Why does Firefox use Google for search? Follow the money

A new version of Firefox, the popular alternative Web browser, is getting close to releasing a third version. That's prompting people to take a close look at the business practices of Mozilla Corp., the maker of Firefox. Danny Sullivan, the longtime search-engine observer, is calling on Mozilla to let Firefox users pick the search engine built into their browser; Firefox 3 defaults to Google in its new release, as it has in the past. Sullivan has a point: Google, which has called for openness, risks seeming hypocritical. But he gets the business side of things all wrong.

85 percent of Mozilla's $67 million in revenues in 2006, the most recent year reported, came from Google, it's true. But Sullivan seems to think this is some kind of bribe, with Mozilla picking Google as the search engine because the company is showering the browser maker with cash.

Utter nonsense. Google pays Mozilla a cut of the revenue generated when Firefox users conduct Google searches. In Asia, Mozilla defaults to Yahoo, not Google, because Yahoo has a larger user and advertiser base in the region, making its searches more lucrative. It's all about the money, sure. But why shouldn't it be?

Mozilla could open up Firefox as Sullivan suggests. The end result would be a lot of annoyed users who have to go through an extra step as they pick their search engine, which would likely be Google anyway. Google doesn't need to bribe Mozilla; the superior economics of its business do the work for Google.

This, by the way, is also why nothing has come of the perpetual rumors that Google is working on its own browser. It could easily build one. But why bother? As long as Google's search ads are more profitable than the competition, there's no reason for Mozilla to send Firefox users elsewhere. A Google browser might hurt adoption of Firefox, which would do more to lower the number of Google searches than Google's own browser would do to raise it. Build a browser? Sure, Google might get to that after it finishes shooting itself in the foot.

Here's something I wonder: Why does no one ask the same question about Apple's Safari browser, which likewise defaults to Google? Google must be paying Apple a considerable amount of money every year, though not enough to break out in its financial reports; Google CEO Eric Schmidt serves on Apple's board, as does Al Gore, who is a senior advisor to Google. Apple has a monopoly on the browser installed on Mac OS X computers, and makes it harder to switch the default search engine; I don't hear anyone calling for Apple to free its browser search.

Which makes me think people like Sullivan are picking on Firefox not because they believe in open browser search, but because Mozilla, owned by a nonprofit, is a more easily pressured target. A familiar stratagem of attention-seeking activists. Let's not pretend that calling for open search is anything but a tactic for generating false controversy. And let's not pretend that Mozilla is doing anything except trying to make money.