Former Firefox VP on What It’s Like To Be Both a Partner of Google and a Competitor via Google …

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Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation arm of Google’s parent company Alphabet, plans to build a $1 billion high-tech neighborhood in Toronto. The problem? It is facing an opposition from residents who have called for its demise. As the backlash gains momentum, it could force Sidewalk Labs to abandon or alter its vision. On paper, Sidewalk Labs’ idea arguably has some merits: It wishes to “set new standards” for how cities are designed and built. But some are apprehensive of Google’s plans, because the company has a knack for assuming more control over things and killing local competition.

Johnathan Nightingale, a former VP of Firefox, has seen such behavior first hand. He draws some parallels: I spent 8 years at Mozilla working on Firefox and for almost all of that time Google was our biggest partner. Our revenue share deal on search drove 90% of Mozilla’s income. When I started at Mozilla in 2007, there was no Google Chrome and most folks we spoke with inside were Firefox fans. They were building an empire on the web, we were building the web itself. I think our friends inside Google genuinely believed that. At the individual level, their engineers cared about most of the same things we did. Their product and design folks made many decisions very similarly and we learned from watching each other.

But Google as a whole is very different than individual Googlers. Google Chrome ads started appearing next to Firefox search terms. Gmail and Google Docs started to experience selective performance issues and bugs on Firefox. Demo sites would falsely block Firefox as “incompatible.” All of this is stuff you’re allowed to do to compete, of course. But we were still a search partner, so we’d say “hey what gives?” And every time, they’d say, “oops. That was accidental. We’ll fix it in the next push in 2 weeks.” Over and over. Oops. Another accident. We’ll fix it soon. We want the same things. We’re on the same team. There were dozens of oopses. Hundreds maybe? I’m all for “don’t attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence” but I don’t believe Google is that incompetent.

This is not a thread about blaming Google for Firefox troubles though. We at Mozilla wear that ourselves, me more than anyone for my time as Firefox VP. But I see the same play happening here in my city and I don’t like it. And for me it means two things: 1. The question is not whether individual Sidewalk Labs people have pure motives. I know some of them, just like I know plenty on the Chrome team. They’re great people. But focus on the behavior of the organism as a whole. At the macro level, Google/Alphabet is very intentional. When Google wants to get a thing done, it is very effective. Mistakes happen, but when you see a sustained pattern of “oops” and delays from this organization — you’re being outfoxed. Get there faster than I did.


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