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Mozilla laid off 250 people, and the company overhaul is just beginning

For too many years, it was The Firefox Company, funded by Google. Now Mozilla needs to find a different business, and fast.

Mozilla office

Mozilla's office in San Francisco.

Photo: Courtesy of Mozilla

Mitchell Baker and the team at Mozilla have known for a long time that the company's business needed to change. For a couple of reasons, starting with the fact that most of Mozilla's revenue came from Google as part of a deal to make Google the default search engine in Firefox. As Mozilla started to fight for a privacy-first, less-invasive (and thus frequently less Google-y) future of the internet, that didn't sit right anymore. There's writing on the wall, too: Google and Mozilla haven't renewed that deal, which expires this year, and search-default deals in general are suddenly under serious antitrust scrutiny.

"We are looking for other ways of generating revenue," CEO Mitchell Baker told me last year. "The issue, of course, is that they're hard to find." In a COVID-ravaged world, Mozilla's runway to find those other ways appears to have shortened. Baker announced on Tuesday that Mozilla is laying off about 250 people, closing its operations in Taipei, and moving another 60 or so people between teams. "Our pre-COVID plan is no longer workable," Baker wrote in an email to Mozilla staff. "We have talked about the need for change — including the likelihood of layoffs — since the spring. Today these changes become real."

Baker laid out five changes Mozilla plans to make in order to more successfully move forward. Many are classic Mozilla, focusing on community and pushing change out into the world. But the first and fifth changes are new, somewhat overdue, and require a big shift inside the organization: a new focus on product, and a new focus on economics.

For many years, Mozilla's main — and for all intents and purposes only — product has been Firefox. And as Firefox's popularity has waned, that has become a problem. "We know we also need to go beyond the browser to give people new products and technologies that both excite them and represent their interests," Baker wrote.

In recent months, Mozilla's been on something of a product-launch spree. It built a password manager called Lockwise; a secure way to share files called Send; a data-privacy tool called Monitor, and a VPN. All are connected to users' Firefox accounts, and all are paid products. Sure, Mozilla's also working on tech standards, fighting court battles, and generally trying to make sure the internet is a good place for people to be, but Mozilla is pushing hard toward turning that focus into a consumer product that costs money.

Adam Seligman, Mozilla's new COO, was hired to speed up the process. He joined Mozilla in May, after stints at Google and Salesforce, and said his mission is very clear: "I'd like to diversify our revenue streams." In his first few months at the company, he said he'd been struck by the team's focus on its mission, the sense of a greater good, "but I want to make sure we have products that are really easy for consumers and generate new revenue streams for us."

Mozilla also has a habit of being slightly unfocused: it works on VR, voice, machine learning and countless other projects that tend to look more like R&D than real products. It also invests heavily in other researchers, and into things like developer tools. All that is fine for a company with seemingly infinite Google revenue but problematic for one looking for something more sustainable. "We have to make some hard choices," Seligman said, "we have to get really focused."

What that looks like in practice is finding a way to get people to pay for security products. Enterprises, maybe, someday. But the first job is to find enough people willing to pay for password managers and VPNs. Mozilla's a trusted company, with huge clout in the tech industry, which means it has a better chance than most of building a business out of consumer security. And the early signs are good, Seligman said, especially when it comes to the VPN. But it's still really early.

Mozilla also has big plans for Pocket, its read-later app. Seligman was tight-lipped about exact plans, but said that users love the ability to read offline, and love the curation and recommendations Pocket offers. "There's all this great content out there that's not in the hands of a couple of big companies," Seligman said, "and it'd be nice just to surface that and let users discover all these wonderful corners of the internet."

One slightly surprising place the company's going to invest? Hubs, its virtual-room product that has become a popular choice for VR meetings in a socially distant world. Mozilla has long bet that mixed reality is the next big thing after mobile, and with Hubs growing fast thanks to remote work, it's going to stick around.

The big question for Mozilla will be how to stay mission-focused, to continue to be the kind of company where people casually quote the manifesto and can talk with a straight face about trying to make the internet a better place, while also focusing much harder on the bottom line. And for a company so focused on getting a better internet into everyone's hands, will a paid-for security suite simply feel wrong? Mozilla has always seen itself as different from all the money-grubbing, data-snatching companies in Silicon Valley. Now it has to learn a bit from those companies, but make sure it only learns the right parts.

Martin Cooper with his original DynaTAC cell phone.

Photo: Ted Soqui/Getty Images

Martin Cooper helped invent one of the most consequential and successful products in history: the cell phone. And almost five decades after he made the first public cell phone call, on a 2-pound brick of a device called the DynaTAC, he's written a book about his career called "Cutting the Cord: The Cell Phone Has Transformed Humanity." In it he tells the story of the cell phone's invention, and looks at how it has changed the world and will continue to do so.

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

People

The year our personal lives took center stage at work

2020's blurring of professional and personal boundaries exacerbated disparities, humanized leaders and put personal values front and center.

In 2020, the personal and the professional became inextricable at work.

Photo: Tom Werner/Getty Images

For those of us lucky enough to keep our jobs and privileged enough to be able to work from home, our whole selves were bared at work this year. Our homes and faces were blown up for virtual inspection. Our children's demands and crises filled our working hours, and our working mothers became schoolteachers and housewives, whether they wanted to or not. Our illnesses became vital public information, and our tragedies shared. Our work lives ate into our social lives until there was no boundary between them.

In 2020, the personal and the professional became inextricable at work. Remote work might be the most sexy 2020 trend, but for the CEOs and leaders I spoke with, the de-professionalization of work could be the most important effect on a personal level. It's the one that has caused the most harm to women in the workplace and destroyed work-life balance for basically everyone. It's also what has contributed to the majority of work-from-home Americans being more satisfied with their work lives than they were before, mostly because they feel more connected to their families, they're able to set their own schedules and they're more comfortable at home, according to a Morning Consult poll. While we can't know exactly how many and who will be going back to the office just yet, as long as there is some kind of flexible work schedule, people's personal lives will be part of their work lives and vice versa.

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Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (@ anna_c_kramer), where she helps write and produce Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

People

After loan default and asset transfer, The Void's future looks uncertain

The location-based VR pioneer lost Disney as a key partner earlier this year.

Multiple industry insiders told Protocol that The Void had been trying to secure more funding throughout the year. It appears that those efforts failed.

Photo: Veronique Dupont/Getty Images

Things are looking grim for The Void, once hailed as the future of virtual reality. The company recently defaulted on a key loan, forcing it to permanently transfer its assets, including patents and trademarks, to its creditor, according to documents reviewed by Protocol. Its financial troubles also led to Disney terminating a longstanding partnership, which means that The Void won't be able to use some of its most popular VR experiences based on Disney IP anymore.

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Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

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Are bored tech workers really playing games with money?

The pandemic has inspired millennials to get serious about all kinds of investing, including some young, tech-savvy investors who are exploring a niche idea: algorithmic trading.

A new pandemic hobby.

Photo: Scott Heins/Getty Images

For the legions of workers sent home in March, quarantine hobbies started out small. Banana bread, sourdough, herb gardens. But then long days and nights at the home office opened the door for more precarious projects — like retail investing.

Stuck inside without an outlet for his carefully designed sports betting model, Matthew Brownsword, a project manager at market research firm Edison Research, turned to the stock market. "I created a code that I can run at night, every night, and in the morning I buy stocks or sell stocks, and I just see how it does." With the abrupt cancellation of sports, the market's potential for a similar modeling hobby grabbed his attention.

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Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (@ anna_c_kramer), where she helps write and produce Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

People

Ping-Pong and catered lunches are back (for the startups willing to reopen)

Remote is trendy, but some San Francisco tech workers are choosing to go back to work.

Tech offices are starting to reopen in San Francisco, but few companies are actually going back.

Photo: Engin Akyurt/Unsplash

For the last few days, Fast CEO Domm Holland has been able to look out from his standing desk and see his co-workers working alongside him. They shared a catered lunch inside their lofty SOMA-based office, and Holland raided the snack kitchen.

These would have all been normal scenes at a tech company in 2019, but for Holland, it's the first time since March that he's been able to return to a bit of "normal" after San Francisco finally began reopening offices this week.

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Biz Carson ( @bizcarson) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol, covering Silicon Valley with a focus on startups and venture capital. Previously, she reported for Forbes and was co-editor of Forbes Next Billion-Dollar Startups list. Before that, she worked for Business Insider, Gigaom, and Wired and started her career as a newspaper designer for Gannett.

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