Mozilla Starts to Follow a New Drumbeat


I've written often enough about Firefox and its continuing steady gains of browser market share. Here's another nice stat:

Roughly keeping pace with previous years, Firefox grew 40% worldwide. Two regions in particular continued adopting Firefox at a breakneck pace — South America (64%) and Asia (73%).

Most of the 40% growth occurred recently. In the 4 months leading up to the holiday season, Firefox added 22.8 million active daily users. During that same period last year, Firefox added 16.4 million users.

That's all well and good, but it raises the question: what should Mozilla be doing *after* it conquers the browser world – that is, once it has 50% market share? Because once that happens – and it seems to be just a matter of time – the dynamics that kept Internet Explorer on top for so long, despite its manifest weaknesses, will kick in for Firefox (although let's hope its coders don't get as lazy as Microsoft's). That means the central challenge will have gone, and that's always a problem, especially for a volunteer organisations like Mozilla, where motivation is a key aspect.

Fortunately – and hardly coincidentally – the Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation, Mark Surman, has been thinking hard about precisely that issue, and here's what he and his team have come up with:

Mozilla Drumbeat is a global community of people and projects using technology to help internet users understand, participate and take control of their online lives.

If you want to go beyond this mission statement, there's this:

Mozilla Drumbeat is a global community of Mozillians who *use* web technology in new ways to understand, participate and take control of their online lives. Drumbeat provides an opportunity for these people to share project ideas -- and helps them find contributors, funds and advice to help the most promising projects succeed. Mozilla also directly leads a number of Drumbeat projects of its own.

That's still a little vague, but this finally explains what's going on:

In a nutshell: make sure the internet is still open, participatory 100 years from now.

The internet has become our global commons: a critical public resource that more than a billion people use to learn, innovate, trade, befriend and play. We envision a century ahead where this shared resource grows even richer and more vibrant. For this to happen, we must continue to build and operate an internet that is:

Open. Built on technologies that anyone can study, use or improve without asking permission.

Participatory, fueled by the ideas and energy of 100s of millions of people.

Decentralized in both architecture and control, ensuring continued choice and diversity.

Public much like a public square, with space not just for commerce but also for vibrant social and civic life.

Of course, this vision faces many challenges. Current examples: control over our digital identities and data is centralizing; and the growing mobile internet is far less open than the one on our desktop. At a more basic level, few people take the time to consider the internet as a public resource. They simply take it for granted, like air. Drumbeat is about gathering a critical mass of people to address challenges like these.

Key, then, to the Drumbeat project is openness, specifically openness as applied to the Internet. That's fits in well with the original impulses behind Mozilla and Firefox. The former was about transforming the Netscape Communincator code into an open source browser, and the latter was about defending open standards from Microsoft's attempt to lock people into Internet Explorer 6 and its proprietary approaches. Both Mozilla and Firefox have succeeded, but the threats have now changed.

As the text above mentions, particular challenges include cloud computing and accessing the Internet from mobile phones. At issue here is control: cloud computing means that you are using other people's software to process your data, while in the mobile space, operators have typically been able to dictate every aspect of the user experience: both are at odds with the truly open Internet. To that I'd also add regulatory problems, with increased censorship around the world (including Western countries), and skewed legislation that gives media companies an unjustified and unnecessary degree of power over what you can and can't do online.

Against that background it's great that Mozilla is widening its horizons (something I encouraged them to do in my occasional chats and correspondence with Surman.) Through the creation and nurturing of Firefox (and Thunderbird), Mozilla has earned a unique place in the online ecosystem: a powerful player, and yet one that is non-commercial and independent.

As well as the responsibility that this position brings, there is also the issue of self-interest: all the good work it has done so far could so easily be nullified by developments in the world of cloud computing, mobile and under the impact of repressive legislation. The real challenge will be converting that generalised vision quoted above into action that fits well with both Mozilla's interests and its strengths.

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