, and almost always wears purple. And she takes the community seriously, saying that every one of Mozilla's 60 paid employees represents several other unpaid ones who work just as hard toward the company's mission.
While hundreds of people make up the company's actual software developer community, hundreds of thousands make up the marketing community. And they find some pretty unusual ways of doing that. Some simply post the "Download" buttons on their blogs. Others buy stacks of cheap CDs, burn copies of the software, and hit the streets in Fox costumes, passing them out, guerrilla-marketing style.
One large group of the faithful put its money where its browser is and ponied up $250,000 for a two-page spread in the The New York Times. A team of Oregon State University students took it upon themselves to create a 220-square-foot Firefox crop circle. Dotzler and his team come up with some ideas, but many others they find out about only after the fact.
Still, to widen its current user base, Mozilla will need more than elaborate marketing events. Because the new version of Internet Explorer is expected to be more competitive with Firefox, Firefox may need to evolve into more than just a browser. Seth Godin, author of several books on the Internet, including Small Is the New Big, says Mozilla needs to incorporate tools like tagging or building tools like a link to eBay's (EBAY) Skype calling service that will help keep friends connected. The idea being, the browser becomes more valuable, the more your friends use it, so you've got a reason to become a Firefox evangelist. Mozilla isn't giving many details on the soon-to-be-launched Firefox 2, but Dotzler says there will be new features not found in current browsers.
One thing you can bet on: Dotzler and his peers will rely on the millions of people already using the browser. There are more than 63 million baby boomers and 25 million senior citizens online, and Mozilla figures the best way to reach them is for their more tech-savvy kids or relatives to install Firefox for them.
Dotzler thinks of his own mother back in 2002 when the group was just getting going: He gawked when she pulled out the Yellow Pages to find a company address, because all the pop-up ads were crippling her computer. "It's a company that's trying to do good stuff for you," says Reid Hoffman, a Mozilla board member and chief executive of social networking site LinkedIn. "They need to get more people to understand that."
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