The monetization dilemma · 2009-03-25 13:02 by Wladimir Palant

There has been a fair amount of discussion lately on the topic of earning money with extensions. Yesterday I read Kent James’ blog post – and only a few minutes later I noticed yet another mail titled “Commercial offer” in my inbox. Now these are typically about some crazy business model they need my help with, usually something along the lines of replacing ads with other ads and redirecting website’s income into your own pocket by doing that. Not this time. An employee of a search engine company suggested I add a checkbox to the post-install Adblock Plus page which will add their search engine to Firefox and change user’s homepage to their entry page (all that restricted to the country where they operate). And they would pay me for each change performed of course.

Now I don’t really know why they chose that route given that they already have an agreement with Mozilla. Maybe the employee who contacted me is just unaware of the current state of affairs. Maybe they hope to see results sooner that way (with Mozilla they still have to wait until Firefox 3.5). Maybe they want to do more with that default homepage than Mozilla lets them (from what it seems, Mozilla has rather rigid requirements on default homepages even though they are hosted by search engines). Or maybe they simply expect to get a lower price with extension authors rather than Mozilla. I don’t know and it doesn’t really matter.

What matters is that I don’t know whether every author of a popular extension will reject that offer. I don’t want to blame anybody, maintaining a popular extension is a hard and very time-consuming job. There are times where I wish I could turn Adblock Plus at least into a part-time job rather than struggling with finding time to do everything necessary. I know that some other extension developers have their extension as a full-time job and that makes them dependent on money sources. Given the market value of their user base, it is hard not to sell out.

So far, getting money for your work ranges from begging for donations over post-install pages with ads (where some go pretty far to make sure these ads are seen) to showing ads in the extension itself. Now I am afraid that we might see another development that we already know from desktop applications: extensions that change your homepage/default search engine or install unrelated extensions if you aren’t careful enough to opt-out. Yes, I have been asked about “recommending” other extensions several times as well, and I was even asked whether I would sell the project when I declined.

I would be interested in knowing what you think about it: Is it a real threat? What can be done to prevent this scenario from happening? And maybe we can attract more developers while doing so?

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Comment [26]

  1. Marijo · 2009-03-25 14:01 · #

    If that “post-install checkbox” helps you in any way keeping this project up and running, then I’d say go for it.
    If “recommending another extensions” makes sense in the context of ABP, then I’d say go for it too.
    As long as these things are optional, there’s nothing to complain about or feel threatened by.

  2. Robert Wetzlmayr · 2009-03-25 14:29 · #

    I think is is a real threat as Fx’s market share and therefore awareness among commercial entities expands, and an author has to make her/his mind up how to handle the craving for monetization. But it is a lesser threat to users than to Mozilla’s ecosystem: Cheating your users would never be a sustainable business model, IMHO, even more as Fx users are a digital literate group.

    Swapping the homepage or switching the default search engine will only take you so far until public rage would tower up. This is even more true for an extension like ABP with its “empower the user to precisely determine her/his media reception” approach.

    I’ve no idea how this could be prevented from happening: Mozilla has no business model besides funding the foundation I am aware of, and extension developers have yet to come up with one that scales (commercial support or consulting gigs don’t scale).

    Looking over the fence, you’ll find the same discussion in the WordPress community where theme and plugin authors bend the GPL to recover their expenses, and nevertheless it does only work for a few of them.

    So, it looks like staying a hobbyist is the only way to keep your morals intact…

  3. steve · 2009-03-25 15:30 · #

    I am ok with “recomendations” as long as there is NEVER a pre-selected checkbox for the item.

    Offer me NetZeroPlus, AOL Zirconium, YahooToolbarExtreeme!, etc. all you want, as long as the default is “no thankyou”.

  4. Pete · 2009-03-25 15:45 · #

    An open source adblocker with adware? Can such a thing be credible? It would be the same like a antivirus with a build in trojan.

  5. Steve · 2009-03-25 16:11 · #

    Interesting. A few years ago, going that route would have resulted in two things: a Slashdot article and a few hours later, a fork. There’s no reason to use the adware-enabled version if you can just use the adware-free fork. These days… I’m not so sure. A lot of people use Firefox these days who couldn’t tell C++ from Perl and those people would never even hear about a fork (or know what a fork is) unless they read about it on Google/Yahoo News.

  6. harsha · 2009-03-25 17:09 · #

    At the end of the day, I believe your efforts need to be rewarded, be it the popularity you gain or monetary means.

    How about requesting people to donate every time when the plug-in is updated?. I know it’s not going to be millions, no guaranty that significant people donate, nonetheless it turns out a cool sum.

    Reply from Wladimir Palant:

    This is not about me, so far I prefer keeping Adblock Plus a hobby. Many extension authors are already asking for donations but according to a comment to Daniel Glazman’s blog post this doesn’t work too well: http://www.glazman.org/weblog/dotclear/index.php?post/2009/03/06/Monetizing-extension#c12625

  7. Kent James · 2009-03-25 20:39 · #

    The threat from abuse of monetization is real as you mention. Yet at the same time, there is a real money stream coming into the Mozilla community through the search engine references. Some developers benefit from this stream, others do not. Also, Google has managed to build their brand in such a way that people don’t think “crass commercialization” when it is forced on them, others have not. I’m not convinced that it is my job to help Google maintain its brand name, nor am I convinced that Mozilla owns the entire revenue stream from the ecosystem, when extensions are a critical part of that ecosystem.

    Thanks for contributing to the discussion. I’m learning a lot from the different points of view.

  8. John Lilly · 2009-03-26 02:55 · #

    Wladimir, thanks for writing this up — it’s a really helpful post. I think we don’t have a lot of things on this aspect figured out; working on some things now that will hopefully help things get better.

    Anyway, thanks or writing such a thoughtful & useful post.

  9. Aerik · 2009-03-26 05:51 · #

    So many anti-virus, anti-malware, anti-spyware programs in Windows offer protection against hijacks of browser homepages. It’s a popular way of forcing somebody to visit a malicious site.

    There’s nothing about the idea of an extension changing homepages and search engines that doesn’t make me paranoid and angry. It seems extremely exploitative. Even Maone’s extensions irk me when we’re forced to view noscript.net and flashgot.net every time we upgrade them (oh and if you’re using a development build, you end up with two tabs on his sites), and that’s not really any different than what we’re talking about here.

  10. Nils Maier · 2009-03-26 17:20 · #

    Many extension authors are already asking for donations but according to a comment to Daniel Glazman’s blog post this doesn’t work too well: http://www.glazman.org/weblog/dotclear/index.php?post/2009/03/06/Monetizing-extension#c12625

    It actually doesn’t work to well. It is a great motivation but you cannot really make a living out of it;)

    To add to the topic: We already received similar offers. We were supposed to reset the users homepage to some search provider (actually a “DownThemAll!” branded version of a search page of that provider).
    They expected it to be opt-out and uninstalling the addon shouldn’t change anything back.

    We couldn’t agree to such an offer because:

    - Opt-out isn’t an option. Personally I hate software that changes unrelated things unless you opt-out. We might have considered an opt-in approach, but that wasn’t on the table.

    - The estimation of profits was clearly exaggerated (we would have gotten a cut of the ad revenue).

    - The company in question was kind of a reseller itself, not the real search company.

    I think extension authors should only consider such an offer if it is made by a reputable company and, most importantly, it is opt-in for the user, not opt-out. But I still suspect that even the popular extensions will hardly generate enough profits from such a thing to keep a single developer afloat, let alone a whole team.

    In conclusion we decided to keep DownThemAll! “donations only” and still consider it a hobby project where the donations are just some motivation.

    What is still missing are guidelines for AMO.
    Should such adware-y extensions get listed or not. Should there be a “tag” like the “experimental” tag if they get listed?
    When it an extension adware-y enough to be considered for a delisting/special tag then?
    There are already a bunch of extensions that, while still adding value, are clearly making money from ads. Foxytunes comes to mind.

  11. Hmm · 2009-03-28 16:10 · #

    It would be pretty ironic for an ad-blocking extension to display ads for itself, don’t you think? Maybe I can install another extension to block adblock’s ads…

    I think anything like this would be a very bad step. This extension is a tool for removing annoying things from the web experience, not adding more.

    Is there a reason why you’re not asking for donations, though? I’d donate. So would many others, and there’s nothing morally questionable about it. Yeah, it’s probably not enough to make it a full-time job, but it’s better than nothing.

    Two of the extensions in my list have a “Support this extension – Donate!” checkbox. One of them is checked, because I use it regularly and felt like I should donate. I’ve donated to several other extensions, too, like DownThemAll, even though they don’t have the checkbox.

    Reply from Wladimir Palant:

    See http://adblockplus.org/en/faq_project#contribute (esp. the last paragraph). I am not accepting donations as long as I don't have any proper use for that money. And I am not accepting questionable offers either of course.

  12. CeeJay.dk · 2009-04-01 20:31 · #

    I have no problem with changes to my homepage and/or default search engine as long as they are opt-in and not opt-out.

    I also wouldn’t mind some unobtrusive ads on my homepage as long as they are relevant to my interests or helpful in other ways – this may seem weird because I use ABP , but it’s not ads in general that dislike , but rather the annoying obtrusive images and popup that make up about 98% of ads on the web.

    Things like the Google text ads that are relevant to my searches and Amazons “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” ads , are potentially helpful to me and doesn’t bother me.

  13. Chris Ovenden · 2009-04-05 22:01 · #

    I am a longtime ABP user and really appreciate a commercial-free web experience.

    I’m also a believer in donations, and personally I would appreciate being reminded of all the projects I mean to donate to and haven’t got round to. I’m wondering how this could be done in an unobtrusive way.

    Suppose, whenever Firefox updated itself, it showed a list of donation links for every free extension you have installed? Would people object to that?

  14. Brian · 2009-04-06 18:53 · #

    If you are completely transparent about what is happening, then an opt-in checkbox that provides an installation from a reputable company sounds like a great idea to me. The relevant install screen should clearly explain everything that will happen, along the lines of:

    The AdBlock Plus developers earn money when you agree to install the following search engine from [Legit Co.] A new search box from [Legit Co.] will appear in your Firefox list of search engines. Additionally, your home page or start page in Firefox will be set to [Legit Co.]‘s home page. You can always reverse these changes later by setting a different start page from Edit | Preferences and by deleting the search box using “Manage Search Engines.”

    Check the box below to install the search engine and modified start page from [Legit Co.]: [ ]

    No, thanks. [Continue]

    Reply from Wladimir Palant:

    I don’t think any “reputable company” wants opt-in checkboxes, they all want opt-out schemes to hook as many users as possible.

  15. Rey Bango · 2009-04-07 07:31 · #

    IMO, I think these offers demonstrate the amazing potential of the add-on development space.

    The main thing that I can urge any add-on developer who wants to host on AMO is to ensure that the description of your add-on & the expected user experience are completely clear in order to avoid any possible roadblocks during the AMO review process. You should always ensure that the user is fully aware of what your add-on is doing and never resort to any form of trickery for the sake of a couple of dollars.

    Rey
    Add-ons Community Lead
    Mozilla

  16. analogstuff · 2009-04-09 11:39 · #

    I really think the extension developers should be given an option for monetizing, it can be any sort but yahoo tool bar or some other tool bar options should not be enabled by default.

    I see the same case with Java and even CCleaner.

  17. amn · 2009-05-02 13:00 · #

    The whole point for me is free use without any other compromise but your time. If Adblock Plus was conceived as a pure product, keep it that way. Nobody forces you to give it more time. Do it as you always did. Otherwise I am switching to some other extensions, rest assured. I hate bloatware, and Adblock Plus installation with a search engine offer checkbox have NOTHING to do whatsoever with eachother.

  18. OPEN SOURCE · 2009-05-02 15:11 · #

    First, thanks to the person who started ad block, but another ad block extension would pop up, and open source would mean truly free software

    Second, you wrote:

    > Recently I wrote about how not giving extension developers a good way to earn money might lead to very undesirable effects.

    NOBODY owes you a way to make money, and whatever you do people can get pissed and stop using your extension, take the code and push out a version that stops you doing what you do.

    Extensions are nice, put your time in, share them, make a commercial one, but don’t expect to make money from adblock just because it is popular – I’ll pull the code and setup a contentblock extension in 12 minutes.

    You are building on the shoulders of giants, adding small interesting tweaks on a stack of huge open source and open thinking that enables you to do this.
    I don’t begrudge you the chance to make an income, of course not, but a free extension cannot really be pushed into making money without donations or real pay for services.

    Yes, I’ve thought about these idiots changing my ads, but that would involve tracking also.

    I am sure it will all fail.

  19. Nan M · 2009-05-02 19:12 · #

    All sympathy for the pressure Wladimir appears to be feeling about supporting his extension.
    Blacklisting, as a strategy, is always going to produce burn-out because smiting involves energy and time. You never win when you are running behind new sites and new advertisers.

    Once a developer in the Fx community is looking to externals for relief – be it money or other kinds of support – I fancy it may be time to consider whether involvement in the development is any longer worthwhile.
    It’s no longer a hobby when this kind of post gets written.

    I deplore Wladimir’s attributing his own fascination with monetizing Fx to a fellow developer.

    Disclaimer: I use NS, don’t blacklist any sites by category or any other kind of list, and support the ad-based revenue model for web use because there’s no clever subscription model developed yet. If I don’t want to support a site, I don’t need to block its revenue production because I simply don’t visit it and conversely if I do visit a site, I feel ethically obliged to pay for that use somehow. And for the most part, ads do that for me.

    Reply from Wladimir Palant:

    Thanks but you are mistaken – even though Adblock Plus is technically a blacklist, there is no shortage of volunteers to maintain the lists (see http://adblockplus.org/en/subscriptions). I don’t maintain any of the filter lists and my lack of time has only an effect on the software itself – which works pretty well but can always use improvement. There are features that I would like to see in the extension but had to push out for way too long. In the end this isn’t that big of an issue however and I am happily declining all “business offers” that I get (none of them so far offered anything that I could accept with a clear conscience).

  20. Noah · 2009-05-04 01:26 · #

    Add a donate button.

  21. Sanbor · 2009-05-04 10:30 · #

    Wladimir, you will be the first developer I send a donation :)

  22. Donny · 2009-05-04 16:30 · #

    I prefer to see advertisement pages after addon updates or would with joy click on ads on your homepage, much rather than seeing ads all over the web. Rather generate revenue for the damn good work you’ve done than generating revenue for all the creeps out there who are spying on us and track our behaviour. However, the open source community loves truly free software. The idea behind all this is sharing – sharing of work, knowledge and spirit. So it’s a tightrope walk. Anything that gets too far and makes users becoming suspicious (as it happened with NoScript lately), will lead to users uninstalling it and switching to a replacement – that most likely will pop up from someone else then.

    So I guess, your way is a good way to go. Because you are asking the users. You have a dialog with them. This is what wins users’ trust.

    Why not include a little survey with your next update? Just ask them politely if they would be willing to fill in a little survey that halps you continuing Adblock. If they say yes, call a survey form on your website and ask users about their opinion and whether they would and in which way they would be willing to support Adblock plus.

    Reply from Wladimir Palant:

    In case I didn’t make it clear enough – I don’t plan to monetize Adblock Plus any time soon. I was just wondering how many other extension developers will be pressed into questionable decisions.

  23. Fazal Majid · 2009-05-04 23:32 · #

    Interesting topic. Perhaps we need a Tripwire-like HIDS extension that detects unauthorized changes to the prefs, chrome or XUL code. I am not sure if it would have caught the scummy Microsoft .NET ClickOnce trojan.

    Firefox, like Emacs before it, is gaining many of the attributes of operating systems, unfortunately including malware…

  24. Jimmy Jim-Jim · 2009-05-05 04:36 · #

    It’s a damn checkbox. This isn’t a threat to the computer world at all. Are you all really so anti-capitalism? What exactly is morally wrong about wanting to be paid for a product you provide?

  25. Ken · 2009-05-22 10:10 · #

    I’m amazed by the people who complain about any discussion of monetization. That is a spoiled and ungrateful attitude. Whatever they do for a living—I say they should set a good example and start doing it free, and with no ads or sponsorship of any kind. Stop cashing paychecks—that’s evil. Let’s see you practice what you preach!

    Reply from Wladimir Palant:

    I am with you on that – but I wonder who you are talking to. Looking at the comments above, I don’t see anybody complaining about monetization discussion.

  26. Nan M · 2009-11-26 07:44 · #

    Hi Wladimir. Well, it looks like the monetization debate has borne fruit, sort of. So… AMO responds to the stirrings in extension circles by getting (at least one leg, heh) into bed with eBay/PayPal?
    Wonder whether you would have an opinion about this formalisation of an income pathway (and the unavoidable ties to the provider of the pathway) – with respect to favouring one particular payment management company?
    I’d be particularly interested in your opinion because I did take your point to heart that you wrote this post not for your own worries about income (I’m sorry I misinterpreted your motives there) but for the health of the addons model.

    If I had the energy I’d publish an article about how the Capital train just rattles along and sweeps everything along with it on its cowcatcher – alive or dead ;-)
    But I’m happy enough to sit back and watch what I interpret as simply endless discussions while Fx anyway gets closer and closer to the real corporation that every successful enterprise must eventually end up as.
    AMO now looks more like Twitter/Amazon than I ever thought possible ;-) Even the reviews! And not a strong notice of advice anywhere yet about monkeypatches being the ActiveX of Firefox – just more ‘trust us’ stickers.

    Do be assured that I’m not trolling for something to jump on here – it’s just that I am a Marxist and totally interested in how Capital makes everything eventually all about money.
    Firefox was for so long not about the money and I miss the days of being a smaller, less noticed and more ethical community, frankly.

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