The Browser With No Name

(Post updated to remove money reference. I was simply referring to the fact that Mozilla and Firefox have equity in their brand and most brands require royalty payments with the use of their branding.

Also, to be clear, this post is 100% my opinion, not IBM’s or any other company.)

I’ve been thinking more about shipping custom versions of Firefox and I think I finally figured out what bothers me so much about the situation:

If you take away the Firefox name, which Mozilla requires you to do, you are left with no distinguishable identity at all.

And please don’t tell me that “Mozilla” is the identity. Mozilla describes lots of different technology, as well as a foundation and a company. It’s not the core identity of the Firefox browser.

When I look at typical open source projects, I see their “free” identity and their “branded” identity. For instance Apache is the “free” identity, and some of the “branded” identities are Oracle Database or the IBM WebSphere application server. There’s a core Linux/GNU “free” identity and “branded” identities like Red Hat Linux and Ubuntu Linux. StarOffice and Lotus Symphony are “branded” identities for the “free” OpenOffice technology. I could name many more, but in all of these cases, the “branded” identities do not usually hide (and they are certainly not required to hide) the “free” identity that they are based on.

But what about Firefox? Firefox only has a “branded” identity. It does not have a “free” identity. If you take away the Firefox name (I’m not talking about logos here), you are left with software that has no name. Right now it is called Minefield, and in the past it has been Deer Park or Bon Echo, but it doesn’t have a name. You can’t even say it’s based on Mozilla Firefox, even if it is. (I’m not convinced this is enforceable, but it is what Mozilla says you have to do.)

We can better explain this with an example. Let’s say a company like Disney wanted to create version of Firefox that included a Disney extension and had a some custom theming for Disney, as well as some Disney bookmarks. They approach Mozilla first, but Mozilla says “no.” Disney now has two choices. They can either attempt to create “Firefox Community Edition, Disney version” or ship something from Disney called “the Disney Browser.” This browser would be Firefox modified with an extension, some theming and some rebranding, but all Mozilla and Firefox names would have to be removed, and they could not tell anyone that it is based on Firefox.

Now as far as the community edition idea goes, I don’t think this is what Mozilla intended and I believe they would complain. As a matter of fact, I bet you are going to see the whole community edition idea go away because it allows for the misuse of the Firefox trademark. In addition, the idea is so ambiguous, it’s kind of worthless anyway (Change certain preference settings? Where is this documented?).

“The Disney Browser” is a more likely scenario, and I think you will see that in the future, but honestly it’s just kind of sad. Why can’t someone say that the browser they ship is Firefox? Especially if the code inside is 100% Firefox with some theming/branding or extensions?

Mozilla really needs to fix this. The browser IS Firefox. The source code IS Firefox. They simply ship a branded version called “Mozilla Firefox” that uses their logos, their theme and their extensions. Other people should be free to use the name Firefox without Mozilla and without the Firefox logos, since Firefox is the ONLY term that identifies the browser. It’s not Mozilla. It’s Firefox. This is how other open source projects operate, and this is how Mozilla should operate. Unless they can come up with a good name that describes that browser without any branding.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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18 thoughts on “The Browser With No Name

  1. Doug, not if you take the assertion that Mozilla isn’t as powerful a brand. Though I think that’s a separate kettle of fish – we need to increase brand awareness of Mozilla, IMO, as the stack of technologies is used to create a host of products that are all healthier for the web in their respective niches.

    The issue, of course, is that if someone goes out and hears a lot about Firefox (it’s got malware protection! it’s super fast! it has the awesomebar!) and then gets a “Disney Firefox Browser” that, by the nature of fully worthwhile and useful-to-Disney-loyalist feature additions removes or alters some or all of those features, calling that thing “Firefox” leads to massive confusion. For a pragmatic example, see “IBM PC” which no longer refers to a specific hardware platform but in fact any number of derivatives.

    What I’m trying to understand is why someone who’s creating a Disney specific product needs the brand association with Firefox, when in fact they are trying to leverage their own brand to some end with the product. If they’re adding extensions and themes, then they’re trying to co-brand, at which point they can contact us and arrange for a partner build. We have mechanisms for doing those. If they’re trying to create an end-to-end Disney experience, then they don’t need the Firefox trademark, other than to say “built on the same technology as Firefox”, which I believe is within their rights.

    (also, point of fact: Mozilla has never, to my knowledge, charged anyone to use their trademark name of Firefox. All they’ve asked for is the ability to control how that trademark has used and to ensure that any product carrying the trademark matches with the ideals and principles of the Mozilla Corporation, and is of the quality expected by our users – please correct this in your post, as it’s inflammatory and a bit of a strawman argument)

  2. No, it’s NOT necessarily Firefox. It can have key security features disabled, it can not get updates promptly, it can have other patches of unknown quality in it. It might lock down certain user choices that we feel are important.

    Firefox as a name has value to users (and therefore to the project) precisely _because_ it means more than ‘someone started with this source code and ended up with software’. If people can make arbitrary changes to the product, and still call it Firefox, how will anyone know what Firefox means? If someone ships a “Firefox” that doesn’t allow extensions to be installed, why wouldn’t people believe that Firefox doesn’t support extensions? If they don’t ship updates promptly, why would people believe that Firefox does a good job responding to security problems?

    If you build a product that is not Firefox, you need to give it an identity yourself. That’s how products work, and why things have names.

    If you have a mark that anyone can apply without restriction, then what does that mark signify?

    Also, it is 100% untrue that you have to pay Mozilla to use the name Firefox.

  3. (I’ve removed the payment comment. It was a late change this morning and I shouldn’t have made it.)

    If the Mozilla brand was a stronger brand, then yes this would be a moot point. Today, though, people say “Firefox” not “Mozilla Firefox.”

    As far as the co-branding goes, I believe you guys would take issue the moment someone wanted to change the search engine so they could derive their own revenue (correct me if I’m wrong).

    And similar to how the co-branded browsers work today, you would want these rebranded versions to even get their updates from official Mozilla Firefox sources, so it was clear that it was 100% Firefox under the covers.

    My assertions are about taking an existing version of Firefox and simply rebranding it (theme, an extension, new home page, new bookmarks, new search engine), not making arbitrary changes. (I realize the preference thing is a little tricky since extensions can change those.)

    If you grab the source code, make changes and rebuild that, then no, that’s not Firefox and I think you should have to go through a lot of pain to call it Firefox. Honestly, I thing you guys are too liberal with that because when I look at some of the Firefox patches that are in SUSE Linux, I cringe.

    As far as the browser vs. corporate identity goes, when you are working in a space that has an established identity, you don’t create a new identity, you latch on to an existing identity. Disney is actually a good example of this. They thought their brand was strong enough to create their own Disney mobile line. It wasn’t. It would have made much more sense for them to work with an existing cell phone provider, then it would have been “Sprint + Disney” or “AT&T + Disney” which is a much better branding story. ESPN Mobile made the same mistake.

  4. Disclaimer 1: I work for Flock, so I get to hear “powered by Firefox” and “powered by Mozilla” quite regularly. This is _my_ opinion however, not theirs.

    You give examples (StarOffice/OpenOffice, Apache/IBM Websphere, etc.) that each use two distinct brands, however by shipping a “firefox” and a “Firefox(R)” you’re using _one_ brand. It’s Kleenex/kleenex and Xerox/xerox all over again. As you already showed with your comment about why Mozilla isn’t an adequate brand, reusing the same brand or wordmark for different things repeatedly only leads to confusion, so reusing Firefox would similarly lead to confusion.

    Firefox(R) references the _product_, not the codebase. As long as Firefox continues to be MoCo’s flagship _product_, expect them to vigorously defend its use and what “Firefox(R)” “means” to the general population.

    So if we can’t call it Firefox, what about a new name? “Yeah, let’s call it FooBrowser!” I’m unclear as to how creating such a second “free” brand would benefit MoCo. All in all, any change from the status quo seems to me like a lose-lose situation for MoCo.

    You could try riding on the back of “Gecko”, as folks already do with “powered by WebKit” (note that it’s _not_ “powered by Safari”), but that seems to mean something only to the web literati, browser geeks, and programmers such as ourselves.

    I’d posit that the best answer lies in strengthening “Mozilla” as a brand, however doing so is already fraught with issues and preexisting conditions to overcome. I’ve long thought that having two distinct entities (MoFo and MoCo), each with different purposes, both starting with “Mozilla” is confusing as hell. To make matters worse (or just to spite me) they’ve gone and added a third (MoMessaging a.k.a. MoMo). This overloading of the wordmark “Mozilla” would have to stop. Rename stuff to FxCo, MailCo, TbCo, or what have you, and let the foundation dictate what “Mozilla” means. It’s not a stretch to say stuff like “Mozilla means the community around the software” or “Mozilla means the ecosystem”. It’s kind of marketing-ish, but it’s not a lie either. Strengthen “Mozilla” as the project beneath the product, and then adding the “Powered by Mozilla” badge means more. (Disclaimer 2: I was the one who pushed to get the “Powered by Mozilla” badge on Flock’s homepage, weaknesses be damned.) You can’t expect people to not want to try and ride the coattails of the more popular brand (Firefox), but trying to use Firefox generically while simultaneously holding it to mean a certain standard of software seems distinctly like trying to have your cake and eat it too.

  5. I’ve never really liked the idea of custom browsers. IMHO it leads to delays in getting users precious updates since non-browser developers are just too busy with other things. Just look at what has happened in the past.

    I really wish most would stick to extensions to adjust the browser to meet their requirements. Not only is it easier to do, but it allows for instant upgrades in 99.9% of cases. In which case I don’t think there’s any issue in keeping the Firefox name.

    I’m really not so concerned with the brand (which lets face it has a great reputation), but with the quality of the product.

  6. @lilmatt:

    The strange part is that Apache is also a foundation and a community, but people seem to know when Apache means web server vs. the other stuff.

    I think the Mozilla brand has been used for so many things over the years, it has ended up confusing people.

    I’d love for “powered by Mozilla” to mean something, but I think that “powered by Firefox” is a much better statement and should be able to be used when the fundamental underlying technology is not just Mozilla technology, but Firefox.

    It’s just about not being able to say your browser is Firefox. You can’t even say that it’s based on the same code as Firefox, even when it is. And again, I’m talking about situations where you are using the Firefox code 100%.

    Firefox is referenced in the same breath with Flock all the time. Do you thing that helps Flock?

  7. @Robert:

    I assume you are referring to Netscape.

    Netscape chose to “over customize” the browser. If they had just created a set of customizations on top of Firefox and not tried so hard to be a completely different browser, they might have succeeded. Especially if real Firefox code was what got updated behind the scenes.

    Anytime you set yourself up where you have to go through a lot of effort to compile your own browser, set up your own update servers, etc., you’re never going to be current.

    And I agree with sticking to extensions/themes to update the browser.

  8. @mkaply:
    I disagree about Apache. Apache actually has significant confusion. You say Apache and you’re talking about code. I assume you’re talking about httpd, but you’re not. You’re talking about Tomcat or Cocoon or Axis or ?. In addition, the Apache Foundation is significantly less visible to the public eye than MoFo. I don’t even know who chairs the thing, and I’d like to think I’m fairly knowledgeable in this area.

    Joe User doesn’t know anything about the foundation that writes the webserver and other middleware that lets him get to his favourite website. While it is true that the general population is still confused and still enter http:// addresses into the Google search box, Joe User still has a heck of a lot better chance of knowing (and caring) about who makes the software he just launched to get to his favourite website. Making the connection between “Mozilla” and the “Mozilla Foundation” is indeed a stretch, but I’d think it’s more likely than him making the Apache connection.

    Of course Flock gets crazy amounts of goodness from mentioning both Mozilla _and_ Firefox. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t. I know lots of Mozilla folks mutter obscenities under their breath whenever they read on TechCrunch “Flock, the social web browser based on Firefox”, but it does put “Firefox” in “print” one more time, and continues to burn that wordmark into people’s brand consciousness. Flock undoubtedly gets more out of being associated with Firefox than the reverse, but as long as Flock isn’t known as something bad like “the spyware browser” the reverse association _is_ good for Firefox.

    Also, I believe you _can_ say “based on the same code as Firefox”. Flock does this today. You just can’t say “Flock Firefox” or something similarly goofy and misleading. You can’t use their trademark as part of your own. IANAL though, so maybe I’m wrong here.

    Again, I am _not_ speaking for or on behalf of Flock, and I don’t always agree with what they do. They just pay my salary and I still get to work on Mozilla stuff.

    Unfortunately you can’t realistically monetize an extension as a product (yet). If I made an innovative and popular extension (think say, Firebug), but in order to pay the salaries of the devs who wrote it, the extension also changed the Google affiliate code in the search box, I suspect it wouldn’t be looked upon too kindly. If someone comes up with a good business model for extensions, I’d love to hear it.

  9. @lilmatt:

    From :

    Those taking full advantage of the open-source nature of Mozilla’s products and making significant functional changes may not redistribute the fruits of their labor under any Mozilla trademark. For example, it would be inappropriate for them to say “based on Mozilla Firefox”. Instead, in the interest of complete accuracy, they should describe their executables as “based on Mozilla technology”, or “incorporating Mozilla source code.”

  10. > I’ve long thought that having two distinct entities (MoFo and MoCo), each with different purposes, both starting
    > with “Mozilla” is confusing as hell.

    Maybe, but it’s standard practice. Things could be worse — my wife worked for a Pittsburgh company called “Compunetix”, which had a sibling company called “Compunetics” :-).

    Something no-one raised is the need for Mozilla to be able to shut down sites distributing Trojaned Firefox builds. I don’t see how they can do that if they give up trademark protection for Firefox.

    Seems to me that the best thing Mozilla can do is strengthen the Mozilla brand.


  11. How bout this:
    A company can put out a Firefox branded browser with custom theming and extensions (though no modifications to the core of the browser) as long as the theme and extensions all make it out of the sandbox on AMO.

    Part of the idea (from what I remember) of not allowing others to have custom browsers that carry the Firefox name is so that they won’t modify the core or include extensions that make the browser crap and thereby besmirch the Firefox name.
    All the addons at AMO that are available to the public have been through a review process and the fact that we’re providing them through our own secure site (integrated with our addons browser) we’re giving them some seal of approval.
    If we wanted to, I suppose we could invent another “gold star” seal of approval that keeps to even higher standards. But the point is that we could make the approval process easy on ourselves and still ensure relative non-suckiness of branded browsers with these few simple rules.

  12. I have developed a specific theme for the IBM w3v8 theme (as used for the IBM Intranet).
    As you know, within IBM Firefox is distributed with a IBM extension (to add some specific search agents and to add some specific logo’s). So it is certainly possible to distribute the default Firefox together with a branded theme and an extension to add some company specific functionality.


  13. @Alfred:

    That’s not technically distribution per the MPL because we are redistributing it to other employees within our company. It is perfectly legitimate for a company to customize Firefox and distribute it to their employees.

    The issue here is broad distribution.

  14. Ironically enough, none of the “free” marks you’re referring to are actually “free” in reality…

    From the trademark section:

    “” is trademarked and protected in the USA.

    You also need to get permission to use their own logos/banners etc. Even just to link to them from your blog with those images!

    ‘Apache’, ‘Apache Software Foundation’, the multicoloured feather, and the various Apache project names and logos are trademarks of The Apache Software Foundation, and are usable by others only with express permission from the ASF.

    Set up expressing to handle licensing the use of the Linux trademark owned by Linus Torvalds. If you want to trademark “Red Hat Linux” you need to license the Linux trademark through LMI.