Browser Add-Ons an Emerging Force

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. – The burgeoning market for browser add-ons finally has its own conference. Today’s one-day event drew about 160 developers and other interested parties to the Computer History Museum to hear experts talk about both the business and technical side of bringing add-ons to market.

While this may have been the first conference devoted to this market segment, browser add-ons are a big business that have also strongly influenced browser advancements. Brian King, a consultant and board member of Mozilla’s hosting site, noted a number of standard browser features started out as add-ons. He said Multizilla led to tabbed browsing in Firefox, just as another add-on, Total Recall, was a precursor to the Session Restore feature in the Firefox browser.

“Add-ons can be an incubator for core features that go into the browser, features we take for granted today,” he said.

King noted that last month announced it had surpassed a billion downloads of add-ons since it started tracking the figures in 2005. “It’s a staggering number. It means people are using add-ons and it’s a viable market because the browser is where people spend most of their time,” he said.

Mozilla offers a central Web site to download free add-ons for its Firefox browser. Late to the party, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) offers a similar site of add-ons for the latest beta version of Internet Explorer 8.

But even with all this activity, the broader potential market for add-ons is largely untapped. “There are no really excellent consumer applications, it’s largely techie stuff,” Jordan Stolper, CEO of startup, told Stolper’s company is developing a browser add-on designed to make planning trips more fun.

Stolper thinks 2009 will be a turning point for the industry with a raft of more consumer-friendly add-ons appearing. “Add-ons have great potential consumer value because they offer a way to elevate what you can get out of the Web,” he said.

Changing the Web

One of those companies looking to elevate or enhance the consumer experience is Cooliris. “We think the Web hasn’t changed much in the past ten years and there’s a fundamental unmet need,” said Alec Jeong, the lead for user growth at Cooliris. “If you have thousands of images results from a Google search, how do you get a sense of what’s on the tenth page?”

Cooliris offers a three dimensional wall that puts multiple results or images on display to quickly scan and find what you want. It also provides a black background Jeong said is more aesthetically pleasing than the standard white background.

He also said Cooliris is experimenting with new kinds of large display ads that connect on a more emotional level than most ads on the Web do today. “Our goal is to bring … the visual appeal and emotional ethos of what you see in a magazine, and combine that with the interactivity of the Web,” he said.

Next page: keys to success

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So far, he said user feedback is high and the click through rate (clicking to see full screen versions of these ads) is relatively high at seven percent.

Jeremy Liew, a venture capitalist with Lightspeed Venture Partners, moderated the conference’s opening panel. Liew said add-ons offer developers a ubiquitous relationship with users. “They go wherever the user is on the Web, and it’s a great opportunity to collect data,” he said.

For companies like OneRiot, that’s important because the it offers a “social” search engine, available as a toolbar for either Firefox or IE, that provides results influenced by where its community surfs on the Web. “At the end of the day, we want targeted data and people who are going to use that data,” said Kimbal Musk, CEO of OneRiot.

Distribution is key to success. “If you can find something to get Webmasters to promote your service, that’s a great method of distribution,” said Geoff Mack, product manager at Alexa.

Alex Iskold, CEO of Adaptive Blue, said the Mozilla Add-on site has been “a great channel” for distribution, generating over two million downloads. The company offers a range of browser utility services based on semantic Web technology. Its latest, Glue, offers a way to connect with friends while surfing. The “Glue bar” shows you friends who looked at the same thing and their comments.

Iskold said AdaptiveBlue is very transparent about telling people what information it collects. It’s also only active on the few sites where it’s meaningful to the user, where common interests like books or movies might be the focus. “There is a right way to connect people around their interests and we want to be careful to facilitate that in the right way,” he said.

Don’t oversell

Some panelists warned toolbars and other add-ons can be too intrusive. Adam Boyden, president of Conduit, which offers custom toolbars for such clients as Major League Baseball, said there is tremendous demand among publishers to find better content for their toolbars. But they have to offer clear utility. Conduit offers a network of components that can be added to toolbars.

“Some publishers have had disastrous results because they were overly enthusiastic in marketing their brand and ended up with a very high churn rate,” he said. While he wouldn’t talk about specific ad or license revenue, Boyden said Conduit hasn’t touched any of the $8 million it raised and has 65 employees.

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