Mozilla has a "reasonable" relationship with long-time partner Google , but the launch of Chrome has made it more complicated admitted Mozilla's chief executive.
"We have a fine and reasonable relationship," said John Lilly, Mozilla's CEO. "But I'd be lying if I said that things weren't more complicated than they used to be."
Responding to questions about Mozilla's take on the upswing in browser competition, Lilly also knocked another rival, Microsoft, for dismissing attempts to boost browser performance as merely a "drag race."
But Lilly remained confident that his company can maintain its momentum, which has translated into a 24 percent increase in Firefox market share since the beginning of the year.
"At this point, one in five users of the Internet uses Firefox," Lilly said, citing statistics from Net Applications. "That's good, and we're proud of that. When we launched Firefox 1.0 (four years ago), the odds of getting to 20 percent, most would have said that was impossible."
Mozilla, however, is in a unique situation among browser builders in that the bulk of its revenue - 88 percent, or about $60(£37) million in 2007, the last year for which the company has released financial information - comes from Google. Under a series of deals, the most recent inked last August, Google pays Mozilla for assigning its search engine the default in Firefox, and for click-throughs on ads placed on the ensuing search results pages.
Although Mozilla's reliance on a single revenue source has raised concerns before, the landscape changed in September when Google launched its own browser, Chrome. That put it in direct competition with Mozilla, as well as the other browser developers, including Microsoft, Apple Inc. and Opera Software ASA.
Last week, Google brought Chrome out of beta, and a day later, swapped it for Firefox as the default browser in its Google Pack application bundle.
Lilly acknowledged that the situation may look awkward to outsiders, but defended the deal with Google.
"The web matters to all of us, and I think Google is as good as it can be," said Lilly carefully when asked what outsiders, users included, should make of the relationship between the two companies. "But Google is in it to build the best business for Google that it can, and one way to take risk out of the situation is to own the software," he added, referring to Chrome.
"Companies cooperate in certain areas and compete in other areas all the time," Lilly said. "We're cooperating with Google because we believe that search is a fundamental entry point to the web, and right now Google gives the best search experience."
But the relationship won't be forever, he hinted. "Our goal is to be an advocate for the web for 50 or even 100 years, and you can't depend on any one organization. Our (current) three-year agreement is the longest we've ever had. This is a long-time horizon, so we don't have to do anything super soon, but in the next three years we can continue to build (new) products and develop (new) revenue streams."
Search may remain the primary, or at least a key, revenue generator, said Lilly, but there are other opportunities. Mozilla plans to explore diversifying search revenue, and perhaps partner with country-specific search firms that, in their own markets at least, are strong alternatives to Google. Lilly also pointed to the mobile market, an area that has been dominated by Opera, as a possible source of revenue.
Firefox is currently working on a mobile browser, code-named Fennec, which it released in a public alpha two months ago.
Lilly said that Mozilla would release the finished product shortly after it wraps up Firefox 3.1, the browser upgrade planned for an early 2009 launch. Mozilla plans to produce both Linux and Windows Mobile versions of its mobile browser.
"(2009) will be an important year for mobile," said Lilly. "We'd like to make the mobile web more like the web and less like the mobile world."
But as far as Google's concerned, Lilly said Mozilla will compete with any and all comers. "We collaborate with Google, we talk to them and we have a fine and reasonable relationship," he said. "But we'll compete. This is, after all, user driven."