Look What's Cooking in Mozilla's Lab

It's experimenting with ways to incorporate popular features, like social networking applications, into the Firefox browser

After breakneck growth during its first two years on the market, Firefox has become the Web browser of choice for about 15% of PC users. Not bad, but if the open-source software project hopes to expand its appeal beyond tech-industry insiders and programming geeks, it may need to innovate even faster.

Mozilla's Firefox exploded in popularity after its 2004 release by jazzing up a software category that seemed stale. It packed in features like easy-to-manage bookmarks, tabbed browsing, and an effective pop-up ad blocker. But Microsoft (MSFT), whose ubiquitous Internet Explorer browser hadn't been updated in years, last October released version 7 of its browser, essentially matching Firefox feature for feature and showing how quickly technical advantages can dissipate on the Web. "It's hard to sustain long-term advantage in browsers," says Chris Beard, vice-president of products at Mozilla.

A More Social Firefox

To help regain its edge—and potentially introduce Firefox to a larger audience—Mozilla has started experimenting with ways to fold features of popular Web sites right into its browser. At the same time, the company, a subsidiary of the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, has opened more early-stage technologies to feedback from developers under a program launched in March called Mozilla Labs.

On April 2, the company announced one of the effort's early fruits: The Coop. The add-on software lets users share favorite Web site links with friends by dragging a page right onto a photo of the person. Internet buddies who inhabit the virtual coop (Mozilla's blog entry on the project features a close-up of a cackling chicken) arrive courtesy of social networking site Facebook. It's just one way Mozilla's engineers envision computer users interacting with one another through their favorite community Web sites—all within the confines of its browser.

"We didn't even chew off all the use cases that we wanted," says Basil Hashem, a senior director of product management at Mozilla. Also in the works are ways to share photos from Yahoo's (YHOO) Flickr site and videos from Google's (GOOG) YouTube, and a tool that lets users update their online status so Facebook friends know whether they're available to chat.

How to Monetize?

Along with The Coop, Mozilla has released three other test programs on its Mozilla Labs site, where the company solicits suggestions from software developers about features before they enter the production pipeline. Mozilla has tested other social networking applications, such as a version of Firefox that includes tools for posting photos to Eastman Kodak's (EK) Kodak Gallery site, and software called Operator that lets users post contact information or calendar entries to a Web page in a way that desktop software and other Web sites can import. If they stick, the features could inform version 3 of Firefox, which Mozilla is testing now.

What's up for debate is whether embedding social networking tools in browsers is something that a broad swath of Web users will demand. "It's inevitable—it's a natural sort of progression for the browser to do that," says Scott Kveton, CEO of software company JanRain, who used to work closely with Mozilla when he headed an open-source development lab at Oregon State University. Mozilla "has a rapport with a large number of users," he adds (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/30/06, "Mozilla Goes Mainstream"). "If they say, 'We're going to go in this direction,' there are a large number of users and developers who will follow."

Andy Beal, an Internet marketing consultant at Marketing Pilgrim, which advises companies on promoting themselves via search engines and blogs, says he's used social Web sites like StumbleUpon, which lets users categorize Web pages and vote on their appeal, to promote clients such as travel Web sites. "Everybody's in a scramble to promote social networks, but very few have figured out how to monetize them," he says.

Letting Users Decide

But Flock, a startup that has built a browser based on Mozilla's code that gives users tools for loading photos from Flickr, sharing bookmarks, and writing blogs, has been slow to take hold (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/5/05, "Flock, the New Browser on the Block").

For now, Mozilla's social networking forays give Firefox features that competing browsers lack. Microsoft's IE 7 and Apple's (AAPL) Safari let users subscribe to online news feeds using RSS technology, but so far include nothing like The Coop. Jim Hahn, a Microsoft Windows product manager, says in an e-mail that support for RSS feeds in Windows and IE is "just one example" of how the company is developing software to help users share information, and the company points to its Windows Live Spaces blog as its high-profile social network.

Microsoft now holds 78.6% of the Web browser market, according to Web analytics software company Netapplications.com. Apple has a 4.5% share. Browser share is important in an era when companies use the software to promote other online services, such as search engines and e-mail.

Even Mozilla's Beard acknowledges that The Coop and its ilk are early efforts: If users don't like them, they won't go in Firefox 3. "We've been pretty careful to keep the core Firefox product as clean and easy to use as possible," he says. "There's a pretty high barrier to entry."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.