You knew the old Mozilla, meet the new Mozilla

One of the notable things about working at Mozilla over the last few years right now is that our aims have gotten much more ambitious, but perception moves slower than reality, even among people who spend every working hour working on the project. I’ve been privileged enough to have a lot of conversations with a lot of people, and to see an evolution in the thinking that motivates our priorities. I’ve also been unfortunate enough to see and participate in high-emotion conflicts, which emerge from the disconnect between various individuals’ perceived priorities. I’m hoping that this post can explain the high level reasons for our current initiatives & why they matter, and maybe help get people past short-term conflicts.


For many years, the area that Mozilla needed to focus on was clear: to save the promise of the web, we needed to make a fast and useful browser that didn’t get in the users’ way, and get lots and lots of people to adopt it. This was (and is) a product play, which implies is that success would be determined by what real people would choose to use based on the real choices in front of them. And the people demanded high quality code, zarro boogs, security, etc., but they mostly demanded compelling experiences that solved their problems. In the case of the browser wars, the outcome has been pretty good for society, if slower than we’d have liked: standards have evolved, browsers got better and faster, and websites got more interesting (I’ll note in passing that cross-browser dev work is still way too painful).


While that fight is far from over, we’re now at a distinct point in the evolution of the web, and Mozilla has appropriately looked around, and broadened its reach. In particular, the browser isn’t the only strategic front in the struggle to promote and maintain people’s sovereignty over their online lives. There are now at least three other fronts where Mozilla is making significant investments of time, energy, passion, sweat & tears. They’re still in their infancy, but they’re important to understand if you want to understand Mozilla:

The first such effort is, in some ways, “lower in the stack” than the browser. We started an ambitious exploration called Boot to Gecko (B2G), which I don’t yet understand well enough in detail, but which is clearly trying to ensure that there are realistic options for mobile devices which bake in the right values as low as possible in the stack. As I discussed in my last post, the verticalization of the internet means that we’re heading towards a world where who you get your phone from will determine way too much about how you can experience the internet. B2G is a bold exploration tackling the operating system layer of that world.

The two other such efforts are higher-level in the stack, specifically in areas which I’ve been following closely: user identity, and apps. Both of these are spaces where the shape of the real world ergonomics & economics of the internet have managed to completely sneak around the “traditional” world view of browsers & websites.

User-centric Identity on the web

For identity in particular, it’s now possible to create highly engaging experiences thanks to personalization, but that personalization is by far easiest to achieve by adopting technologies like Facebook Connect, which, while appropriate in some contexts, is inappropriate in many, and highlights how much “we in the internet” have failed to address the very real needs of website developers and their users. It’s taken Mozilla a fair bit of time & experimentation to get to something that feels truly great, but I’m very bullish on our first big push in this space, which we’re calling BrowserID for now. The goals of BrowserID are simple:

  • users and websites want to make sign in easy
  • users should be able to choose who their identity provider is
  • websites don’t want to be beholden to a single identity provider
  • sign in should work everywhere

With BrowserID Mozilla took a bold step, which is still poorly understood even within Mozilla:

  • we built a system that works in all modern browsers
  • we’re standing up a service to bootstrap the system until identity providers opt in, with the strictest transparency and privacy guarantees we can come up with
  • identity providers can federate it when they want
  • we build on identity concepts which users and developers understand and trust today.
  • we’re hoping that all browsers provide enhanced user experiences on top of the protocol, but we don’t need and won’t wait for their cooperation. This fight will be won by offering something compelling to website developers (and their users!) first.

For Mozilla devs, this is a bit shocking, as we’re not starting by putting a feature in Firefox first (although we sure hope that Firefox will implement BrowserID before the others!). While I love Firefox, this makes me happy, because in my mind, Mozilla is about making the internet work better for everyone, not just Firefox users, and in this case being browser-neutral is the right strategic play.

Note that Mozilla has always been about making the internet better for everyone, and that’s what’s driving e.g. our policy work. Pragmatically, Mozilla is now big enough that I believe we’ll be more effective if we fight on several fronts at once — coordination costs are very real, and progress on BrowserID in no way diminishes Firefox’s value proposition, although they can (and will!) be better together.

Apps that are of the web

The other critical challenge to the web is the rise of Apps, as a mechanism that developers are turning to because it’s easier to get your apps found & bought, and that users love because it’s an easier way to experience functionality on mobile devices in particular. And here too, Mozilla has a strong play, which is just starting, but which I believe has legs. We launched a developer preview of our Apps initiative, which has the following bold (but doable!) aims:

  • make web technologies the best way to create apps that users can find and install on all devices
  • propose a standard for app purchase and installation that allows many appstores to compete for developers and users, so that developers don’t have to go through an arbitrary process to reach their audience, and users can choose where they want to get their apps.

There are many more things to say about our Apps effort, but I like to summarize it as teaching the web about the good bits of apps, and teaching apps about the good bits of the web. Right now we’re watching the sausage being made (something you don’t see in the Apple and Google kitchens), and it’s a bit chaotic.  But over time, and by the time it gets into consumer hands, it’s going to be splendid.

Here too, the goal is complementary to the success of the Firefox browser. And here too, we need so much help, from app developers to help us prioritize features, from web runtime developers to negotiate and implement the APIs that app developers need, and from early adopters to help us iron out the experience (and be forgiving especially in these early days).


I’ve been speaking to app & website developers about BrowserID and Apps for a few weeks, and the feedback has been great — webdevs & entrepreneurs are very aware of the dangers of relying on Facebook, Google, or Apple as the bridges to distribution or users. They desperately want an upgrade to the internet that solves these issues in an infrastructural way, and they are quite aware that Mozilla has a unique position beyond being the makers of Firefox.  Webdevs understand the public benefit charter of Mozilla, and many are keen for us to take on more responsibilities there, and happy to help.

Culture shock

I expect it’s not obvious from a distance, but this kind of strategic broadening is hard on a culture. It means that we don’t have a single way of going after things. It means that others in the project seem to work in directions which don’t appear to line up with your own. It means that now engineers don’t just argue with product folks (a tradition in every software organization), but with other engineers with different priorities. It means that it’s impossible (and frustrating!) to keep track of what everyone is doing. All that is painful, especially as the odds are long in each of these battles, so it’s natural to want everyone else to drop what they’re doing and come help you out.

The best advice I have if you find yourself in this kind of culture shock is to first recognize it for what it is: you’re looking up from something you’ve been heads-down in, and your world (and your Mozilla!) looks like it’s changed in surprising ways — that’s scary, for limbic-brain kinds of reasons. We all tend to feel this way when we learn about new developments around us that we weren’t deeply involved with, from SOPA to “what the kids are up to these days”. We have to moderate that gut reaction with a bit of brainpower, and realize that just because it makes us uncomfortable, it’s not necessarily bad. That’s when the work begins: finding out who is working on whatever it is that’s making you uncomfortable, and reaching out to them to get looped in. In particular, doing so tends to work better face-to-face, or at least one-on-one. Finding the right people to talk to will take effort and time. It’s on you to do that work, though, and get informed.  Take the time to understand the history of the change before expressing your unhappiness — the people involved are likely just as smart as you, and if they’re Mozillians, they’re motivated by the same mission.

Looking forward

So while there’s tension aplenty, when I think about this new Mozilla, which not only is committed to producing the best possible browser on desktops and phones, but is willing to invest in shaping what mobile devices should and could be like in 5 years, and reaching out of its comfort zone by standing up to internet bullies in critical areas like identity and apps, I’m pretty proud to be involved.  I’m confident that 2012 is going to see the emergence of new facets of Mozilla, just as the net needs its particular blend of values, ambition, and pragmatism more than ever.


    1. David: I think Mark’s way ahead of the curve. In particular, Mark & the Foundation have been doing some really powerful, important work in parts of the internet that the “industry” has ignored for too long. You’re absolutely right that I should have included that set of initiatives in anything claiming to be about “mozilla in 2012”. My bad, but I’m doing penance by working with the Foundation folks on some of them, so I’m hoping I’ll have more meaningful things to say later this year =).


  1. This is why I am glad to be here now and why 2012 is going to be amazing. The challenge is great for Mozilla, but failing to meet our ambitious goals could be disastrous for the future of the Web. Must push forward and rock everything!


  2. Thanks for sharing this interesting and in my opinion very important plan. I’m looking forward to BrowserID, and to the other ways you intend to reduce our dependency on the current proprietary infrastructure providers.


    1. Short version: we don’t know how to make it work without requiring either JavaScript or changing browsers. The plan is for browsers to build in some capabilities over time, but for now, JavaScript is the hammer we have.


  3. I like those ideas, there should be universal rights on the internet. such things we cant hand over to MS Google or ACTA.

    The app store initiative would be cool to, i hope some easy to use web based developer platform will arise conntected to your store, maybe part of mozila.

    These days it feels like a crime to build something that support many mobile phones types.

    I hope we wont endup with all kind of apps who put commercials onto devices like we see with android devices (i bought a phone, I didnt plan to buy a personal commercial broadcasting device)


  4. Excellent post. Thank you.
    The more that read it, the better off we’ll all be.

    “It means that it’s impossible (and frustrating!) to keep track of what everyone is doing”

    Why is it impossible? Wouldn’t things run smoother if that could be fixed?
    Lack of understanding or misunderstanding can lead to confusion and conflict.


  5. This is a fantastic post, David. Thank you for writing it!

    You do an excellent job of summarizing “for humans” why BrowserID is important. Are there any plans to try and incorporate some of that same spirit into a new name or brand for the project?

    “BrowserID” works ok for developers — but what about consumers? It still kinda feels like a working title, rather than a world-changing product.


    1. @openmatt: yes, there’s work ongoing to come up with a new brand for BrowserID — we all know that’s not the right brand for normals.


  6. Glad to hear you continuing to fight the good fight David. I think Mozilla has big changes ahead of it if it wants to continue to succeed in its mission — keeping the “open web open” doesn’t matter as much if people no longer rely on it because they can get a better deal/service/experience through alternatives to the open web.

    In other words, if the “web” simply turns out to be a series of tubes — rather than providing, as you say, “web technologies [that are] the best way to create apps” (and monetize them!) — then I think the walled gardens will continue to flourish while the favelas in between will continue to suffer and collapse in disarray and/or disuse.

    It isn’t that this is a simple problem, but I think it does require vision, a compelling narrative, and a focus on a clear articulation of what the future *shall* look like if open web proponents succeed — that goes beyond hubris, fear, and hand waving.

    I’m glad to read your account of the issues Mozilla needs to work on; I do hope that you guys are also able to rally the troops and gain the necessary mind share to move beyond Mozilla’s historical successes and ardently work towards creating a very real future that provides viable alternatives to the exclusive, walled garden offerings.


  7. I guess I am a normal; but , I hate to be painted into a corner by anybody or anything. I think I understand the potential of your endeavor and I wish you luck. A very good read your post David.


  8. Great post, David. I’ve been following these initiatives in isolation, but glad to have you tie it all together. The next year is going to be very interesting (again) for progress in web development.


  9. Interesting but I’m not at all clear that getting into the identity game is the best thing for Mozilla to worry about at this time. Having worked with a slew of identity startups, this is most likely way out of your wheelhouse and a distraction from your core mission, browsers, right? Faster, safer, working-with-Flash browsers.

    When you say “Mozilla is about making the internet work better for everyone”, are there any examples you can share?

    Of all things to focus on, I just don’t see this taking off. OpenID anyone?

    And web apps? Hello HTML5, right?

    P.S. yes to a new font and wider content area, this was difficult to read.


    1. Congrats on the $1 billion from Google, I think most people want you to improve Firefox, not add bells and whistles. For inspiration, look at how Google is closing down so many weak projects. Focus, not diversification, is how you are going to get the lead back from Chrome and secure and speed up Firefox.


  10. All well and good, but I’m not sure how this is going to stop the trend of Firefox losing market share to Chrome. Without Firefox market share, Mozilla has no Google revenue and is dead. When you’re dead, everything else becomes irrelevant.

    These initiatives are Developer focused- they are not consumer products. Microsoft, Google and Apple have an advantage because they can piggyback their browsers on other products (OS, Search services, webmail, etc). To compete, Mozilla must develop a small but excellent portfolio of consumer web products that it can use to crossppromote Frirefox, and that are revenue-generating and sticky in their own right.

    How about reimagining webmail? Everybody in the world used email- how about taing Thunderbird to the web and blowing everybody away with a great new design plus IM/video/chat, etc integration?

    How about a social product that is not a Facebook clone? Like say, using that $300m from Google to acquire Disqus so you have a product that links people and their comments and discussions across the web?

    Whatever the case, Mozilla needs to diversify and fast. browser ID and app tools will not have an impact on consumer adoption of Firefox, sadly.


  11. This is partially the same argumentation that our politicians use. If one disagrees, he has not understood why there is no alternative…
    Perhaps I am missing some points, but I would not be the only one.

    Let me say it this way: BrowserId is bullshit – at least in my opinion. Feel free to provide me some arguments for BrowserId.

    To pick just one of the problems: A person has two accounts at the same website, a private account and a business account. How should the browser decide if this person want to check his private or business mails?

    Or privacy problems: A site uses pixel of doubleclick, ivwbox or other privacy problematic sites. With BrowserId it would be much easier to identify a single user.

    The normal and common used functionallity to just store login and password for a website is nearly as much of comfort as BrowserId would provide, but it has none of its disadvantages.
    You have still to prove that BrowserId has a single advantage…

    If it is corrupted, the attacker would have complete access to the whole web as an other user.
    So you have to counter all security or privacy problems to make it save enough to be used.
    Let’s wait about ten years, because I doubt you could set up BrowserId as alternative to simple stored forms for users earlier.

    As a site – i.e. a webshop, the shop needs name, address and a possibility to receive money. It could be a very small advantage to get the data from BrowserId, otherwise the store have to get those informations anyway. And, it is important for the user too, that the shop has correct data. Not a big motivation for the owner of the shop to include BrowserId support, too.


    1. Others are better qualified to answer the specific questions you have on browserid, but I’ll try:

      multiple emails for a given website are on the roadmap, AFAIK
      I don’t understand the specific privacy problem you indicate. Can you be more precise?
      asking users to create a username & password for each site means in practice that users use the same pw for most (if not all!) sites, leading to a terrible security problem where all websites are only as secure as the least secure site. This is the big win for BrowserID in my opinion
      the long term picture for browserid is that it’s decentralized both in browsers and in primaries (email hosts).

      We do understand that websites need things like addresses, names, and payment info. We also think there are ways to extend the model to that kind of data.


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