Meeting Mr Firefox: Johnathan Nightingale

Mozilla and its central Firefox project are themes that I have returned to often on this blog. That's not so surprising: Mozilla is one of the oldest free software projects, starting back in 1998 when Netscape stunned the world by announcing...

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Mozilla and its central Firefox project are themes that I have returned to often on this blog. That's not so surprising: Mozilla is one of the oldest free software projects, starting back in 1998 when Netscape stunned the world by announcing that it would open up its key product, Netscape Navigator.

Since then, the browser has moved ever-closer to centre stage, as the Web becomes a large part of what most people think of as computing. In addition, Mozilla is unique among open source projects in that it is rolling in dosh: a lucrative deal with Google means that it not only doesn't need to worry about immediate funding problems, but enjoys the luxury of being able to undertake ambitious, long-term projects.

All those factors naturally mean that Firefox remains absolutely crucial to the open source ecosystem – and to the open Web. So I was naturally interested in chatting to the person who runs the Firefox project at Mozilla, Johnathan Nightingale. After studying cognitive science and artificial intelligence at university, and creating the small but perfectly-formed open source program Beep, Nightingale was employed by IBM for a while, before joining Mozilla in 2007 to work on security and usability.

Today, he reports to Mozilla's Chief Technology Officer, Brendan Eich, and runs a distributed team that covers around 19 of the world's 24 timezones, working on both the desktop and Android versions of Firefox (but not Firefox OS). We talked about some of the main developments in both of those, beginning with something that started on the desktop side about six months ago, called Social API. Although the initial work was with Facebook, Nightingale emphasised that the project is quite general, and potentially applies to a wide range of services.

It's essentially an attempt to move the Web outside the browser, by allowing the creation of free-floating windows that allow persistent content to appear while you move around the Web. In a way, this is a kind of Web app that seeks to use open technologies to offer the same kind of features as the closed apps that people often turn to. It's thus of a piece with Mozilla's vision of an open Web populated by HTML5 apps. Although it's possible to install multiple examples of these floating windows, it's not currently possibly to have them all open – that's a user interface challenge that has yet to be sorted out.

Clearly that work mirrors shifts in people's usage of not just the Web, but computers in general – Nightingale points out that most of us spend more time in our browser than in our bed. But another area might seem to be of more limited interested: gaming. And yet he insists that the very particular demands that gaming makes on systems will feed through to produce general benefits to everyone.

Intensive computation is the last bastion of native application development on desktop. Solving the problem for games would therefore allow that sector to move to the Web along with all the other programs that now inhabit it. More importantly, this means that games that run inside a browser will be cross-platform, and one of the few vaguely plausible reasons for sticking with Windows – that it has better games than GNU/Linux – will be undermined. This shows once again how Mozilla's work has important ramifications for free software and openness as a whole.

That's certainly true for Firefox on Android. Nobody now doubts that mobile will be the dominant platform for computing in the future, which makes providing a high-quality open-source browser there critically important. Apple's closed approach makes it almost impossible for Mozilla to offer anything on that platform, Nightingale explains, which renders Android key.

The first Android version was built on same platform as Firefox, but it was slow and used too much memory – and got some pretty stinky reviews in Google Play. So Nightingale did what any good project manager would do – he ordered the user interface code to be completely rewritten to address the problems. That's now been done, and since it was shipped ten months ago, Firefox's reputation has gradually been restored, as its Google Play rating has gone from an average of three and half stars to four and a half.

Interestingly, Mozilla's research shows that mobile users read a lot of pure text on their phones – effectively using them as mini ebook readers. In order to make that experience more pleasant, Nightingale decide to find fonts that would look better than the default ones used in the earlier versions, finally plumping for Open Sans and Charis.

Finally, we talked about Firefox OS. Although this is not a direct responsibility for Nightingale, he explained how all the Mozilla teams were expected to support this exciting new venture to create an entirely new open source mobile stack, built on Linux. In the next five years, another two billion Internet users will be coming online, and they won't be doing it with one of today's relatively expensive smartphones, because they are mostly in emerging countries with limited disposal income.

Free software is the perfect solution, in terms of low costs, customisability and general reliability. But software on its own isn't enough: building mobile phones requires hardware and carriers, and lining these up is beyond most open source projects. That's where Mozilla's unique position comes in. It's not only one of the most respected names in computing, which allows it to work with the world's biggest telecoms companies, it also has resources beyond any other standalone open source project, which allows it to take on hugely ambitious projects like creating a low-cost but high-quality smartphone for the world.

Nightingale points out that criticisms about there being no room for a "third platform" alongside Android and Apple have forgotten an important fact: Firefox OS will use Web apps, and the Web is not a "third platform" - it's the first platform. Which brings us back to Mozilla's central role in helping to keep that platform open, and in nurturing its development.

Just as the arrival of Firefox at a critical moment nearly ten years ago effectively saved the Web from turning into a walled garden belonging to Microsoft, so Firefox OS – built, be it noted, on pre-existing open source software – could do the same for the mobile Web. Currently that's suffering at the hands of the Android-Apple duopoly, where closed-source apps are the norm. But Firefox OS not only offers an alternative, it offers the opportunity to prove – for the hundredth time – that open is better than closed. I can't wait.

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