On Surprises & Business Models

A little over four years ago I created my first Firefox add-on. Things were different back then: there were only around 2,000 extensions (we didn’t call them add-ons), addons.mozilla.org was update.mozilla.org, and add-on developers always seemed to respect their users’ privacy and choices without the need for Mozilla to get involved in telling developers what they can and can’t do.

Times have changed, and last April, the add-ons team came up with a policy statement about respecting the choices a user has made, not changing defaults unless the user would expect that change, and not interfering with other add-ons. We hadn’t named the policy, so when it came time to blog about it, I read through it trying to think of a name that summarized our position. The result was the oft-cited “No Surprises” policy, now officially adopted after some slight modifications.

Frankly, I am still surprised on a weekly basis by the behavior of some add-ons and companies targeting add-ons. This recent flurry of issues we’re dealing with has left me wondering, “what’s so different between add-ons just a few years ago and now?” Money, of course.

In 2005, almost all add-ons were built as spare-time projects by students and people who had other full-time jobs. Now, many of the more popular add-ons are created by companies and add-on startups who need to find a way to make a money from their work.

To be clear, I’m not against add-ons making money. In fact, I very much support it when it’s done tactfully. Some of my favorite add-ons have figured out business models that work for them and still respect their users’ privacy and expectations.

The problem comes when add-ons want to:

  • change the user’s default search provider without asking
  • replace ads on websites with their own ads
  • send all of the user’s search queries to a third party when the add-on isn’t related to searching
  • bundle other add-ons or software the user didn’t ask for

There are add-ons that do all of these things, and there are companies actively soliciting add-on developers to adopt these practices in their add-ons. Some add-on developers are even approached about selling their add-on and all of its users so that the new owner can implement a monetization strategy above.

These are the sorts of issues that the AMO admin and editor teams deal with regularly now, and it shows how important it is that we continue to review add-ons to keep users safe. One bad add-on can easily stop someone from ever trying them again.

If you’re an add-on developer and you’re considering a partnership that would involve tampering with a user’s choices or privacy, make sure you’ve read our policy on the subject and are comfortable with the likely ramifications (bad ratings and reviews, loss of featured status, users switching to a competing add-on, etc.). If you have any questions about whether something is allowed, please contact the editor team for clarification. Keep in mind some companies that approach developers say their methods are approved by Mozilla, when in fact they aren’t.

If you’re an add-on user, always read an add-on’s description and privacy policy to make sure you understand what the add-on does. If you notice an add-on changes your defaults in an update without asking or makes another change that isn’t disclosed, please report it.

During the keynote of Add-on-Con 2009, I announced that Mozilla is planning to launch a marketplace pilot this year. That’s still the case, and in my opinion, it can’t come soon enough. There are many reasons I think we need to give developers a way to earn a living off of their hard work creating add-ons: it will increase the number of add-ons, the number of developers, and the quality of add-ons. But right now, the reason I most want an add-ons marketplace is to give developers an easy way to profit from their work so they don’t even have to think about going down the road of surprises.