Archive for July, 2011

The Browser By Many Other Names

July 26th, 2011

In my last post I wrote about Mozilla creating more than a browser. There are many topics in that post to be explored further. I’d like to start with a discussion of the various aspects of Firefox that are important to bringing interoperability and user sovereignty to the Internet. Then we can think about how we make these various aspects effective in changing settings.

Let’s think for a minute about what the browser does. My particular focus in this post is item 4 below, but it takes a bit of context to get there. A browser:

  1. finds, accesses and transmits information to a web application or website and translates the response to a user’s device
  2. renders that content on the user’s device in a way that people can respond to
  3. provides a UI so people can interact with content from a web application
  4. provides mechanisms for people to customize the way they interact with the web and web applications.

Items 1 and 2 above are generally lumped together and identified as the “platform” or “rendering engine” or “back-end” or “infrastructure” part of the browser. In the Mozilla world this part of the browser is called Gecko. The engine is incredibly important and I’ll post something on this specific topic shortly.

Item 3 is generally called the “browser application layer.” If one thinks of the URL bar, back and forward buttons, the dialog boxes asking about password management, security warnings — these are all element of the “application layer” of the browser.

Item 4 is generally overlooked. We don’t have an accepted industry-wide term for this part of the browser. I think of this as the “user-sovereignty core.” The browser causes things to happen on my behalf in order to tune the Internet to the experience I want. For example, in Firefox the Do Not Track feature broadcasts my preference to be left alone across all websites I visit. The Pop-Up Blocker allows me to control pop-up windows from across the Internet as well as for individual sites. The Permissions Manager (under development now) allows me to manage how web applications interact with me — location, passwords, cookies. The “Awesome Bar” makes my browsing history across multiple websites available to me, for easier navigation. (In the Mozilla case we do this without making my history available to any one else.) For those of us with poor eyesight, the browser can increase fonts sizes for all the web applications I use, even if the web application does nothing itself.

The user-sovereignty core is not overlooked at Mozilla. It is a fundamental product criteria.


User-sovereignty spans all aspects of our offerings, from the platform layer to the browser application layer to everything else. Firefox has been the pioneer in many now common user-sovereignty features. Without the user sovereignty core the browser is a tool for websites to deliver content to people, but not a tool for individual human beings to control their overall experience.

The user-sovereignty core of the browser allows people to:

  • explore
  • integrate
  • filter
  • manage
  • interact
  • change
  • control

their experience in a unified fashion across all the many applications we use. This is how we create a unified experience unique to me that applies across multiple applications. Mozilla has a unique ability to put user sovereignty first. We’re organized as a non-profit precisely so that this is our key focus. Our stakeholders care about the values we build into the Internet, not the economic value we create for ourselves.

We have a powerful force for user sovereignty advocacy in Firefox, and through Firefox across vast portions of the Internet. We need to continue this with Firefox. We also need to make sure this exists for other aspects of Internet life, from the mobile world to data to apps. Bringing user-sovereignty to the different ways people use the Internet is a key to fulfilling the Mozilla mission.


Upcoming Posts::  The App Model and the Web, Let’s Talk Gecko

Mozilla in the New Internet Era — More Than the Browser

July 14th, 2011

Mozilla’s mission is to build user sovereignty into the fabric of the Internet. We work to ensure that the the Internet remains open, interoperable and accessible to all. To do this we build products, we build decentralized participation worldwide, and we build the ability for people to create their own experiences in addition to consuming commercial offerings.

Internet life is undergoing immense changes. The mobile revolution has huge implications, from new devices to operating systems to user expectations. The social experience means a lot of personal data about me becomes central. The increasingly ubiquitous nature of computing devices (phone to tablets to microwaves to lights and electric meters) means the amount and kinds of data being generated are changing dramatically.

Since the Internet experience is changing, that means Mozilla must change too. The products and tools we use to fulfill our mission need to expand and change. When we started the key roadblock to true user sovereignty was the sorry state of the browser. At the time the browser was the near-universal way people accessed web content. It was so universal people somewhat forgot about it and assumed that what the commercial world provided was enough. With Firefox, we won this first round of the fight for user sovereignty. We have a great browser, it helped spawn vast amounts of innovation and a new generation of capabilities. The browser remains incredibly important. Indeed, it’s so important that other organizations are building their own browsers to build the web they way they want it.

The browser is necessary but it is no longer sufficient. There are a number of reasons the Firefox experience needs to expand to fulfill the Mozilla mission.

For one thing, even if I use Firefox, I use it today to create information about myself that lives in multiple data silos (or “websites” or “apps” or “services”). These are often inter-operable, subject to different rules, and usually difficult or impossible to combine. Access to information I’ve created about myself is fragmented. The set of values that we have built into Firefox is not yet present in this information / data layer.

Secondly, the browser is no longer the only way people access the Internet. People also use more focused “apps” to do discrete tasks, and often feel a strong sense of attachment to the apps and the app model. This is an exciting addition. Mozilla should embrace some aspects of the current app model in addition to the browser model. I think of apps as a new “form-factor” for the web. Focused, with a sense of discovery and ownership. Today apps are also platform specific, sometimes device specific, and don’t provide many of the attributes we associate with the web.

Thirdly, mobile devices mean the entire hardware and software stacks are changing. As a result, the computers many of us use are more closed than they have been in our lifetimes. At the same time, the range of new possibilities and experiences is exploding. Mobile computing needs a strong infusion of Mozilla values. This means Firefox and other software on the new platforms, it means apps and it means bringing the Firefox experience to data and services as well.

Mozilla has a unique ability to put user sovereignty first in all of these areas. We’re organized as a non-profit precisely so that this is the only thing that matters. Our stakeholders care about the values we build into the Internet, not the economic value we create for ourselves. We’ve done this with Firefox. We had a vision of how the world could be, and we created a product to make that vision real. Now the vision seems obvious. It’s been widely adopted and has become a competitive aspect of the mainstream.

It’s time to expand the Firefox experience to encompass the changing face of the Internet.

We have a number of initiatives underway that can form a piece of this expansion. Discussion is underway on a Firefox vision document that points to some of these issues. We now consider Android as a first tier platform; and have begun explorations into providing parts of the Firefox experience on multiple platforms with Firefox Home. There is architecture, protocol and implementation work underway for the apps ideas and identity.

Your thoughts and comments welcome here.  Please stay tuned for more detailed discussions on all these topics.  And most importantly, please jump in, get involved, and build the Firefox experience throughout our online lives.

Watching Brendan Delegate Authority — now (June 2011) and then (Jan, 1999)

July 12th, 2011

A couple of weeks ago Brendan wrote a post about delegating authority for the JavaScrpt module to dmandelin. It’s a beautiful post, combining an official change in authority with history and humor. (And of course, being Brendan, some film references.) If you haven’t read Brendan’s post and you want a sense of history and a personality who’s been at the center of Mozilla since its beginning, check it out.

Delegation of authority is a key concept in the Mozilla world. Members of the Mozilla community earn authority and leadership for particular areas of code or activities through our Module Ownership System. The first time I saw Brendan delegate authority was in 1999. Mozilla was not yet remotely successful. Blogs weren’t yet in use, Internet forums not invented. It was a long time ago, in Internet time. This delegation of authority was far less formal, but effective none the less. It was the moment I became committed to Mozilla as my main thing.

Mozilla was created in 1998 within the walls of Netscape, the company that made the first commercial browser and set the World Wide Web on fire. Brendan has been involved with the Mozilla open source project full time since its beginning. By 1999, just a year after its founding, Brendan was not only the technical center of Mozilla, but also its acting general manager.

At the time I was bored. I had been working as a lawyer at Netscape since 1994. By 1999 much of the legal work was no longer new. Netscape was different of course, and soon to be acquired by AOL. But more importantly, the World Wide Web had become mainstream. The number of times we made things up because they had never been done before was much smaller. We even found case law and precedent and law review articles related to our work.

I had experienced cutting edge innovation and I wanted more of it. Mozilla looked interesting to me. I was doing Mozilla work part time and could tell that things were definitely unformed and really new. Netscape’s CEO and my then-boss the General Counsel were both big supporters of the idea of me joining Mozilla full time. I knew however that Netscape management wasn’t the important decision-maker about Mozilla. Netscape could say whatever it wanted but I knew that the Mozilla contributors needed to accept me. That meant Brendan.

So I went looking for Brendan. Then, as now, it’s not that easy to find Brendan physically. He wanders about a bit. He often has a favorite work-spot that isn’t his cube, or his desk, or anyplace official. His timing is his own. These days I can ping him and it’s easier to get together. But then my question wasn’t really one to launch via email. (Remember, IM, IRC, forums, Skype, and social media were all rudimentary or unknown in those days.) It took me days and multiple trips to the part of the world where Brendan worked, but eventually I found him. It felt odd to raise my question — what would he think of me joining Mozilla full time in a general manager type role? I knew he was filling this role at least temporarily, in addition to providing technical leadership. I suspected he didn’t care much for the management part of his role, but had no way to b sure until I asked him. It would also mean that –in the official Netscape worldview — I would become Brendan’s official manager and he would “work for me” in the eyes of Netscape and AOL. (That’s not how things are in the open source project part of the Mozilla world; more on that later.)

Brendan can be decisive. He listened to me and asked a few questions. After about 30 minutes he looked me in the eye and agreed. By doing so he delegated part of his role to me, and gave me room to create my contributions to Mozilla.

We have never revisited this decision in any way. We split final decision-making within the Mozilla open source project into two pieces. If a question is technical Brendan is the ultimate decision-maker. For other project-related things I am. We have also created a range of new roles, from the Foundation and its Board of Directors, Executive Director, CEO and a range of product responsibilities not tied exclusively to code. Along the way Brendan and I have each tried to delegate as much as possible, and to be clear that new roles and owners have real authority of their own. We’ve agreed on most things. We’ve disagreed on a few, and had some awkward and difficult moments. Far fewer than I would have thought.

I never could have imagined where that 30 minute conversation in 1999 would lead. One thing was clear though — the ability to pass on authority, to allow others the room to lead — is critical to making Mozilla a long-term success.

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