Archive for November, 2007

Mozilla Landscape 2008

November 27th, 2007

Last week I described my aspirations for Mozilla in 2008 — a set of high level, overarching concepts that describe *why* we do things and what is ultimately important to accomplish. Here’s a first step in translating those general sentiments into more concrete elements.

1. Mozilla designs and implements new ways for people to participate in building a better and more open Internet. Its programs help people participate at all levels — from building software to making good choices after the software they use, to understanding their role in protecting themselves, to expecting to be able to see the underlying data, to expecting and participating in decision-making for a range of Internet activities. The programs allow people to do these things without requiring that they get involved with a mass consumer product like Firefox. These program may relate to existing Mozilla projects, they may be in new areas. In short, we develop programs that encourage individual people to have a relationship with the Internet that is deeper than simply consuming what others choose to provide.

2. Mozilla continues to move the industry towards a more open Internet. This is brutally hard, but we consistently show that we are up to the challenge. This success is based on some fundamental accomplishments:

  • Firefox is the browser of choice for at least 200 million people and for web developers. Our userbase, marketshare, mindshare and distribution of the underlying Mozilla platform technologies are all stronger.
  • The Mozilla platform technologies showcase what the Internet can be. They demonstrate why developers should eschew closed commercial “platforms” and development environments.
  • We demonstrate that this focus on the platform technologies and Firefox is not a misguided focus; we demonstrate that it is the path for promoting the Internet itself as the development platform. And we’ve shown that this is an astonishingly effective way to move the Internet towards the goals of the Mozilla Manifesto.
  • “MailCo” has established itself as a good steward of Mozilla Thunderbird and a location for creative thinking in the Internet mail and communications space.

3. Mozilla is inserting openness and transparency to industry activities beyond the software we ship. We’re using the voice that Firefox gives us to show how information, standards, software, data, security, organizations and online life in general can be more open, more understandable and more influenced by individual action.

Mozilla Aspirations 2008

November 19th, 2007

A few weeks ago John Lilly got me to thinking — how would I describe my aspirations for Mozilla for 2008? I don’t mean how I would describe goals, or tasks, or specific things that need to be done. I mean aspirations — high level, overarching concepts that describe why we do things and what is ultimately important to accomplish.

Here’s the result — let me know what you think.

In 2008 we demonstrate to the world all the things that makes Firefox, Mozilla and the Open Web important. We tell the big picture Mozilla story effectively — what Mozilla is, what our products are, what our product and technology roadmaps are, what “open” is, how these traits result in a better Web, how people can participate, and why it matters.

We find new ways to give people greater control over their online lives — access to data, control of data, greater ability to participate beyond increased consumption. We demonstrate these characteristics through our products. We inspire others to create these characteristics. We show consumers what they should expect.

We make a compelling public case that this approach is practical, effective and innovative. We do this with Firefox 3, a great product that people love. We do it with other initiatives (not necessarily product releases) that show that Fx3 is a building block for even better things.

Focus on the general consumer: “What would my neighbor think?”

November 13th, 2007

Here’s another element of building a consumer product that colors daily life for much of the Mozilla project.

Firefox is intended to be useful to both power users and to people who are not technical experts, who want to use the Internet without having to understand all the pieces that make it work. The power users are more demanding in some ways, but also easier to address in many ways. After all, the developers of Firefox are power users themselves. Mozilla began a much more serious focus on the general consumer when we shifted primary development from our initial product (the “Mozilla Application Suite”) to Firefox and Thunderbird.

This change of focus seems obvious but it is in fact quite hard. One has to really care — at a deep level — for people with far less technical mastery. Or for someone who cares only enough to get things done and not because he or she finds Internet architecture remotely interesting. For example, there are many, many people who do not distinguish between the the url bar, the search box, the buttons at the top of the browser, the start page (web content) served jointly by Google or Yahoo and Mozilla, and the software provided by Mozilla. They often describe that combination as “my internet” or “firefox search” or “google”.

These are not “dumb users.” I hear these comments here in the heart of Silicon Valley regularly. Here in the Valley one can usually clarify a bit, because the Internet is after all the engine of local economic life. But elsewhere many people really don’t care. They want to know only what they need to know to get other things done. As an analogy, I think of the international postal system. It’s highly complex, with inter-governmental agreements, local arrangements, and a raft of supporting infrastructure. Most of us don’t know or care much about the details; we care about what postage costs and how long it takes a letter to get there.

Designing a product for people for whom new features may be frightening or unintelligible is very different from designing for the power user. It’s limiting in some ways, and yet can force a useful focus on what’s really important. It’s not for everyone.

We think about this all the time. We strive to build products that are effective for the general consumer. We consciously make decisions that something that is awesome to us may not be right for the general product. Even more tricky, we aim to build a product for the general consumer that is powerful and elegant, that allows people to experience the richness of the Internet, and that grows with people all the way to power users.

As in many things, Mozilla is a hybrid. We are a pioneer in this aspect of open source and we are trying new things constantly. We hope others become experts in this — one of our explicit goals is to share what we learn so that our experiences end up benefiting people far beyond the products we produce. We couldn’t do our work without the efforts of those who came before us; we hope that others will find the same to be true of our work.

Competitive Consumer Products are Hard

November 9th, 2007

One way that building a consumer product colors much of the Mozilla project is that building a competitive browser is brutally hard. It’s critical, it’s wildly exciting now, it generates astonishing commitment and bears great results — that’s why we do it. But it’s hard.

Building great products is hard enough on its own. Living within a competitive market space, as the browser does, adds another layer to the challenge. No one interested in maximizing the chances of success would choose our market space. Today the browser market looks competitive because the dominant player has “only” 75% market share. Where else does that look competitive?

Not only does the major player have “only” 75% of the market, it has unparalleled access to the established distribution channel — the hardware that people buy. Every person using Firefox has to make the decision to install Firefox every time he or she gets a new machine. That is a very hard place to be. It’s better today than when we started, but that’s only because the dominant player then had more than 90% market share and people thought it would be impossible to make any significant difference.

Other browser vendors also have some advantages we don’t. Apple for example, has exclusive control over what software is included on its hardware and has never offered Firefox. Apple has enormous resources and the ability to integrate its browser into other products. And of course Apple is renowned for producing excellent consumer products. For the future, when people speculate on who else might build a browser, some very giant companies are named. This is fierce competition.

We create browsers because it is too important to have only one or two big commercial players controlling access to the Internet. We create browsers as a public asset rather than for the private benefit of shareholders. We try to represent the quality of an individual’s online experience rather than a business plan. That’s a good cause, and extremely motivating. But it’s not enough to get 130,000,000 people to use Firefox. For that to happen we have to build a product that is better than those produced by the commercial industry leaders.

We won’t succeed because we are “OK.” We won’t succeed because there’s no other choice or the other choices are expensive. We won’t succeed simply because of our public benefit goals. Public benefit is important, it provides both direction and motivation. But that needs to be combined with a product experience that people love. We will succeed only if we create exceptional products that people choose to use over and over again.

Building a consumer product

November 7th, 2007

One of the ways in which the Mozilla project has been a pioneer is in building a consumer product with mass adoption. Before Firefox the conventional wisdom was that open source software projects could build server-side and infrastructure technology because the developers were building tools to meet their own needs. It was thought that consumer products — which need to be built for a very different audience — might be outside the competency of an open source software product.

Mozilla has demonstrated that this is not the case. It’s not easy to build good consumer products, that’s for sure, and nothing will make it easy. But Mozilla cracked the consumer barrier and other open source projects are now developing effective consumer software.

Building a consumer product for broad adoption is clearly possible for an open source project, we are doing that with Firefox today. Doing so affects the nature of the project. It’s probably not for everyone. The consumer focus affects many aspects of our efforts, some subtle and some obvious. This affects a big part of the Mozilla project, so I thought it would be interesting to have a conversation about the ways in which the mass consumer focus colors our life.

Here are some of the things that describe daily life in shipping a product with the reach of Firefox; feel free to add more.

  • We live in a competitive space and it’s hard
  • Speed, innovation, elegance and fundamentals (performance, security) are all critical all the time
  • The target audience is *really* different from the developers
  • Cross-platform goals affects our approach
  • Silence, appreciation and criticism are mixed up oddly
  • Adding non-coding activities to open source development is fundamental to success

I’ll post some thoughts on the various topics on the list separately. Or I’ll comment if someone else gets to this first 🙂

Voting in Awe

November 7th, 2007

Yesterday was an election day in the part of California where I live. It was a small, municipal election (city council, city clerk, local school district), but still.

I am left in awe every time I vote. The idea that large groups of people can construct and maintain a society where every adult can participate in a peaceful decision-making process, and one that actually governs a stable, productive society is amazing. The fact that it works is breath-taking.

When I see the “vote here” symbol at a polling place it takes my breath away. That small symbol — often a picture attached to a window, or mounted on a small, portable stand — is so quiet and yet profound beyond words.

I imagine that several hundred years ago the idea the idea that people would willingly, peacefully live with decisions they disagreed with passionately because everyone had the opportunity to participate by voting would have been laughable. It’s not an obvious idea. But somehow it came to pass.

The many aspects of “non-profit”

November 5th, 2007

I’m often asked various questions about non-profits. Many people have a general idea of what “non-profit” means but very few have a specific, technical understanding. This makes perfect sense. The technical understanding is a legal and accounting mix, and specific to legal jurisdiction as well.

Here’s a brief outline of what “non-profit” means — in the technical, legal sense — to the Mozilla Foundation. It’s pretty dense stuff, and I’ll provide only the most basic summary. I think about this a lot but in this post I’ll try to stick to describing the structure.

I. “Non-profit” status

The Mozilla Foundation is legally identified as a “non-profit public benefit” organization under California law. Its property is “irrevocably dedicated to charitable purposes.” The Mozilla Foundation is governed by the California Nonprofit Corporation Law, which is somewhat different from California’s General Corporations Code. I’ve found that the distinctions between the general Corporations Law and the Nonprofit Corporation Law include structural elements — members instead of shareholders and so on, and a set of distinctions which I think of as designed to ensure that the organization is pursuing a non-profit goal rather than pursuing private gain.

II. “Tax-exempt” status

The Mozilla Foundation is also a tax-exempt organization as determined by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. To be a tax-exempt organization one should be a non-profit organization (as described above), and the purpose of the organization must fit within additional specifications. Once this status is granted, a tax-exempt organizations is governed by a body of regulations and policies determined by the IRS. These regulations are in addition to any requirements imposed by the Nonprofit Corporation Law. These regulations identify permissible purposes for a tax-exempt organization. They also limit the kinds of activities in which a tax exempt organization can engage, especially for activities that generate revenue or that involve advocating for particular laws. In exchange for tax-exempt status, an organization lives with significantly more restrictions on the way it can operate.

III. “501(c)(3)” status

The Internal Revenue Service grants tax-exempt status to several different kinds of organizations. The Section of the Internal Revenue Code that describes the types of exemptions is Section 501. The most important one for our purposes is Section 501(c)(3). This section applies to organizations “organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international amateur sports competition . . . or for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals . . .”

The Mozilla Foundation is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization dedicated to promoting the Internet as a universal, innovative platform accessible to all.

IV. “Public Charity” status

There are actually two types of 501(c)(3) organizations. One type receives significant contributions from the public — a “public charity” 501(c)(3). The other type is a “private foundation.” These are generally 501(c)(3) organizations where an individual or family contributes most or all of the money and the charity operates from these funds and the income they generate. Private foundations are required to spend a certain percentage of their funds each year, public charities are not. (There are also two types of private foundations, operating and non-operating.) The IRS reviews 501(c)(3) organizations periodically to see if they are public charities or private foundations. The Mozilla Foundation is currently a public charity 501(c)(3) organization.

For Further Detail

Each of these areas can become complex quickly. This is an area where it takes true experts to fully understand. Wikipedia has a nice overview article. The actual documents relating to the Mozilla Foundation can be found at the Mozilla Foundation website.

After living in this world for the last few years I have many thoughts about where this system works well and where it is unwieldy or even counter-productive. I’ll put those in a separate post before too long.

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