Should *Mozilla* Fork Firefox?

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Apparently, there's an interesting thread over on a site called Quora about the future of Firefox. I say apparently, since I can't seem to join the site (“we'll e-mail when we're ready for you to try out the service” - thanks a bunch: obviously it's only for the Chosen Few). Anyway, according to TechCrunch, the meat of the argument is this:

Someone posted the following question to Quora recently: Will Firefox have double-digit market share in 3 to 5 years? Straightforward enough. Yes, says (outgoing) Mozilla CEO John Lilly. No, says Firefox co-founder Blake Ross. So far, Ross is winning the argument, according to the votes from Quora users.

Here’s what Ross had to say:

I’m pretty skeptical. I think the Mozilla Organization has gradually reverted back to its old ways of being too timid, passive and consensus-driven to release breakthrough products quickly.

John Lilly's reply basically said that Firefox is doing well (which is undeniably true). But what is also true is that Google's Chrome is adding a lot of market share quite fast – something that many people have noted, so Ross is probably not alone in his scepticism about the long-term future of Firefox.

To a certain extent, Ross's view is coloured by his personal history. Here's how Wired described the genesis of Firefox:

Then Ross, known to the Mozilla Foundation as just another precocious, diligent bug fixer, teamed up with Dave Hyatt, a former Netscape user interface programmer who now works for Apple Computer. In 2002, they announced they had "forked" the Mozilla code base, pulling out Mozilla's layout engine, called Gecko, and using a new user interface language, XUL. They posted a short manifesto proposing a tightly written piece of software called mozilla/browser. The goal was modest: no bloat. Inspired by Google's simple interface, they set out to build a stripped-down, stand-alone browser, a refutation of the feature creep that had grounded Netscape. "Lots of Mozilla people didn't get it," Ross recalls. "They'd say, 'This is just the product we have now, but with less features.' Meanwhile, the Mozilla product at the time had about 10,000 options. You basically needed to know the secret handshake to get anything done. It sounds corny, but it was important to make something that Mom and Dad could use."

From this, it's clear that central to the Firefox vision was “no bloat”, a “stripped-own, stand-alone browers, a refutation of the feature creep that had grounded Netscape.” It's also easy to regard today's Firefox as suffering from “feature creep”, just as Netscape did. In this sense, Ross probably feels that the revolution failed, and that Mozilla must start again.

But there are key differences between Netscape and Firefox. Netscape went from hero to zero in a few years; Firefox is still in the ascent, albeit at a slower rate than before. Netscape was a commercial product, put together to meet the demands of shareholders and the marketing department as much as users, whereas Firefox is focussed on the latter. And centrally, Firefox is open source, so that people don't have to put up with the “official” version – they can *always* customise it to suit their particular needs.

What Ross's complaint comes down to is that Firefox is suffering the inevitable side-effects of its own success. It's no longer put together by a small, agile team that can turn on a sixpence, but has developed a complex, global group of skilled and generous people collaborating in different ways and at different levels. The need to achieve a certain consensus implies that things move much more slowly than in the early days; breaking things in any serious way for the sake of progress is hardly an option, which makes change incremental.

The good news is that Mozilla has lots of sharp people who are aware of these dangers. I doubt whether any of the Mozilla managers and senior coders are complacent like their counterparts were at Netscape. The very open, public nature of the code and the development process means that lots of people can – and do – flag up problems and offer solutions. Moreover, the bottom-up nature of free software means that those concerns are funnelled to the top for consideration, not squashed as they might be in a traditional top-down corporate hierarchy.

The question is not so much whether Mozilla wants to address those problems, but what, realistically, it can do. Obviously it can try to slim down its decision-making process, and to speed up its release schedules (something that it is already doing), but there are limits imposed by what it has become: a highly-successful, but somewhat middle-aged project. I'd like to suggest something rather more radical.

Firefox emerged as a fork of Mozilla, so why not fork Firefox? Why not create a small team given permission to do anything, no matter how outrageous, in terms of re-inventing the browser – to out-Chrome Chrome? This would be run alongside the main branch of Firefox, but in direct competition with it – nothing would be sacred (well, nothing apart from the free software nature of the code). It would be explicitly designed as a hothouse for new ideas. Those features that proved popular in the fork could be moved across into the main code. Those that weren't would be dropped, and something else tried - if necessary, breaking everything. The net result would be some healthy competition not just for Chrome, but for the Firefox team too.

Mozilla finds itself facing a classic Innovator's Dilemma, trapped by its own success. Fortunately, the solution to that dilemma is fairly well-established: to prevent others from developing disruptive technology that undermines your success, *you* must do precisely the same, competing against yourself.

That's hard for traditional companies, because it usually implies attacking a successful product line with a cheaper range, and hence reducing the overall profitability. The good news is that for a non-profit organisation like Mozilla, there is no money to be lost, just a little organisational pain in managing the internal contradictions of this dialectical approach. That seems a small price to pay for the Firefox's re-invigoration and re-invention. After all, if Mozilla doesn't do it, somebody else certainly will...

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