When Mozilla Corp. CEO John Lilly lit into Apple Inc. for using its software update utility to push Safari 3.1 to Windows users, he knew he was going to get a rise out of Apple fans.
"I wasn't surprised by the reaction," said Lilly yesterday, talking about the criticism he has received from many online who took exception to his calling Apple's use of the utility "a bad practice" that "ultimately undermines the safety of the Internet."
"When you put Mozilla users and Apple users together, sometimes they poke at each other with sharp sticks," said Lilly. "But I would hope it's not about seeing everything through a partisan lens. This isn't about that. It's not even about [Apple] using the Updater as their distribution channel. It's just about the promise that people make when you provide a security update."
On Friday, Lilly, whose company develops and distributes the Firefox browser, took Apple to task for offering Safari 3.1 to Windows XP and Vista users via Apple Software Update, a utility that up until then had been used solely to push security updates to iTunes and QuickTime. He blasted Apple for using the tool to push Safari as a new install, not an update.
Lilly drew a line between software updates and users, and he said the relationship is built on trust. "As a software maker, we promise to do our very best to keep users safe and will provide the quickest updates possible, with absolutely no other agenda," he wrote on Friday in his blog, saying that Apple violated that trust. "Apple has made it incredibly easy -- the default, even -- for users to install ride-along software that they didn't ask for, and maybe didn't want. This is wrong, and borders on malware distribution practices."
That raised an online ruckus. People who commented on Lilly's post left messages taking him to the woodshed with lines ranging from "mountain out of molehill" and "[do] you feel threatened that Apple decided to use a legitimate medium to distribute their browser?" to "load of crap."
Lilly knew what he was in for. "Apple is a very hard organization to get critical of," he said. "There's always an outpouring of defensive comments.
"Actually, I'm really encouraged by that. It shows the participatory nature of the Internet," Lilly added. "This is a subtle nuanced issue, but this isn't us vs. them."
In fact, Lilly tried to calm the waters by following his original Friday post with one on Sunday in which he denied that his criticism of Apple's Safari distribution meant Mozilla was spooked by competition. "It isn't about competition. To the contrary, competition is good -- necessary, actually," he wrote. "Competition -- or, more the point, the ability of people to choose what tools and services they use -- is essential, and without it nothing gets better."
Nor is it, Lilly said yesterday, about the money -- as some, including ZDNet's Larry Digman, have wondered. "There's no subtext in my message," said Lilly. "Not once did money come into my head when I was thinking about this. Competition, yes. In many many ways, this is about more competition."
Mozilla makes the bulk of its revenues from its relationship with Google Inc. Indeed, that relationship accounted for 85% of the $67 million Mozilla posted as revenues in 2006, the last year for which it has made financial information public. The search giant pays Mozilla for assigning the Google search engine as Firefox's default, and for click-throughs on ads placed on the ensuing search results pages. Because Apple's Safari also uses Google as its default, some speculated that Lilly's Apple attack was profit-motivated.
"It's not about the money," Lilly answered when asked about that issue. "The money thing is the money thing. If we don't build a better browser, we'll lose users, and that's fine. That's the way the market should work."
One security analyst played it cautious. "Let's say it was unexpected," said Andrew Storms, director of security operations at nCircle Network Security Inc., when asked to comment on Apple's move. "I did not expect Apple to bundle something else with its iTunes updates, so in a sense I do object to what Apple did, because it didn't explicitly define what it would include beforehand."
And Storms thought Lilly scored at least one hit when the Mozilla CEO said he would have had no problem with Apple's Safari distribution path if it had allowed users to opt in to the browser download instead of having it be automatic. "Then it's a different story," said Storms. "And [Lilly] has made a valid point. More than half, maybe even as much as 90% of users just accept what's offered."
"The world is a complex place," said Lilly. "There are new offerings on the Internet all the time, and we're all trying to figure out together how to be respectful of users."
This time, though, he made it clear that he thought Apple had stepped over the line. And he was unrepentant for taking on the company. "I think they've undermined the work that we're doing on security and updates," he said.