Just weeks before Mozilla's lucrative contract with Google comes up for renewal, the open-source developer launched a customized version of Firefox that uses rival Microsoft's Bing search engine.
Microsoft also touted the new Firefox, saying that it had teamed with Mozilla because users "told us to make it even easier to use Bing in Firefox."
Dubbed "Firefox with Bing," the custom version uses Bing as the default search engine in both the search box and in the browser's "Awesome Bar," the dual-use address bar where users can also enter search queries. Firefox with Bing also sets the Bing.com as the browser's home page.
Microsoft registered the "firefoxwithbing.com" domain just last week, and said it was "neither licensing nor distributing Firefox."
Firefox with Bing is based on Firefox 7.01, the most up-to-date stable edition.
Although Firefox users have long been able to change the browser's search engine to Bing and manually reset the home page, Microsoft framed the customized edition as a way for people "to use the Web the way they want without having to take extra steps to navigate or customize their settings to Bing."
Mozilla did not elaborate on the release, other than to say it was another step in its partnership with Microsoft that debuted a little more than a year ago when it was developing Firefox 4.
Today, Mozilla declined to comment on whether the new tilt toward Bing foretold a change in its revenue stream.
Mozilla Foundation, the not-for-profit organization that oversees Mozilla Corp., the commercial arm that develops Firefox, generated 98% of its 2010 income from contracts with search providers. While Mozilla did not break out revenue by search engine in its latest financial statement, it did say that an arrangement with Google was its largest money maker.
Two weeks ago, Mozilla only said, "We have every confidence that search partnerships will remain a solid generator of revenue for Mozilla for the foreseeable future." It did not directly address the Google contract, however.
The current three-year Mozilla-Google contract expires next month.
Talk of a Mozilla-Google divorce has circulated since the latter launched its own browser, Chrome, in September 2008.
If Bing does swing a larger deal with Mozilla to, say, replace Google across the board, it would be a coup for Microsoft's still-struggling search engine. Bing trails far behind Google, comScore said earlier this month when it noted Bing's U.S. search share was 14.7%, behind both Google, with 64.8%, and Yahoo, which held a 15.5% share in September.
According to Web metrics firm Net Applications, Firefox accounted for 22.5% of all browsers used last month, putting it in second place behind Microsoft's own Internet Explorer and still ahead of Chrome by several percentage points.
Existing users of Firefox can re-create the custom edition by clicking the small down-arrow at the right of the search box and selecting Bing. They can set Bing.com as the home page by selecting Options/Options from the Firefox button at the upper left of the window, then entering "http://www.bing.com" in the "Home Page" field under the General tab.
Replacing Google with Bing in the Awesome Bar takes more work. Users must enter "about:config" in the bar, click through the warning, enter "keyword.URL" in the Filter field, double-click the ensuing entry, then type the string " http://www.bing.com/search?form=MOZFLB&pc=MOZO&q=" and click OK.
Firefox with Bing can be downloaded from Microsoft's site, which in turn redirects to Mozilla's download servers.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.