Mentoring isn’t worthless after all!

I enjoy talking to young companies (or proto-companies) about their projects. I do that with a few incubators and the like, and I consistently find it rewarding. I find myself always trying to tweak people’s product vision a bit, looking for a way to turn a “business idea” into something that will have deeper, human value — not just because I think it’s the moral thing to do, but because if you’re “just working for the man” (even if you are the man), then when things get tough, it’s going to be hard to get up in the morning. When you’re doing something that deeply resonates with people, and which either relies on positive human qualities or strengthens them, then I’m confident that your odds as an entrepreneur are better. Also because there are plenty of mentors who will do a better job of getting your social viral marketing plan in shape.

Sometimes I wonder whether I’m the only one getting value out of our conversations, but this blog post reassured me that at least sometimes I have an interesting impact: Do you really need a server? Build your minimum viable product entirely client-side.

I’m particularly interested by the fact that I wasn’t really trying to force them to think about the privacy advantages of client-centric development (I realize it’s hard for budding entrepreneurs to make that a priority), simply going for the pragmatics of it all. I’m so glad it’s working out for them.

Volunteer-powered product development?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of working with the small-but-growing team that’s building the software offerings that are part of the Webmaker effort.  If you don’t know about Webmaker, you should — go check out the website, and Mark Surman’s blog for more details and an inside view about why Mozilla’s doing it.  The really short version is that one of the major initiatives Mozilla is engaging on in 2012, apart from some of the already incredibly ambitious projects that you may know about (Firefox, Firefox for Android, Firefox Mobile OS, Identity, Apps, etc.!), is to teach the world that the web is not just something to consume, but something that everyone can help create.  In Mitchell Baker’s words:

“Mozillians are people who make things. Moving people from consumption to creation is Mozilla’s goal.”

Now, Mitchell’s words often inspire me (she’s probably the biggest reason I joined Mozilla full time), but this phrase in particular has been bouncing around in my head for weeks.  It’s also one that resonates deeply with many people I talk to, regardless of their degree of familiarity with the web, technology, Mozilla, open source, etc.

Now, the premise of the Webmaking software offering is both incredibly exciting and so ambitious as to be scary.  We want to reach large but diverse populations and find ways to make creating on the web both compelling for them, and fun/productive.  That means that we need both specialized tools, specialized content, and deep connections with whole new populations of Mozillians who can join Mozilla to build these offerings, bringing their passion, skills, knowledge, connections, etc.  We’ve already got great start in a few beacheads: kids/tweens, filmmakers, newsrooms to name a few.  There are many more on the roadmap.

Each of these slices of webmakers will require specific content, and likely tooling, which we think of as a “product.”  As an example, Thimble is a combination of a code editor (a tool) and learning projects (content) developed in partnership with a bunch of great organizations, aimed at giving people who don’t know anything about the web the first bit of a clue, and the first bit of a sense of agency over the web. It’s an early effort, that we built really quickly, but it’s showing a lot of promise.

Initial approach

We built Thimble v1 “the easy way” — a dedicated designer, a dedicated product manager, and a dedicated engineering team, working full-time over a few weeks, coordinating with professionals who themselves had well-defined roles and responsibilities.  It wasn’t really easy, but it was familiar territory for most of us.  We knew what to expect of each other, we could rely on the traditions of both open source projects for the “code”, and product development for the integration of the code into an overall “consumer experience” (although the word consumer is particularly ironic in this context). 

I don’t think we can expect to keep this approach and scale the way the Webmaking project deserves to. (Michelle Levesque thinks so too!).

Now, one might think that that’s what Open Source projects do, but I think in fact very few open source projects are run as products.  In particular, in my experience, a good product team has learned that code is only part of the equation — design, project management, writing, engagement, etc. are equally important, for which there is no equivalent to the code open source culture.  As an example, good designers, as a result of decades of abuse by clients, typically refuse volunteer work. There is no global culture around any of the non-coding skills (with a few notable exceptions, such as QA and localization, and most interestingly, the legal profession, who has incorporated pro bono work into its professional culture).  Now, Mozilla as a whole has been tackling all of these issues for years to support the main products (Firefox in particular), but even then we have not yet figured out how to gather volunteer contributions in many parts of the workflow.

I’m hoping that within the Webmaking effort, which I think is so compelling to so many non-engineers, we have another opportunity to refine our approach.  I used the title “volunteer-powered” rather than “open source” in the title because I think that while open source has a lot of lessons to bring in, it also has a bunch of antipatterns.  Forcing non-developers to think or act like developers isn’t the answer.


Here’s my question for the day: are there collaborative models of work in non-engineering disciplines where people have developed ways of working that I should be reading about or talking to people about? 

To make it more precise and hopefully a bit controversial: I fear that a lot of the tradition of “collective action” has its roots in cultural norms around equality, fairness, and making people feel good about their contributions ahead of all other values.  And as a result, in my experience at least, a lot of volunteer groups for example end up very pleasant and “nice” but lacking the urgency, the drive, the decisiveness, the ambition to kick ass in the market that turns ideas into shipping code that users love.

How can we combine the rapid pace, deliberate action, role assignments of a product team, and the openness to volunteer and part-time contributions of open source?

Story telling as a webmaking task

In a new-thing-for-me, I’m working with a group of four students from the Center for Digital Media as part of their Masters program, on a design-led project that ties to Mozilla.  Specifically, these folks are working on a project they call The Cucumber, which is (in my words), trying to make a tool that lets any traveler easily create a compelling micro-documentary about a place they like, using the tools of the open web.

At this point, they’ve done a bunch of thinking, blackboard sketches, paper prototypes, and more, and they’re making good progress, but they need your help!  In particular, they’ve got a hypothesis that by preparing a few templates and story-telling concepts, they can define a design framework that everyone could use to make something compelling.

If you’re interested, it’d be great if you could check out their questionnaire and do a “pretend story-telling” — think of a place you want to document, and fill in the form — it will only take a few minutes, and be very helpful to the team!

What’s the lesson?

I’m not supposed to be in front of a computer right now. I’m supposed to be attending the Vancouver premiere of Tiffany Shlain’s Connected, in a fundraiser to benefit A Human Right.  This looked like a fun event, for a good cause.  So I bought two tickets, one for myself and one for my 14 year old son, who seemed really interested in the trailer, and who I was pretty sure would both enjoy and get a lot from the movie & discussion.  I was happy for Mozilla to sponsor the event, promoting it.

But, this is Vancouver, British Columbia, in North America, a continent where lawyers and fear have way too much sway on policy and clearly no firm grasp of reality.  In this particular case, the problem is that the venue — the swank Vancouver International Film Festival’s VanCity Theater has the audacity to serve wine and the like to its patrons.  As a wine and movie enthusiast, that seems like a delightful plan.  But apparently, this very civilized offering is seen by regulators as implying that the location is evidently such a den of iniquity that my kid would obviously be irretrievably harmed by the sight of some adults having a glass of wine. Of all the things that I worry about as a parent, this doesn’t make the top 1000.

This was mildly embarrassing for all concerned, and led to my son and I going home early and having a conversation about the puritanical roots of the Canadian legal system rather than the much more interesting discussion that I expect would have ensued after the movie.

Such a waste.

Somebody let me know how the show went?

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.

Am I reading these trends right?

Let’s see… in the last few weeks, we have seen:

Facebook shifting the definition of the Open Graph and moving the locus of control about sharing from an actual user-initiated action (“share!”) to the terms of service that users agree to at “app installation time”. This will likely lead users to overshare, and many more websites to require facebook accounts.

Amazon building a new way of using the web which many fear will be a data mining engine that “acts on your behalf” as you do anything on the web, not just with Amazon sites. Until now, only regulated ISPs or government agencies had that level of access to our online activities.

Microsoft preparing a version of Windows which will demote third-party browsers and bake in support for a single-vendor appstore.

Google aggressively promoting their mostly closed social network on all of its properties.

(All of whom are basically following Apple’s lead on how to verticalize the world).

The threat models are fascinating too. According to the blogosphere, Facebook is feeling threatened by users shifting to mobile (read: iPhone); Google’s threatened by Facebook; Apple needs to figure out social; Everyone’s going to get bit by patents, but they all have huge cash reserves to apply to that problem.

This industry is heading in a direction that is sure to be full of fireworks, but I’m having a hard time seeing how normal people end up winning at the end.

If these trends continue, in a few years at most we’ll basically choose one of 3 or 4 vertical stacks to work in. Rich people will be able to afford to play in all of them (an iOS macphone, an android tablet, a kindle Plasma, a facebook TV, etc.).

Consumption will go up, free access will be contingent on actual consumption. Kindle people will have a heck of a time communicating with Apple people. Facebookers will make fun of Googlers. App developers will slowly realize that they’re the outsourced R&D department for the big 5, and success will be defined as being acquired for a few bucks rather than creating jobs or making the world a better place.

Consumers are part of the problem too, of course — we like simple, shiny, integrated solutions. We want freedom from choice more than we actually value choice.

The next generation will likely think of our notions of privacy, autonomy, and various freedoms as quaint or foolish, much like we look on our parents’ notions of decorum and modesty. Either that, or they’ll unplug and start to riot, because of the co-occuring global economic climate which, to put it bluntly, will suck for people who don’t have stock in said 5 companies.

So, that’s a pretty bleak assessment, and it tends to depress me. What’s the silver lining? I don’t have a very rosy picture yet, although I’m trying! I have a few proto-thoughts:

First, those five companies, while very impressive and influential, represent a tiny fraction of the creative, intellectual and even financial resources of the world. Furthermore, those companies are all US-based, which simply isn’t a stable configuration. So while those companies are defining extremely aggressive winner-take-all strategies, and executing for the most part exceedingly well, we should realize that there are way more of “us” than “them”.

Second, these companies all have competitors, and I expect always will. Even if there were no other market forces at play, these five will keep beating each other up forever. Mergers of giants might even be a good thing, given that those tend to destroy focus and operational excellence.

Third, I think that there is a growing shared understanding of what’s wrong with these trends from a public policy point of view. The internet, the web, were not intended to facilitate these empires, and I expect that over time, as John Gilmore said, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” So somehow, we’ll figure out a way to take the bits of net life that truly matter, and extract those from the silos being built.

There are many projects in this general vein already under way, some with significant involvement from Mozilla. For example, we’re pushing hard on federating identity on the web, and teaching the web about apps and vice versa. I’m hopeful that we’ll also find ways to recognize friends and partners along the way. I’ve got a list in my head, but it’s probably worth building it out. If you have pointers to projects that touch on these issues, let me know in comments.

Welcoming a new Thunderbird Leader

Last week, we released the latest version of Thunderbird! This release marks the first of our releases from within our new combined team which I mentioned in the past. Get it & enjoy it — I’ll draw your eye in particular to the new integrated add-on manager and my personal can’t-live-without add-on, the Conversations add-on which has matured a lot since I last mentioned it.

This month also marks the introduction of a critical new addition to the Thunderbird team: I introduced JB Piacentino to the Mozilla weekly call and Thunderbird teams a couple of weeks ago, but this seems like a fine time to introduce him to the broader community. JB is now the new Managing Director for Thunderbird. I’m confident that he’s going to provide what Thunderbird has been needing for a while now — someone who can have a broad enough perspective on Thunderbird to understand its breadth and full potential impact, but with a focused enough mandate that Thunderbird will get the attention it deserves.

JB has an ideal background to complement the rest of the Thunderbird team’s skills — in particular, he has a combination of entrepreneurial expertise and a passion for product marketing which will serve Thunderbird well. And while he’s new to the Mozilla community, he’s been an avid follower and supporter of Mozilla for a long time.

I’m also excited about the fact that JB is based in Paris, France. Thunderbird has a significant concentration of users in Europe, and moving the center of gravity of the project closer to our users will likely have a broad set of benefits.

I’m visiting JB and the Mozilla Paris office this week in fact, and we’d like to welcome anyone who happens to be in the area to come to a Q&A we’ll be having at the Mozilla office tomorrow evening:

28 Boulevard Poissonnière
75009 Paris
at 7pm (19:00)

I encourage people to get in touch with JB, and share your thoughts about Thunderbird.