Moving Beyond the First Firefox Billion

by Glyn Moody

You may have noticed the odd bit of celebration around the magic billion downloads milestone for Firefox. Of course, as Mozillans themselves point out, that figure doesn't tell us very much; more useful, perhaps, are stats like 300 million users, but that too is only an estimate. And in any case, I think looking backwards is precisely the wrong thing to do at this point: what we need to ask is how do we get the *next* billion downloads – and why do we want them?

The “why” is easier to answer – not least because Mark Surman, the Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation, has been thinking and writing about this a lot. Specifically, he's been working on “engaging the next million Mozillans” - note the interesting shift in emphasis from billions of downloads (pretty meaningless) to millions of participatory users (more concrete) – and what that means. In his most recent post on the topic he explains his thinking thus:

The idea of engaging the next million Mozillians has been floating around for almost a year now. My belief is that it’s time to begin experimenting and taking action on this front ASAP, starting in September or October. This is something the Mozilla Foundation team will be prioritizing. In order to move quickly, we need your ideas, tough questions, critiques and offers of help over the coming weeks. Blog comments, pingbacks and private email are all good ways to share thoughts.

Those “ideas, tough questions, critiques and offers of help” relate to Surman's belief that the “why” mentioned above is essentially about getting “large numbers of people to participate on making the web more open and awesome”. In his view, the main issues are:

Is now the right time for Mozilla to start engaging large numbers of new people in stewarding the open web? I think it is, but am interested in diverse opinions.

Are issues like security, freedom in the cloud and open mobile good places to start? Or are there other issues that you think large numbers of internet users need to know about and take action on?

What other orgs and groups we should be supporting, building on and working with? We’re already committed to working w/ One Web Day. We also need to connect to orgs in the specific issue areas where we want to work.

Given the importance of Mozilla to the health of not just the open Web, but also to open standards and free software in general, I would urge you to read all of Surman's posts on these ideas, and to respond as you think best.

Since Surman has done so much work on the “why”, I'd like to spend a little time exploring the other issue: how do we get the *next* billion Firefox downloads?

Of course, this is something that many people connected with Mozilla in some way have given thought to; as a result, lots of clever schemes have been devised, notably through the advocacy site. But it seems to me that recent events have provided Mozilla with a completely new, and uniquely powerful, way to increase the number of Firefox users.

I'm referring to Microsoft's offer to the European Union to provide a “ballot screen” listing possible Web browsers when a new Windows-based PC is started up for the first time. Here's Microsoft's explanation [.doc] of the proposal:

The Ballot Screen will give those users who have set Internet Explorer as their default web browser an opportunity to choose whether and which competing web browser(s) to install in addition to the one(s) they already have. The Ballot Screen will provide two links associated with each web browser. An “install” link will connect to a vendor-managed distribution server, which, upon the user’s confirmation, can directly download the installation package of the selected web browser (and only a web browser, including software to update the web browser only) for local execution (the resulting situation will therefore equal a scenario in which the user himself had downloaded and executed the installation package without being aided by the Ballot Screen). An “information” link will connect to a vendor-managed web page from which the vendor can offer users more information about its browser and installation options. Users will be able to select one or more of the web browsers offered through the Ballot Screen. Microsoft shall ensure that in the Ballot Screen users will be informed in an unbiased way that they can turn Internet Explorer off.

Now, this is still only a proposal, but the European Commission appears favourably disposed:

The Commission welcomes this proposal, and will now investigate its practical effectiveness in terms of ensuring genuine consumer choice.

Moreover, Microsoft has said that it has now unilaterally junked its previous, self-evidently daft idea – that of shipping Windows 7 without any browser at all. Thus it seems highly likely that in the not-too-distant future purchasers of Windows PCs in Europe will be faced with a screen [.ppt] listing various browser options, including Firefox, of course.

But there's a problem. Surprising as it may seem, many people have never heard of Firefox, whereas they may well have come across references to Internet Explorer – or even used it before on school or work PCs. This means that the huge, potential opportunity for Firefox that this offer by Microsoft represents could be wasted. Indeed, I suspect that Microsoft is well aware of this fact, which is why it felt it could make what seems like a fairly generous proposal without risking too much in practice.

This means that one of the most important things the Mozilla team and community can do in the run-up to this ballot screen appearing on computers is to increase Firefox's “brand awareness” among general users. This is not a matter of converting those currently using Internet Explorer, as previous campaigns have done: this is really going for the first-time or naïve user.

That won't be easy, and may require money to be spent on conventional advertising. But I believe it would be an excellent investment – not least because more new users of Firefox means more revenue from search engines.

Of course, this only applies to Europe, since Microsoft's offer is only valid there. But why should it be limited to that geographic region? If Microsoft's bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows 7 is unfair there, surely it is unfair elsewhere? So it follows that the Mozilla Foundation should also be working with consumer groups around the world to push Microsoft to employ the same ballot screen for *all* copies of Windows 7, Vista and XP (available via Windows Update), not just those sold in Europe.

Wherever such requests were successful, the same consumer-oriented campaigns could be conducted with the aim of raising awareness of Firefox among new and less net-savvy users. The benefits would be huge in terms of moving Firefox further into the mainstream - and in pushing it towards the *two* billion downloads mark.

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