Gruber considers the relationship between Mozilla and Google really weird. MG Siegler suggests that it’s in part due to a bidding war, and in part because of anti-trust concerns based on a tweet from David Ulevitch. I’m sure both those hypotheses are true, but let me suggest another idea: Google needsFirefox – for at least two reasons, and probably a whole lot more.
Firefox legitimises Chrome. Firefox Sync has been around in one form or another since 2007, and before there was a Google feature called Google Browser Sync. The idea is that some central server stores synchronisation data so that all your browser instances have the same bookmarks, preferences, passwords, and so on. The Mozilla implementation stores the data on Mozilla’s servers, and comes with strong promises of data protection, using encryption to stop even Mozilla from accessing the information. A similar set of features have been creeping into Chrome: bookmark syncing in January 2010, followed quickly by preferences in May, form data in September, and passwords the following year. All this data is synced with your existing Google account. There’s a subtle difference between storing your data on the servers of a non-profit foundation that talks about the safety of that data, and storing your data on the servers of a for-profit corporation that has the stated goalof indexing all the world’s information. Everybody loves Mozilla, everybody loves Firefox. They are the great white knights of the internet. They slayed the evil Internet Explorer; they stand for freedom and open standards and other good stuff. If storing your data in Firefox is okay, it’s a natural assumption and logical step to store your data in Chrome. Legitimacy by association. Firefox leads with the feature, and Chrome follows through. Google wins by getting hold of previously “dark data”: bookmarks, form fields, passwords and preferences that were previously locked away on users’ computers.
Firefox inspires Chrome. Someone said the other day in a meeting that “Google has all the money in the world, and all the PhDs in the world”. Whilst that’s not entirely true, it’s a good enough approximation. But even with all the money and all the brains, you can’t guarantee you’ll have all the ideas. If necessity is the mother of invention, then competition is the mother of innovation. The leapfrogging that goes on in browser development between Chrome and Firefox is proof of that. It’s arguably fantastic value for Google to pay Mozilla to act as an outsourced browser think tank. And of course Mozilla do so much more than just build a browser. Take a look at the list of Mozilla projects, the Mozilla community map, driving forward web standards, protecting an open internet. Many of Mozilla’s activities directly support Google. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Sure, Google could probably hire the Mozilla teams to do the same for Google, but why bother if Mozilla are already doing it cheaper and/or better than it could be done at Google?
So maybe rather than thinking “that’s really weird” or “they’re overpaying” or “it’s a dodge to avoid Government intervention”, we should be thinking “great job, Mozilla” and “hey, that’s great news for the open web and browser innovation”.
Update 16:31GMT: A similar story has hit Slashdot. Peter Kasting’s argument is that Google use Chrome (and Firefox) for the betterment of the web, which I buy in addition to the ideas above. Mozilla is a partner in this. A better web equals more people for Google to sell to advertisers, and more search revenue for Mozilla to use to advance the web even further.