Back in August last year, I wrote the following:
we no longer live in a simple binary world of Internet Explorer as the dominant player and Firefox as the doughty but distant challenger. We are entering a new situation with three powerful players all striving to impress users with their respective strengths and capabilities, each sometimes gaining, sometimes losing a little market share.
In this sense, Mozilla has won, because this kind of healthy competition was precisely what it was trying to achieve when it launched its open source browser project over a decade ago. It has also won in the sense that Internet Explorer is now much more compliant with open Web standards, and seems unlikely to try to lock down the Internet again with its own proprietary add-ons as it did successfully during the dotcom boom. As a result, it's probably fair to say that with its relatively static market share, what we are seeing is not so much the beginning of the end for Firefox, just the end of the beginning where it was the plucky underdog able to ride an easy wave of browser rebellion.
But if this is the end of the beginning, what comes next?
With rather good timing, Mozilla has recently acquired a new CEO, one of whose key tasks is presumably pondering precisely this issue. I met Gary Kovacs last week, along with Jay Sullivan, VP of Products at Mozilla, whom I'd not encountered before, and Tristan Nitot, whom I interviewed three years ago.
My main question to Kovacs was easy to ask, but somewhat harder to answer: What is your strategy for Mozilla? His opening, explanatory comment was surprising: "the face of the Internet has changed dramatically, with browsers becoming something less than it used to be."
To hear the head of the organisation producing the leading free software browser say that browsers are becoming less in some sense might seem crazy, but he is of course absolutely right. As he went on to explain: "you don't live in Firefox as a browser, you live in Firefox as an environment. [It's] no longer a client-side executable piece of code that enables me to look at text, it's about an in-the-cloud environment that I live in and run my life on."
Just because the browser is changing doesn't mean that Mozilla's mission is. "What matters are the ideals that we are founded on," he says, "this open and innovative Web where you're free to share, you're free to upload, you're free to change the code, you're free to interact how you like – that matters on the Web in this new definition more than it did on the old. Our mission is the open innovative Web."
But what does that mean in practice? "We've delivered a browser, 450 million users, the largest market share in Europe," Kovacs points out before asking rhetorically: "what else do we need to deliver that embodies the ideals of that mission to take use forward?"
Well, I'm glad he asked: "you'll see from us not only browsers, but an application framework all based on the open Web. You'll see from us services that enable your own life in a meaningful and secure and private way where you're in control, and it's not beholden to any one company or one business model, and the code truly open. And you'll see from us a push into a set of policies where the user has the transparency in their interaction that they should expect and increasingly over time will expect."
One of the key practical differences that users will note in Mozilla is a vastly accelerated release cycle. Here's what the Firefox/Roadmap page says on that score:
Ship Firefox 4, 5, 6 and 7 in the 2011 calendar year
Ambitious, no? That same roadmap page includes the following two entries:
Build Web Apps, Identity and Social into the Open Web Platform
Plan and architect for a future of a common platform on which the desktop and mobile products will be built and run Web Apps
Indeed, it's becoming clear that Web apps lie at the heart of the strategy for Mozilla. There's already some pages devoted to the idea, including a UI concept gallery, "a collection of experiments exemplifying the way in which applications can enhance the web experience."
Kovacs notes that in many ways the current apps for the iPhone and Android are, in fact, Web apps: "much of what the community around the Apple products is doing are Web apps – they're a piece of client software that goes and fetches or delivers information back and forth from the Web. It's just a different GUI from the browser."
But there's a problem with the current approach. "It becomes very hard to scale that," he says, "developing for Apple, for Android, Windows Mobile, Linux – the barrier to ubiquity becomes difficult." The great danger is that the online world will fragment into separate and incompatible domains – just as in the days of CompuServe and AOL. The solution is to craft apps using generic, standards-based Web technologies that work across all platforms – to create true Web apps.
"We're in a world where Web technologies have evolved to the point where you can create some pretty rich amazing experiences within the browser," Kovacs notes. "We've talked about the redefinition of the browser from a piece of client side code that lets you look at text to an environment that you operate in and that let's you engage both applications and text. In that world a lot of those applications could be run in any modern browser."
"Once that happens the discussion isn't ‘we have 10,000 developers', ‘we have 20,000', but ‘we have millions of Web developers that can build apps'. And then the game changes." Not least because Kovacs' sleek, slimmed-down Firefox becomes the perfect vehicle for delivering such Web apps, placing it and them at the centre of tomorrow's online experience across desktop and mobile platforms (don't forget that Firefox for Android is imminent.)
More details of Mozilla's Web app plans were given by Jay Sullivan, who wrote a post on the subject nearly a year ago.
Looking at things from a developer's point of view, he noted another issue with today's apps, popular as they are: "there's an intermediary there. To get only the data you can get through Apple or through Google about your own customers sets your CRM back by 10 years. You should be able to distribute yourself, you should be able to put your app in multiple stores."
So once again choice and freedom lie at the heart of Mozilla's strategy – in this case, the freedom to distribute and buy Web apps from multiple stores. "They compete for developer attention based on revenue share, flexibility, just like in the real world; multiple stores exist for a reason." To do that, Sullivan says, "we're building a simple standard, a tiny slice of metadata."
Trying to turn the current app store model on its head in this way is clearly extremely ambitious, not least because of the huge success of the Apple and Android ecosystems. Although many third parties will be interested, it seems highly unlikely Apple would countenance such a thing, and even Google is likely to be lukewarm with its own Web app-based ChromeOS platform hovering in the background.
But as well as trying to win over companies like Amazon that might adopt its approach, Mozilla does have an ace up its sleeve, as Sullivan notes: "we do control a pretty important gateway on to the Web, which is Firefox, so it would be logical that it's easy to find these [Web apps] from Firefox."
What Kovacs and his team are grappling with currently is the best way to do that. Should they set up their own Web app store, offered as standard from within Firefox? That would certainly get the idea out there, and encourage developers to adopt Mozilla's standards. But it might alienate hugely important companies like Amazon that would then see Mozilla as a rival, rather than a partner.
It's a difficult balancing act, and one that will doubtless be occupying people within Mozilla for many months to come. But I think the overall approach is sound. It builds on the current rather thoughtless enthusiasm for the neat app – at the heart of which lies what Sullivan calls "the undiscussed black hole – you have no idea what is going on" inside it – and reconnects with Mozilla's central Open Web mission.
It seems only right that having saved the Web once from being closed off through Internet Explorer's stranglehold, Mozilla should now be trying to repeat the trick by saving us from the latest threat: high-walled gardens and the suffocating thicket of apps that are pullulating there.