For the open-source Mozilla Foundation, Tuesday marks a major transition. The group has brought its Mozilla Firefox browser out of preview with a Version 1.0 release targeted to everyday Web users.
Firefoxs coming of age is the nonprofits biggest release since America Online Inc.s Netscape Communications division last year spun it out as an independent organization.
Mozilla has even made modest inroads against Microsoft Corp.s Internet Explorer, which still commands 93 percent of the browser market. IE has continued to lose market share since June, and Firefox has been one of the biggest beneficiaries.
But just how far can Mozilla and Firefox really go in competing with Microsoft and gaining converts? To answer that question and to understand Mozillas goals beyond Firefox, eWEEK.com Senior Writer Matt Hicks talked with Mozilla President Mitchell Baker.
She laid out a future where Firefox will grab 10 percent market share and where Mozillas many technology parts will become an increasingly important application development platform.
What do you make of the ability the Mozilla Foundation has had to exceed a lot of its own goals in the prerelease of Firefox? What is leading to that kind of interest?
Theres a whole set of things leading to interest in Firefox. One is the product itself, which, once people have tried it, people love it. So its both innovative, its got new features, it makes the Web a more enjoyable experience, it makes people more comfortable, and its fast. Its a set of things you would want in a browser if you sat down and really thought about it.
Another thing that drives it is the poor-to-miserable Web experience that many people are having today. … The browser is the key to ones Web experience. And people often take it for granted or dont think about it. But with the sort of decay in the Web experience, people are really forced to think about, “Why has this really become so bad?” And one of the mechanisms for improving it is your browser.
How much of it do you think is people wanting a choice beyond Internet Explorer, whether it be [because of] security or [IE] not having had many major feature enhancements in the last few years, or do you think [the interest] is pointing to something bigger than that?
Clearly we know that people want choice, but its not always expressed to us that way. We get mail, unsolicited mail, from people that switched to our browser, and they dont always express it as choice. What they say is, “Man, I tried this and I loved it. Im just so happy.”
The bigger issue is that the Web is becoming more and more a part of our lives. … When people find out that this new part of ones life can actually be so much better than they have experienced, then they do get excited.
The reality is that there have always been alternative browsers, but there hasnt been a lot of action on them until recently as far as the market-share numbers, at least. How do you explain the change in market share. … Why would now be the time for that to occur?
Because I think that two things have aligned. One is that our product itself is really ready. And the second thing is that the drawbacks of the status quo have become apparent. The drawbacks are a browser that, for most people if theyre using what came on their computer, doesnt have much new in it, if anything; isnt updated regularly; and has a set of problems. Some of those problems become very high profile.
You have a setting where people are sort of stumbling along, making do with something that is not working well, and then suddenly something that really works well and lets you do new things appears. That combination has really pushed people to change.
What are your goals for where you want to see Firefox go? Do you have a specific goal of how much user share you can get out of it, and where would you project it going now that [Firefox] is in the full launch?
Our next goal is to reach in the United States a 10 percent market share, but our data is that in Europe Firefox use is much higher than in the United States. In the United States, to get to that marker in 2005 as a marker of growth. Thats a large number of people and a large enough number of people that if youre running a Web site you dont want to be turning away that number of people, which drives the standards-based Web.
As a project weve been quite successful, even with small market-share numbers, in keeping the real vision of an open Web, where content is standard-based, alive. And as we gain market share, then its much more natural for more and more Web sites and content developers to do that as part of their daily activities.
Are you planning to achieve the 10 percent market share with the same grassroots marketing, word-of-mouth marketing, thats been going on, or are you planning something larger to penetrate what you could term the more mainstream market?
Weve been doing a couple of things, and there are a couple different mainstream markets. Yes, we do rely very heavily on grassroots marketing. … Its often a cliché to say that word-of-mouth marketing and personal recommendations by users to their friends and family is about as valuable as you can get.
Sometimes, I think, when people think grassroots marketing they think its sort of the last thing you can get. But in reality, its very precious. The fact that many of our users actively go out and say to other people, “You should change, and let me show you how,” is really valuable and more valuable than the phrase “grassroots” might suggest.
Secondly, weve been working on building a really active, focused community marketing effort through the Spread Firefox site, so the people who want to do that and help their acquaintances will have better tools for doing that. Its been extremely effective to date. Its a new kind of program, so well be working on how to make it more effective.
Another mainstream market is institutions or companies or governments, and we have increasing inquiries, contacts and interactions with institutions that are adopting both Firefox and Thunderbird [Mozillas e-mail application]. …
We, of course, do not have a classic sort of corporate marketing function, and were not planning on trying to develop one.
A lot of the latest interest in Firefox [and] switching to Firefox has been driven by people seeking it out, going to Mozilla or other Web sites to download it, on the recommendation of a friend or something they saw on the Web. But Microsoft with Internet Explorer, its main marketing tool, I guess you could say, is the fact it is there on Windows everyday when someone opens their Windows machine.
So how are you looking to actually compete with that kind of presence on someones machine? Are you going to be relying exclusively on someone having to seek out Firefox and downloading it, or are you looking at ways that this can be bundled on what theyre already used to, whether it be the desktop or somewhere else?
First of all, being integrated with the Windows OS is a mixed bag. So Microsoft has described for quite some time all the conveniences and why a user would want that, but its becoming increasingly clear what the inconveniences are and why you might not want that. …
The browsers job is to access content on the Web that you dont know about. It may be trustworthy content, it may not be. The browsers job is to access that, and once you get that deeply integrated to the operating system of your own desktop, thats a level of complexity that brings its own set of problems. Although its very technical and hard to understand, I think the basic concept that being integrated with the operating system has a set of disadvantages as well is becoming known.
Yes, we are looking at a whole range of distribution possibilities, many of which are new to us and werent available and werent things we could think about before the foundation existed. Its not a time for us to announce additional plans, but we are looking and considering a range of ways to make it easier for people to find Firefox, for it to come to them.
With this 10 percent market share goal for next year, is that presuming that users will proactively download [Firefox], or are you assuming that theres going to be PC makers putting Firefox on desktops or software makers bundling it with other software? What is the assumption of how thats going to be achieved?
We see market numbers that vary widely already. Weve seen market numbers as low as 3 percent, which seem low to us, and weve seen them as high as 20-some percent at various Web sites. Were going to continue down the path were on. We think the community marketing path is very powerful and that will take us a good distance.
Given all the interest Mozilla has had around Firefox, how are you trying to manage that for the foundation? How are you trying to balance the interest of becoming more popular with the interest of serving the open-source community?
The question of balancing different interests is really key to the foundation. … How do we balance both our open-source engineering community with other elements whether [they be] a consumer user base or enterprise needs?
Correct me if Im wrong, but there must be a pressure to kind of expand what youre doing to move Firefox out into a bigger part of the market. And that wasnt there a year ago.
We, meaning much of our community and the staff and the foundation, are highly focused … on the key mission of choice and innovation on the Net. That drives us. We are a project that has always balanced different things. Weve always balanced an active, passionate development community with, in the early days, Netscape and Netscapes role, and with other commercial interests. Weve always had to balance what is our role as a release for developers and a development platform versus what is our release to an end user.
Weve done that balancing forever, and it may become a crisper or a sharper balancing act now that the foundation is independent and Firefox has had such great success. In some portion, well keep doing what weve been doing.
Secondly, we have, as you pointed out, a vocal development and testing and evangelism community that feels like they have ownership in this project, and they do because they make it successful. At times … they are very clear about speaking out. … We recognize that its that level of passion that makes the project successful.
The consumer side winds up pretty well because most of our community is interested in both technical innovation and in having a browser they can use. On the consumer side that lines up pretty well because having a browser thats really useful and does the right thing is what people want.
On the enterprise balance … in some ways its getting easier because more and more enterprises are beginning to understand open source so they arrive knowing that its not exactly the same as a proprietary relationship. … Its not as totally new and different a setting.
Beyond Firefox then, you still have the suite, Thunderbird and some other applications. How has the plan for the [Mozilla] suite itself changed? Where is that going at this point with the route of Firefox now coming out with 1.0?
The suite will remain, and the degree of activity and future development on the suite depends in part on those that are using and distributing it. For example, the suite is up til what major distributors have distributed to customers—the Suns and Red Hats and IBMs and so on. There are millions of people who continue to use the suite and are happy using the suite and like the way it works, and we intend to continue to make that possibility real.
Our own development will focus on Firefox and Thunderbird. … Then we expect that theres a set of major customers, distributors and users who would want to see some work on the suite, and we will make those tools available for that to continue. Our own innovative work will be on the new products, but the suite will remain.
Will features cross over as there are new releases of Firefox or Thunderbird beyond 1.0? Is the plan then to take some of those features and put them into the suite? Obviously, it is the same core engine.
There are some changes, so its not exactly the same. That depends a bit. It really depends on what the interest in the suite is. We do not plan to develop for Firefox and Thunderbird and then port all these things to the suite, meaning the foundation and our planning going forward.
Now other people may do that, but its not in our plans. And as code bases get farther and farther apart, that gets harder. So we expect some set of things will be ported back to the suite and some set of things are still landing there. … There may be some crossover, but our real focus is going to be [on] the new products. …
In addition to that, something that there hasnt been much press about … is that we are actually going forward with our platform development plans and how to take the Mozilla platform itself to the next phase. I suspect after the 1.0 launch well be talking about that more.
When you talk about the platform development plans, youre talking about a platform on which other software developers can develop for doing [their] own branded versions of the Mozilla suite?
By platform, I mean the core functionality on which one builds applications. For example, the Gecko layout engine and another is … your ability to do graphics and thats a platform sort-of piece. We consider XUL (XML User Interface Language), our user-interface application-building language, to be a platform piece.
So when we talk about getting to the next version of the platform, we mean all these elements which both we use to make our own applications … and which other people can use and do use to make applications.
So what are some examples of that? What are some other applications that use elements of the platform, say Gecko or XUL? These are what some of these spinoff developing groups of Mozilla do?
On XUL applications, I can point you to a set of them available at mozdev.org. Theres a whole range of private, enterprise in-house applications that people are building with XUL, are looking at XUL for or are asking us about how [to] use XUL to do this. It turns out if you want to be able to build an application, especially if you want it cross-platform but also if its a Web-enabled application and it needs to interoperate with Web technologies, then XUL is really excellent.
Where do you see [fitting] in Mozillas strategy other people building atop what you have, whether that be other branded versions of the browser or other applications? The one well-known entity that has done this is Netscape with its 7.2 release.
How important is that type of strategy moving forward at the foundation, whether it be a commercial or an open-source group?
When we think about the platform, we feel like weve got a great browser in Mozilla Firefox. And it may be that others would want to rebrand it and change it. Thats a possibility. But maybe more likely is the range of companies that have a set of services that they want a browsing capability tuned to. …
Take a look at the Mozilla Amazon Browser, which is a browser built using our technology but really tuned for Amazon to give you a better experience when you go to Amazon. What you do at Amazon is not everything that you might do on the Web. Its designed to give you the information and let you make the choices that youre really thinking about when youre at Amazon. So theres a set of those things in the browsing world.
Theres also a whole set of applications [for which] XUL is a very powerful tool for building Web-based applications, in particular if you want something cross-platform but even if you dont it allows a broad set of people to build really sophisticated applications that are small and take advantage of what the Web has to offer. We see a good set of those developing, and part of our platform work is to make it not only easier to do that but easier to deploy them so theyre very small deployments.
Were not thinking so much along the lines of co-branded browsers or rebranded browsers so much as this broader set of technology for Web-related applications.
So it could be a specific Web function you want to do from a lightweight desktop application where you may need some basic browsing functionality?
Yes. … It turns out that the technologys there and Mozilla browsers support it [so] that if a Web site provides a means to do so, you can access the data from the Web site without necessarily getting the whole page from the Web site, or you can refresh the data on a more streaming basis.
Theres one question I have to ask … because people are so interested in it. And that is whether theres any validity to the rumor that Mozilla is working with Google on some kind of browsing functionality.
The code base is open for companies to do as they wish to do, but were not working with Google on a special browser. … We are not working on a Google browser.
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