Firefox add-on makers ask for money

Mozilla pilot program helps developers solicit contributions from users

Mozilla last week announced a pilot program that lets Firefox add-on developers seek donations from users, a move one high-profile add-on maker said was a "very welcome change."

The pilot project, which has been in the planning stages since May, provides developer tools to add an optional "Contribute" button to the install process, said Nick Nguyen, Mozilla's director of add-ons. "The intent of this pilot is to provide an optional path for payments," Nguyen said in an e-mail Friday.

Contributions will always be optional, Nguyen continued. "At no point are payments required for a download," he confirmed.

The amount of the suggested contribution is up to the developer, but users will be able to donate what they wish, with payments being handled by PayPal, the eBay-owned electronic payment system. Developers can use PayPal's micropayment fee offering to reduce the transaction fees for contributions under $12. "After looking at our requirements for trust, security, international currencies, and ease of integration, PayPal was the [best] partner that met our needs for this pilot," said Nguyen. The pilot will list payments only in U.S. dollar amounts, but international users will be able to pay in their own currencies via PayPal.

Mozilla will not take a piece of the contribution action during the pilot -- all funds collected go to the developer after PayPal's transaction fees -- but Nguyen seemed to leave that avenue open for the future. "At this time, there are no plans for splitting revenue between developers and Mozilla," he said in answer to a question.

Nguyen said that the idea of contributions originated with add-on developers. "[They] have been asking for some sort of Contributions feature for years, and this has become more and more important, especially now that there are millions of Firefox users with Add-ons installed," he said.

One noted add-on maker applauded the optional request for money. "Mozilla is giving developers a way to better communicate with their users about the costs of maintaining the code, about their future goals and about the ways to contribute (financially, too) for people who find the development roadmap interesting," said Giorgio Maone, the creator of the popular NoScript extension. Maone has long solicited donations for NoScript on his own Web site.

"The best thing is that they're trying to 'humanize' [Firefox] add-ons," said Maone in an e-mail. "This program is a very welcome change, providing developers a way to tell their story and the vision they have for their brainchild."

Add-on makers can create a "Meet the Developer" page that tells users who authored the extension and why, as well as some information on future plans. The download page for the Xmarks bookmark sync extension, for example, has a link to a Meet the Developer page. Xmarks is also one of the first add-ons to slap a "Contribute" button on its meet-and-greet page; the company asks users to give $10 for the software.

Maone, whose NoScript has been downloaded nearly 50 million times, said he wasn't getting rich from contributions. "Coming [from] my own experience with donors, I can tell you their percentage is quite low. If donations are your only sustainment, I don't think you can make a living off them."

A pair of online polls suggest that Maone is right. In a CNET poll taken by over 1,000 users, 59% said they would never pay for a browser add-on, while 6% said they'd be willing to pay $1-$5. Only about 5% said they'd fork over more than $6.

The poll posted on the Technologizer blog, which is run by former PC World editor-in-chief Harry McCracken, asked different questions. According to Technologizer's poll, 26% of the 200-some respondents said that they'd pay for Firefox add-ons that were "incredibly useful and really cheap," while another 25% said they'd pay for those add-ons they used regularly if the suggestion donation was "reasonable."

Mozilla's pilot is open-ended, said Nguyen. "The pilot will end when we feel that the impact of this change is well understood, both in terms of user experience and potential for making a meaningful difference in the lives of our developers," he said.

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