Where and Whither Mozilla?

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The importance of Mozilla and its Firefox browser went up a notch last week. For it was then that it became clear that Microsoft has little intention of following a very particular standard – its own OOXML, pushed through the ISO at great cost to that institution's authority. Contrast that with Microsoft's increasingly positive signals about Web standards, which it is adopting with notable fervency – largely thanks to Firefox.

Microsoft is complaisant because Firefox's market share is getting close to the critical level where it becomes the dominant browser in the market. According to the first Mozilla Metrics Report, Mozilla's global market share is around 30%. That figure is confirmed by the latest figure from W3Counter, which gives Internet Explorer 48% globally, and 32% to Firefox.

Overall, Mozilla reckons Firefox has a pretty impressive 39% of the browser market in Europe. And in a number of European countries – like Finland and Germany – Firefox is already the leader. The new EU browser ballot is likely to boost those figures yet further, which means that Microsoft is under tremendous pressure to conform to the market – and not the other way around, as was the case a decade ago (remember all those sites “optimised” for Internet Explorer?)

That's a tremendous achievement by Firefox, because it give us a second data point – along with Apache – that shows that free software is not some marginal phenomenon of interest only to self-abnegating purists, but is mainstream to the point of largely determining key trends there.

That's the good news. The bad news – at least at first sight – is that for the first time in nearly a decade, Firefox has some serious competition. Not only are versions 8 and 9 of Internet Explorer hugely improved in comparison to earlier releases, and competitive in many respects with Firefox, but alongside this re-invigorated Microsoft, there is Google's Chrome browser.

The problem for Firefox here is that, unlike Microsoft, Google is not bound by the past. It is free to re-invent the browser, and to learn from the problems of existing offerings. That fact, coupled with the huge resources that Google is able to bring to bear upon the problem, means that Chrome is good and getting better all the time. It may still have a long way to go in some areas – like that of add-ons – but the graph's gradient is something that should be giving Mozilla's leaders pause for thought.

And that's to be welcomed. As we saw with Internet Explorer 6, the worst enemy of a market leader is itself. When it becomes too easy, complacency sets in, and the seeds of its future destruction are sown. Google's Chrome has come on to the scene at just the right moment. Had it arrived earlier, it might have compromised Firefox's ascent, splitting the independent developer community and giving time for Microsoft to sort out Internet Explorer's problems. Had it arrived much later, Firefox would probably be so strong that not even Google could threaten it easily.

As it is, we have the situation where Firefox is absolutely central to the free software world, and where it is finally gaining broader recognition amongst general users. But it is not so established that it can afford to rest on its laurels or dismiss Chrome lightly.

I think we can already see the first fruits of this nicely balanced situation, with the Mozilla organisation seeking to re-invent itself and the Firefox project. For example, we have the recent move of Aza Raskin from the slightly nebulous Mozilla Labs to Mozilla's heartland, Firefox itself:

For the last two years I’ve been helping to build Mozilla Labs, working to launch projects like Ubiquity, the Concept Series, the Firefox Mobile interface, Geode, Privacy Icons, and Jetpack.

In my time here, Labs has grown from six people (up from three when my team from Humanized joined) to over twenty people. Both Weave and Jetpack have just been spun-off into their own groups, identity in the browser is taking off, and Test Pilot is gaining critical mass. It’s a heady time to be in Labs. So why the move?

The web continues to evolve in the search and social domains. We are a new breed of info-vore meets webapp-ian. The average web user spends more time with their browser than with their family. Firefox has become faster, cleaner, and way more powerful (HTML5, canvas, streamable fonts, open video,…), but has yet to have the user experience paradigm shifts that gives users the new tools they need to accommodate the new web’s work flows. My hope is to work with and within the Firefox team in defining next generation browsing. To move towards you-centric browsing.

That certainly sounds suitably ambitious.

An even better indication of renewal is Mozilla's Drumbeat project. I wrote about this a couple of months ago. Since then, a lot has happened, and the Developer version of Drumbeat is up and running, which gives us a much better of what Drumbeat means in practice.

As the site explains:

We're a global community of webmakers and innovators, building the Internet's future through your project ideas and open collaboration.

Mozilla Drumbeat Projects:

Make the web better. More innovative. More open. More awesome.
Use open-source DNA and know-how.

Working out in the open together.

Are all about making and building. We don't just talk about ideas. With your help, we build them.

This makes clear that Drumbeat is very much an outward-looking project, with flexible boundaries. That's vital if Mozilla is to move beyond the gilded cage of its own past successes. It needs to think hard about what its future role should be, and in what context. Beating Internet Explorer was easy, because it was a highly focussed technical problem, and geeks are good at those. The real challenge for Mozilla now is finding the next big challenge.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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