Mozilla has acquired Pocket, a kind of DVR for the internet, for an undisclosed sum. The nine-year-old company, which makes tools for saving articles and videos to view them later, is Mozilla’s first acquisition. It represents a homecoming of sorts for Pocket, which began life as a Firefox extension before eventually expanding its team and building a suite of apps for every major platform. Pocket has been Firefox’s default read-it-later service since 2015.
Mozilla said Pocket, which it will operate as an independent subsidiary, would help bring the company to mobile devices, where it has historically struggled to attract users. Best known for its Firefox web browser, Mozilla has faltered in the mobile era, spending years on its failed Firefox phone project and waiting until 2016 to release Firefox on iOS globally. Meanwhile, the slow decline of the desktop web has made Mozilla’s broader future uncertain.
Pocket comes to the table with 10 million monthly active users and a set of existing and potential businesses new to Mozilla, including advertising, a premium subscription service, and analytics for publishers. And unlike Mozilla’s existing mobile products, people seem to enjoy using it. “We love the way that they have the user-first mentality, very similar to the way we drive our products,” said Denelle Dixon, Mozilla’s chief business and legal officer. “It hasn’t just been about how much revenue they can glean from their product.”
Pocket flirted with an acquisition six years ago, when Evernote offered to buy a company that was then known as Read It Later. But CEO Nate Weiner rejected Evernote’s offer when it became apparent that Pocket was likely to become a feature inside the bigger company’s app, rather than a standalone product.
But while Pocket was a great app, it was not yet clear that it could be a great business. At 10 million monthly users, the app is small by the standards of the mobile era, particularly for a company building an advertising-supported business. Its chief rival, Instapaper, sold to Pinterest last year.
Pocket had raised $14.5 million from investors including GV and Axel Springer Digital Ventures. Its 25-person team will continue working independently from its office in San Francisco, Weiner said. So why sell now? “We’ve always had this same litmus test we used against Evernote,” Weiner said. “Will this allow us to accomplish our mission bigger, better, and faster? Nobody’s ever checked that box before.” But with Mozilla, he said, “it became very clear from the extraordinary resources they have, the scale they have globally, the mission we share together, it was a fit.”
Pocket won’t make any major changes to its product or business this year, Weiner said. Over time, Mozilla said Pocket would assist in what it calls its “content graph” initiative — an effort to build a recommendation engine for the web and integrate it with the browser. Pocket, after all, is a kind of browser — of stuff you have saved to read or watch, plus recommendations from people you’re friends with or follow. People have saved 3 billion items there to date.
Weiner has long touted Pocket’s ability to identify high-quality articles and videos by the number of times they are saved, read, viewed, and shared. It’s easy to imagine that index eventually powering Mozilla’s recommendation algorithms, and deploying them at a far greater scale than Pocket could have done on its own.
Mozilla also made some noises about this acquisition somehow contributing to the health of the internet, which... well, let’s just let Mozilla CEO Chris Beard tell you: “We believe that the discovery and accessibility of high-quality web content is key to keeping the internet healthy by fighting against the rising tide of centralization and walled gardens,” he said in a blog post. “Pocket provides people with the tools they need to engage with and share content on their own terms, independent of hardware platform or content silo for a safer, more empowered and independent online experience.”
It’s unclear to me how an app that takes something from the web, strips out the advertising, and puts it inside a native app on a mobile phone is contributing to the health of the internet. Pocket certainly makes the web more useful. But it has a long way to go before it can claim to be making it healthy.
But Weiner says that at Firefox, Pocket can expand the reach of high-quality journalism at a large scale: “In a world where we are buried by content, where it’s become increasingly harder to find signal in the noise, truth from fiction, and even the value of our press and written word is being challenged, we need a platform where high-quality, thoughtful content and free speech can rise above the rest.”