Mozilla Deal with ISP Expands Firefox Distribution

Speakeasy, a national broadband Internet service provider (ISP), said it will be the first to distribute a customized version of the Mozilla Foundation’s Firefox browser to its customers.

The development was immediately being called significant because it stands to open up an entirely new distribution channel to help get Firefox into the hands of users. To date, the vast majority of users directly downloaded their software for free from the foundation’s Web site.

Seattle, Washington-based Speakeasy, which bills itself as the nation’s largest independent broadband services provider, said that within a month it would begin providing a custom version of Firefox 1.0 as part of the self-installation kit it distributes to new residential broadband customers.

‘Great Opportunity’

Over time, the Speakeasy Edition of the browser will be optimized to work on the Speakeasy network and include a number of unique features going forward, the ISP said, including a voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) calling feature. Some custom features will be included up front, such as Speakeasy-suggested bookmarks or favorite sites.

“We’re thrilled to be the first broadband service provider to adopt Firefox,” Speakeasy chairman and founder Mike Apgar said. “We plan to continually enhance the browser with features that will benefit Speakeasy’s home, business and gaming subscribers.”

Mozilla Foundation President Mitchell Baker said the partnership represented a “great opportunity to promote browser choice and innovation.”

A spokesperson for the Mozilla Foundation said additional distribution options are constantly being reviewed. Analysts say other ISPs are likely to follow Speakeasy’s lead, since the Firefox browser is proving popular with users and is easily customized or added on to.

Distributor Cap

The open-source foundation and its supporters position the move as a win for everyone: Customers get an alternative to the Internet Explorer browser that is still commonly bundled with new personal computers by PC makers; ISPs get to provide a browser that is, if not more secure, at least less likely to be targeted by viruses and other threats; and Mozilla gets a new, direct distribution channel.

That last one might be the most significant, according to analysts, because it directly challenges the notion that the browser bundled onto PCs will be the one consumers use. With ISPs offering customized versions that are billed as working better with a given Internet service, that could sway even more converts to flock to Firefox.

Not that the download approach hasn’t been effective on its own right. In fact, Mozilla said just this week that it recently surpassed the 20 million download mark for the newest version of Firefox.

Jupiter Research analyst Joe Wilcox said Firefox is already showing impressive reach with its download approach, likely surpassing even the Mozilla Foundation’s own expectations.

“If they can build a more robust distribution network, that can only help them multiply their share of the market,” Wilcox said. Still, alternative browsers face an uphill battle when it comes to getting in front of consumers. Another IE alternative, Opera, recently began giving free licenses for its paid browser version to universities and colleges. That move could help Opera gain exposure to future browser buyers as well, Wilcox said.

Firefox in Hen House

Meanwhile, other analysts are urging businesses to proceed with caution when it comes to alternative browsers, noting that many internal and Web-facing programs have been customized to work best with IE over time.

The agreement gave Firefox its second straight day of headlines. Yesterday, the browser was in the news as speculation heated up once again about its connections with Google.

Google acknowledged that it had hired the lead engineer on the Firefox browser project, sparking speculation that the search engine company was either considering developing its own browser or was mulling ways to build its own customized version of Firefox.

Google has refused to comment on whether it’s building a browser, though the company is famous for having scores of various projects in the works at any given time, many of which never see the light of day.

However, Google and Firefox are inextricably linked in the minds of many: Mozilla held its annual developers’ workday there last summer and the default Firefox home page features the Google search tool.

Most analysts say consumers will win in the end as a result of Firefox and others making a run at IE, with browser innovation the eventual result.

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