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Mozilla Foundation forms subsidiary

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By Todd Cohen

Aiming to more effectively divvy up responsibilities for managing, developing, distributing and marketing its free and increasingly popular open-source software, the Mozilla Foundation in Mountain View, Calif., has created a wholly-owned, taxable subsidiary.

Headed by Mitchell Baker, former president of the Mozilla Foundation, the new Mozilla Corp. will be responsible for making sure open-source products get made and distributed, said Frank Hecker, the foundation’s director of policy.

The foundation, which has had those responsibilities, now will play an oversight and stewardship role for the open-source development project, making sure the process of developing open-source code and customer products is creative and open, says Hecker, on leave as a systems engineer in the federal sales office in Bethesda, Md., of Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Opsware.

“The mission of the foundation when it was formed, and today, was and is to preserve choice and promote innovation on the internet,” he says.

Carrying out that mission has involved maintaining a base of open-source code for browser and email programs initially developed at Netscape Communications Corp. and later through the public community of open-source developers.

In the past two years, that effort has involved producing actual customer products, including the Firefox web browser that was released in November 2004, and the Thunderbird email client that was released the following month.

Through September 2005, Firefox had been downloaded 93 million times, while Thunderbird had been downloaded 12 million times.

That volume of demand created the need to maintain websites and deliver other services that now will be handled by the Mozilla Corp.

Those services include, for example, ongoing development of the products; quality assurance and testing; designing the look and feel of the products; and marketing and promoting them.

While the foundation has built a staff of nearly 40 people, its work also depends on more than 100,000 volunteers and employees of other companies who perform tasks that range from identifying, reporting and fixing bugs to informally promoting the development and use of open-source code and products.

The Mozilla Corp., for example, hires its own open-source developers, while other firms pay people to develop open-source code or products, and individual volunteers test those products.

The Mozilla Corp. also will be responsible for continuing to create and develop business relationships, mainly through corporate sponsorships, that the foundation previously built to generate revenue to support its staff and broad network of developers and volunteers.

Companies that want customized versions of Firefox or Thunderbird for internal corporate use, for example, can fund the Mozilla Corp. to develop those customized, open-source features, which will then be available to anyone.

Most corporate contributions take the form of in-kind support, with tech firms like IBM, Google, Novell, Oracle, Red Hat and Sun Microsystems paying their employees or contractors to develop open-source code for Mozilla projects.

Search engines like Google also pay Mozilla to designate their web homepages to be the initial default homepage for Firefox.

The foundation also coordinated and processed donations from open-source users for spreadfirefox.com, a campaign by an informal group of open-source volunteers that raised over $200,000 to promote the launch of Firefox, including the purchase of an ad in The New York Times.

By separating oversight and stewardship of open-source development from the nuts-and-bolts of creating, distributing and marketing actual customer products is critical to ensuring the participation of “a broad spectrum of people across the project,” Hecker says.

“We believe it’s important that the corporation not be in the role of dictating the direction of the project,” he says. “The foundation is responsible for providing the governance framework within which all the participants in the project can fruitfully cooperate.”

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