When I recently wrote that Firefox, the Mozilla Foundations wildly popular Web browser, was in trouble, I didnt expect any quick changes from the land of the giant green gecko.
That shows you how much I know.
The Mozilla Foundation announced late on Thursday that it was discontinuing work on the next generation of Mozilla, its flagship Web browser, e-mail client and Web authoring program.
On the same day, Ben Goodger, Firefoxs lead engineer, announced that “to help spread the load more evenly,” there would be a major Firefox development team reorganization.
Well, actually, much as Id like to think Im Mr. Big in open-source circles, it almost certainly was.
There was nothing new about the problems I described with the Firefox development efforts. Theyve been being hashed out in Mozilla developer circles for quite some time now. At most, I made some people go, “Its time to do some fixing up here.”
What wasnt happening was the Foundation addressing its root problems with maintaining and advancing the worlds best Web browser. Now it seems that the Foundation, by shedding itself of the burden of supporting Mozilla 1.8 and by reorganizing its Firefox team, is giving Firefox the support it needs.
The key phrase is “it seems.”
Id like to know more about what Mozilla is planning for Firefox and the rest of its programs. Ive been piecing together bits and pieces from blogs and official Mozilla communications, and its not at all clear to me where theyre going.
For example, it was only back in October that Mozilla President Mitchell Baker told eWEEK.coms Matt Hicks that “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.”
Now, in March, the Foundation is discontinuing serious Mozilla development?
Given the groups resources, I think that was probably the right move. And, back in November, Baker made it clear that Foxfire and Thunderbird would be on the front burner, but sudden shifts like this one make me wonder about Mozillas long-term planning and management.
I get even more concerned by the way the “handover” of Mozilla 1.8 to a community model has been handled. Boris Zbarsky, a leading Mozilla programmer, suggested in an open letter that a community-based project be formed to move Mozilla 1.8 forward, but he didnt expect to be singled out to run the job.
As he told me on Friday, “It seems that there is a widespread misconception that Im somehow a driving force behind the Seamonkey developments, just because I was the one who sat down and wrote a letter that summarized the situation that had clearly developed.”
What seems to be happening here is that, instead of being proactive, Mozilla is being reactive to the problems that come with growth and limited resources.
I fear Ive seen the path Mozilla is on before. Im reminded of the hundreds of ISPs and dot-coms that I covered in the early 90s all the way to the crash of the late 90s. Many of them were wildly popular, most of them were woefully underfinanced, and the vast majority of them lacked the business plans and leadership needed to take great technology and make it work in the real world.
No, Mozilla isnt a business. But, in some ways, to be successful, it needs to follow some of the same rules as a business. It needs to have a plan, it needs resources and it needs a structure to match resources to those plans.
Im really hoping that these sudden changes represent Mozilla addressing its problems in a constructive, businesslike way, but the missing pieces—like the lack of a concrete plan for what to do with Mozilla 1.8—worry me.
Several folks told me after my last column that I just needed to have faith in open source and all would be well with Firefox. I do have faith in open source as the best way to develop software.
What I dont have is faith that any software development method, no matter how wonderful, or any program, no matter how great, can survive without a good, well-executed business plan.