Mozilla 2.0 vision
[M]uch of what I wrote here, much of my work in Mozilla, is focused on the platform, yet I noted above that we always put apps such as Firefox first, and do not claim to be "a platform" for everyone. In spite of this, people are building apps such as Songbird on top of XULRunner. So what are we, platform or app? The answer is "both, in a virtuous cycle".
Chris Messina, a former Flock developer and SpreadFirefox volunteer, posted a 50-minute vlog enumerating his concerns about Mozilla's direction. His discussion centered around Mozilla 2 potentially missing the forest for the trees and becoming overly focused on the short-term successes that Firefox has enjoyed, while failing to outrun the proprietary flanking actions being undertaken by Adobe and Microsoft for the "next generation" internet technologies.
Messina points to Microsoft's Silverlight, Adobe's Apollo, and Sun's JavaFX, all of which are billed as frameworks for the creation of rich internet applications. Missing from this list of companies is Mozilla Corporation, which has no rich internet application vision, nor any publicly-outlined competing vision.
On a broader level, Messina desires a wider, longer-term view of where Mozilla Corporation is headed, not just a roadmap for Firefox 3.0. Idealistic ideas about openness dominate his discussion: Mozilla Wifi, a Mozilla application ecosystem, Mozilla code repository, Mozilla social networking, and outreach to developers about upcoming standards. His position on broadening Mozilla's efforts and reaching for bigger goals are premised on the idea that the browser is a commodity item, not something that motivates average users, and that browser marketshare isn't the most valuable turf to be fighting for.
Upcoming features and the competition
Another two recent pieces, not explicitly written as responses to Messina, nonetheless rebut some of the concerns he voiced.
Richard McManus at Read/WriteWeb writes about Mozilla and microformats. Responding to a Web 2.0 Expo presentation by Alex Faaborg, his central concern is what the adoption of microformats and will mean for Mozilla's position. McManus disputes Messina's assertion that "Firefox is not an information broker." Indeed, the move from information access to information subscription to information manipulation is actually useful to normal people, whereas creating the best open source development platform is a worthy goal but not one of immediate utility. Being an information broker, according to McManus, is thus a step in the right direction in competing against Microsoft, Adobe, and Sun.
Meanwhile, Mike Shaver, technology strategist for Mozilla, has posted his own discussion of Adobe and Microsoft's proprietary tools and what they will mean for Mozilla. His conclusion? Not much. Proprietary development tools ("toolchain bait"), in his opinion, will consistently fail against competitors that allow you do what you like with your own applications. Mark Pilgrim essentially agrees.
(In a separate blog post, Shaver directly addresses Messina's vlog, whining about it being bleeding-heart "performance art.")
Ben Goodger, lead Firefox developer, reports on a Mozilla Corporation board member, Brendan Eich, essentially writing off the non-Firefox products offered by Mozilla.
Goodger concludes that Mozilla projects other than Firefox might decide that it's a better strategic move to seek greater autonomy from Mozilla Corporation. Why settle for table scraps from the "Firefox Corporation"? Mike Pinkerton, lead developer of Camino, caught flack a couple months ago when he opened the possibility of dropping Gecko for WebKit. While Pinkerton's principal concerns about code structure/focus (poor architecture, bloat, XPCOM, heavy focus on Windows, steep learning curve) ought to be addressed in part by the cleanup of Mozilla 2, the systemic bias against a 1% browser on a 4% operating system will continue to keep Camino at the margins without a sea change in Mozilla Corporation's outlook.
What is Mozilla?
The answer to the question of Mozilla's direction seems dependent on what one sees as the proper goals of Mozilla. Is Mozilla simply a browser company? Is it broader than that: a platform for internet applications? Or broader still, as the central front and last best hope for a free and open web?
Brendan Eich's cold-hearted realism about the distribution of Mozilla's resources seems to be the correct mentality. It would be a tremendous abrogation of Mozilla Corporation's responsibility to its contributors, just as Firefox has achieved a significant marketshare, to take the company's eye off the ball. Thirteen percent in the U.S. is significant, but there's still a ways to go. If that means that also-rans like Camino, Songbird, and even Thunderbird receive a place at the table but no support, so be it. Of course, this position presupposes that browser turf is still valuable and still worth fighting for. Given that Firefox's success was responsible for Microsoft reconstituting the IE team after it having been disbanded for several years, it seems that, at the very least, Mozilla's competitors deem it valuable turf.
It is unclear that Apollo, Silverlight, and JavaFX will become anything more than the next Flash or AJAX. Both are in common usage and present hurdles for an open web, but neither represents a strategic threat to the continued viability of openness and non-proprietary development. The utility of simple markup and reams upon reams of text remains clear, and indeed this remains the obvious format for nearly every significant website, whether corporate or personal. Moreover, the fate of walled garden approaches to the web is written on the wall (how are Compuserve, Prodigy, and AOL doing with their subscriber-only content?).
Mozilla the platform
Winifred, CEO of Mozilla Corporation, announced two days ago that, more than a browser, Mozilla is a platform. While this does not sate the hunger of more idealistic open source advocates, such as Messina, and would seem to contradict Eich's admission that non-Firefox projects won't get much investment, it seems like XULRunner will remain a vital part of Mozilla.
The plan breaks down as follows:
- XUL will continue to be invested in and developed
- XULRunner will be invested in insofar as it serves Firefox
- Non-Firefox XUL applications will receive "targeted investments" (i.e. table scraps)
- XULRunner will not be developed as a standalone runtime environment
Previously she voiced clear-cut opposition to increasing the Foundation's focus on the platform alone while de-emphasizing the browser. Shaver, in a follow-on post, says that he expects there will be a self-supporting XULRunner community, just like there is a self-supporting SeaMonkey community, neither of which does or will receive direct investment from Mozilla.
Rich internet applications, proprietary and closed, will be a niche reality Mozilla is forced to deal with. It behooves Mozilla to gain more Firefox marketshare (and therefore a position significant enough that corporations will not accept solutions that are IE-only) before these technologies are used to make mainstream web-app offerings. But these web-apps will not dominate the vast majority of the content on the web, which will remain for the foreseeable future, text-based.
Eich's waffling about whether Mozilla is a browser or a platform and Messina's wish to see a Mozilla "environment" are misplaced. Mozilla Foundation's half-measure of sort-of supporting XULRunner is a step in the right direction, but really, what are they hedging their bets for? In view of the strategic non-threats of rich internet applications, and the lack of any other XUL-based applications catching media attention or community enthusiasm, Mozilla should "double down on Firefox". Messina is right that Mozilla should go to Washington on behalf of an open web, but it shouldn't do so as a dispenser of charity for open-source projects. It should arrive in a position of strength, as the producer of the browser that all Senators' kids are using.