Mozilla/Microsoft deal: What's the problem?

Is there really harm in a Bing/Firefox browser?

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In a move that is sure to rankle many in the free and software community, Mozilla and Microsoft have announced a new edition of Firefox 7.01 that will have Bing as its default search engine and home page.

This announcement is sure to anger a lot of people because it aligns Mozilla with Microsoft, a company historically antithetical to open source and free software philosophies.

It's pretty much an open secret why Mozilla partnered with Microsoft on this project: revenue. To have its search engine placed in the coveted default spot, Microsoft is surely paying Mozilla a hefty undisclosed sum.

Also, it has already been noted by several observers that this announcement also comes at an auspicious time: just before Google and Mozilla are supposed to renew their own search deal in November. And that Firefox is losing market share to Google's own Chrome browser.

But before people get all upset about this, let me try another argument: who cares?

I mean, really, isn't the whole point about open source software about having the freedom to choose? If people want to use Bing, then why shouldn't it be made more readily available to them? It's not like I can't set Bing as my search engine on Firefox already.

Personally, I like the fact that Microsoft is willing to work with Mozilla, because it shows that Microsoft is acknowledging what we've known all along: Firefox is an excellent browser. I will argue superior, but I wouldn't expect Microsoft to agree.

Some of my colleagues have made jokes about how Mozilla is selling its soul, and while you would expect me, as no fan of Microsoft, to jump right on board with that sentiment, in this case I really don't see the harm.

Sure, you can argue that Mozilla is promoting a proprietary search engine with its Bing/Firefox release, but Google's search engine isn't open, either. And, really, people will vote with their feet on this, anyway. If they want Bing, they can get it… the "regular" version of Firefox will still be available.

This whole thing has been likened to the whole Novell/Microsoft partnership that created a lot of criticism when it was announced in 2006. I should know--I was one of the critics.

But even then, my objection to the arrangement wasn't because it was with Microsoft: it was because Novell--for reasons that still boggle my mind--decided to promote a patent promise Microsoft oh-so-graciously extended to Novell's SUSE customers. This part of the agreement legitimized Microsoft's vague and (still!) unproven patent threats against Linux more than anything else to date.

Had the agreement gone through without the patent promise, I probably would have welcomed it about as much as I do the Mozilla/Microsoft deal today: if people want to choose to use Microsoft's tools, then let them. It's not my personal choice, but who am I--indeed, who are we--to stop them?

For me, one of the central tenets of open source is that software should be available to all. We shouldn't exclude reasonable commercial deals between open source organizations and proprietary companies just because we don't like the company in question. We can't ignore the fact that software must be able to interoperate, because sometimes that's what users want.

With all the hullaballoo about Mozilla's partnership with Microsoft, I think the larger question that needs to be asked is: does Mozilla need to come up with a better revenue model? Whether it's Google, Microsoft, or whatever company, it seems to me that depending too much on such a large source of revenue could lead to trouble down the line.

That's a question no search engine can answer, but hopefully the Mozilla community can.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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