February 25, 2008

Evangelist: Mozilla has "historic opportunity" to advocate for users

Author: Tina Gasperson

Recently, Linux.com had the chance to ask Mozilla evangelist Chris Blizzard his thoughts about the past, present, and future of Mozilla, the force behind the successful Firefox browser and Thunderbird email application.

Linux.com: Tell me about the impetus for the creation and evolution of Mozilla. What was the motivating force behind its creation, and what keeps it growing and changing?

Chris Blizzard: I think the use of the word "evolution" in there is highly appropriate. Mozilla has been around for a decade now and in that time I think that we've changed and grown both as a project and as an organization. Not just in terms of our technology but also in terms of understanding ourselves and our unique role to play as a fundamental part of the infrastructure of the Internet.

The original reason for Mozilla's creation was certainly a reactionary move by Netscape to deal with Microsoft's growing dominance of the Web. But I suspect that what grew out of that move -- the Mozilla that we have 10 years later -- is not something that anyone at Netscape in 1998 would have predicted. As we have grown over the last decade we've learned what's really important, and our focus has changed. Instead of just being an open source browser project that other people can build products on, we've evolved into an organization that advocates on behalf of its users, that knows that innovation is needed to protect the Web and acts directly to create change in the world.

I personally believe that we have a historic opportunity. We're a global brand and product used by well over 100 million people that's created by a nonprofit entity working in direct concert with a community of thousands of contributors from all over the world. That's what keeps us working late into the night to create a great product.

LC: Tell me about Mozilla's own philosophy regarding FOSS. What is the company culture regarding the open source/free software community? Is Mozilla an "open source" company or a "free software" company, or some mixture?

CB: I would describe Mozilla's use of open source as a symptom of an organizational pathology of transparency. Wherever it is practical and possible we try to avoid secrets. Be it release schedules, early designs, bugs in our product, what security fixes we've made in a release, or our opinions on where the market is going -- we try and make as much of that as public as possible.

So, are we an "open source" company? Sure. But how we license our software is simply a reflection of our more generalized transparency and is only part of the story of what Mozilla is and how we operate.

LC: What about the Mozilla application framework? What is the benefit to Mozilla of offering this, and what is the benefit to developers using it?

CB: It's been a long time since we've had a formal application framework. A long time ago we made a very deliberate decision to move from a project that released open source software to an unknown audience to a project that had a particular audience and made hard decisions about what to include and -- incredibly difficult for an open source project -- what not to include. Firefox is the current implementation of that strategy.

We've always had the discussions internally about promoting Mozilla-as-a-platform vs. Mozilla-as-a-product. And it's important to realize that the success we've had to date is because we've done the latter.

This doesn't mean that we're not a decent platform, too. Companies and groups have produced things like AllPeers, Miro (formerly Democracy player), Songbird, the new Flickr uploader. These are just some of the things that are built on top of our platform.

The developer value is clear. It's a decent cross-platform open source framework that is built on Web technologies. If you can hack the Web, odds are you can use our framework. That gives you a very deep developer pool. And the ability to deploy on a huge number of platforms without a huge amount of work and leverage all that the Web has to offer.

Our next release of Firefox will be build on top of XULRunner, which is the name that we use to describe the XUL-based runtime that we, and others, are building XUL-based products on. This doesn't mean that when you download Firefox you're going to get a XULRunner build, but it does make our own deployment easier. And for those that are also building similar products, they can do the same thing.

I've talked with most of the Linux distributions and it sounds like most of them will have separate XULRunner packages and will build Firefox on top of them. This means that if you're installing a modern Linux distribution you will be able to build on top of XULRunner as well.

Also we know that as we move into the mobile space, having a predictable development framework is important. XULRunner is part of that picture and is going to be increasingly important to the mobile companies we're talking to who are interested in including Firefox technologies into their products. So my personal prediction is that we'll see something that's easily consumed as a platform in addition to Firefox coming from Mozilla.

LC: What is the biggest challenge of being an open source/free software company? How have you overcome that challenge?

CB: I think that we have two major challenges. The first is that we had to find a path to financial sustainability. It's important to realize that we didn't intend to build a financial model around Firefox. We were more worried about building a great product than anything else. And it turns out that the way that it was built created value for search engines and that has been our financial engine ever since. Many open source projects either distrust the influence of money or don't have a path to financial viability. I think that we've embraced the revenue side of our project because we realize that it's an important part of being able to create change and compete with proprietary vendors (Microsoft and Apple in particular) in our space. And being able to create change has brought the Web forward over the last few years, so it has been an important contributor to our overall mission.

Second, I think that transparency comes with costs. The overhead of communication with thousands of people all over the world is not without cost. It might be easier for us to ignore them and just plow on, but that's not the way that we work. We believe that our transparency plays a large part in why people trust our products and love the work that we all do. And sometimes, someone who you have never even heard of can show up and make an observation that you may never have thought of.

The second cost of transparency is that sometimes what you say in public can be easily misconstrued to mean something unintended. We've seen stories in the press from time to time where someone takes a comment from our weekly public meeting notes, which are mainly intended for community contributors, and builds sensational headlines around them. So you have to be careful to craft context whenever you're talking about something in the community. Once again, on balance it's very important to our success, but you have to be careful about it.

LC: What is the biggest benefit to Mozilla of being an open source/free software company? Is it monetary or is there some other intangible? Do you think you could ever have as good a product if it were proprietary or built on proprietary terms?

CB: Our transparency, code and otherwise, is fundamental to our brand and our ability to say with a straight face that what we're doing is good for the Web. I don't know if we would be successful if we were proprietary, but I do know for a fact that it would have been hard to survive the Netscape collapse, and it would have been impossible to build the global community that we have today.

The quality of our product is directly related to our users' ability to report and participate in the resolution of problems. Once again, transparency is important there as well. There are a lot of very good proprietary products out there, but none of them have the same leverage, scale, or scope that we do.

LC: What advice do you have for other individuals or organizations that are, or want to be, thoroughly open source?

CB: I think that organizations that are thinking about open source should understand what it really means to do open source. Answering questions like: what is your financial driver? What does it mean to interact with consumers of your code? Does your audience care if it's open source or not? What rules will you construct around how you interact with people who want to make contributions? What if someone wants to take what you have created and use it for an entirely different purpose? What happens if you lose interest?

Those are just a sample set of questions, but they really lay out some of the things that you need to be able to answer before you want to embark on something. Of course, it's also a crime to overthink something like that. Sometimes you should just write code and see who shows up. That's the best way to learn.

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