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08 April 2013, 16:07

Mozilla: the Next 15 Years

by Glyn Moody

As you've no doubt heard, Mozilla has just celebrated its fifteenth anniversary. Mitchell Baker, aka Chief Lizard Wrangler, and Chair of the Mozilla Foundation, has offered a neat summary of what it has achieved in that time:

Looking back, Mozilla’s plan was as radical as the Web itself: use open source and community to simultaneously create great software and build openness into the key technologies of the Internet itself. This was something commercial vendors weren’t doing and could not do. A non-profit, community-driven organization like Mozilla was needed to step up to the challenge.

In our first phase, Mozilla brought competition, choice and empowerment to the World Wide Web on the desktop. We did this by bringing a phenomenally better experience to hundreds of millions of people with Firefox. At the same time, we used Firefox to drive openness and opportunity across the whole Web ecosystem – open source, open standards, open development process for Firefox, and the ability for people everywhere to participate in creating Firefox, in tuning it to fit their local environments, in customizing and extending it to fit their needs, all on their own terms and without needing permission from Mozilla or anyone else.

That is, there were two key aspects to Mozilla's previous work: hacking code, and hacking the system. Both will be important in the years to come. The following comment from Baker in her post shows how the two are intertwined:

Another two billion people will join the Internet community in the coming years. It’s critical that these people all have access to the openness and empowerment that the Web has brought to date. The browser is a necessary piece of making sure this happens; yet we need to do more.

Just as the original Mozilla project sought to defend openness for existing users of the Internet, so Mozilla in the future will try to win over significant numbers of those joining the online world for the first time.

There seems a general consensus that most of the next two billion users will be using smartphones and tablets, rather than traditional PCs, to access the Internet. That's a challenge not just for Microsoft – one that it is signally failing to meet, as Android takes over as the dominant platform – but for Mozilla, too. No surprise there, since the roots of Mozilla go back to 1998, an epoch in Internet time. Even though Firefox represented Mozilla's second-generation browser, it was still firmly PC-based, and Firefox for Android hasn't really had the same impact as its sibling for the desktop.

I think that's one of the key reasons why Mozilla has just announced Servo, a new Web browser engine:

Servo is an attempt to rebuild the Web browser from the ground up on modern hardware, rethinking old assumptions along the way. This means addressing the causes of security vulnerabilities while designing a platform that can fully utilize the performance of tomorrow’s massively parallel hardware to enable new and richer experiences on the Web. To those ends, Servo is written in Rust, a new, safe systems language developed by Mozilla along with a growing community of enthusiasts.

We are now pleased to announce with Samsung that together we are bringing both the Rust programming language and Servo, the experimental web browser engine, to Android and ARM. This is an exciting step in the evolution of both projects that will allow us to start deeper research with Servo on mobile. Samsung has already contributed an ARM backend to Rust and the build infrastructure necessary to cross-compile to Android, along with many other improvements. You can try this now by downloading the code from GitHub, but it’s just the beginning.

Rightly, Mozilla is trying to re-invent itself for the mobile age. Wisely, it is applying the knowledge it gained in the transition from Mozilla to Firefox: that when the world moves on, you can't just keep tweaking the code. At some point, you have to start from scratch, examining along the way all your treasured assumptions about what works and what doesn't.

Next page: Adapting to the landscape

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