Why Mozilla's Deal With Google Gets Ever Shakier

The successful rise of Mozilla’s Firefox browser is one of the most storied tales of the open source community. Despite the browser’s success, however, Mozilla remains hugely financially dependent on Google — possibly perilously so.

While some people don’t realize it, Mozilla makes the lion’s share of its revenues from Google. In fact, more than 90 percent of Mozilla’s revenue comes from search-related deals, and in Google’s case, that’s in exchange for a search box in Firefox that steers users of the browser into Google’s lucrative search-and-ad ecosystem.

Mozilla’s deal with Google is set to expire in November 2011, and there are good reasons to question whether it will be renewed. For one thing, Google has just delivered beta versions of its Mac and Linux Chrome browsers, as well as a large collection of much-awaited extensions for Chrome. It’s fleshing out anĀ open-source, cross-platform browsing strategy that could enable it to break its financial bond with Mozilla.

If that happens, it would be an enormous financial blow to Mozilla, and one that the company tends to play down. That’s especially true because with Yahoo and Microsoft in a far-reaching search partnership — and Microsoft having absolutely no reason to buddy with the company whose browser keeps eating Internet Explorer’s lunch — Mozilla has fewer alternatives to its Google deal.

Mozilla may have a bright future focusing on some of its other projects, though. This week, the company released version 3 of its free, open source Thunderbird email client. Mozilla Chair Mitchell Baker calls the release “vastly improved,” and points to its new search capabilities and tabbed functionality as strong points. Despite the fact that Thunderbird has never been anywhere near the hit with users that Firefox is, it is showing signs of making headway.

For example, the French Army is ditching its Microsoft Outlook infrastructure in favor of Thunderbird. Matt Asay wonders if it could be as big a long-term success as Firefox. Meanwhile, we’ve already noted the promise that Mozilla’s Raindrop project has. If Mozilla can monetize some of its rapidly improving messaging projects, it could help diversify its Google/Firefox risk.

When Google’s Chrome OS arrives next year, it may introduce the Chrome browsing experience to many more users than ever before. By then, the Chrome browser will also be available — with useful extensions — on Windows, the Mac and Linux. What will Google’s own browser market share be like by then? Browser market share doesn’t change overnight, but it can move a lot in a year or two. We’ll see what happens, but in the meantime there are ever more reasons to question Mozilla’s complicated, more tense, and overwhelming financial dependence on Google.