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Adapting to the landscape

So that's the good news: Mozilla is definitely doing the right thing. The bad news is that this is not 1998, when Mozilla was born, or 2002, when Firefox began life as Phoenix. Back then, there was only one rival – the sclerotic Internet Explorer. That's not to belittle the extraordinary achievement of Mozilla in its fight for Web standards, and the open Web, but at least things were simpler back then.

Today, largely thanks to Mozilla, the landscape is radically different, with a far more diverse browser market. The biggest change is the rise of Google's Chrome, which uses the open source Webkit engine based on KHTML, as does Apple's Safari. Moreover, Mozilla is not alone in recognising that the future battlefield will be mobile: with eerie synchronicity, on exactly the same day that Servo was announced, Google revealed its own next-generation Web browsing engine, Blink:

WebKit is a lightweight yet powerful rendering engine that emerged out of KHTML in 2001. Its flexibility, performance and thoughtful design made it the obvious choice for Chromium's rendering engine back when we started. Thanks to the hard work by all in the community, WebKit has thrived and kept pace with the web platform’s growing capabilities since then.

However, Chromium uses a different multi-process architecture than other WebKit-based browsers, and supporting multiple architectures over the years has led to increasing complexity for both the WebKit and Chromium projects. This has slowed down the collective pace of innovation - so today, we are introducing Blink, a new open source rendering engine based on WebKit.

As that notes, this is essentially a fork of WebKit; Apple is already streamlining the Webkit code, removing Chrome-only components. What this means is that the battle for browser dominance in the key mobile sector is beginning in earnest, and that Mozilla faces a vastly more agile and responsive set of competitors than it did on the desktop. In other words, its success there is by no means guaranteed. But that may not matter so much this time. That's because of Mozilla's other great achievement: spreading the culture of openness.

It's striking that among the browser engines of tomorrow, five of them are open source – KHTML, WebKit, Gecko, Servo, Blink – with Microsoft's Trident as the lone proprietary holdout. This diversity contrasts with the dangerous Web monoculture that existed at the end of the 1990s, and which Mozilla pretty much single-handedly dismantled. So whether Mozilla's Servo wins out, or whether one of the others takes the lead, the important thing is that they will be open source, and based on open standards.

That manifest success at making the browser sphere a triumph of openness brings us on to the other side of Mozilla: its promotion of openness in all its forms. As Baker says in her post:

Mozilla has helped shift the center of gravity to a Web that’s more open – that gives more people the opportunity to create and enjoy the Web on *their* terms. The “open” way of thinking has spread to a range of other activities, from open data to open government to open science. More importantly: billions of people experience the openness of the Web every day as they create, connect and invent in ways that reflect their goals and dreams, without needing the permission of a few commercial organizations.

This is an area that I've explored several times here on The H Open. Earlier this year, I noted Mozilla's interest in open science; back in October, I suggested that an important role for Mozilla might be in helping the public to protect their privacy, not least by beefing up open source encryption tools. And I've also pointed out that Mozilla has become more politically engaged, notably in fighting the SOPA legislation in the US, in order to preserve the open Web in all its manifestations.

In many ways, I think this is where its future lies. That's not because I don't believe Mozilla can keep up on the technical side, but because the work that needs doing outside the world of browsers and even the Web is so much greater. Now, there is a presumption that the Web should be open (even if there are still plenty of challenges to keeping it that way.) That's still not the case in the fields of open access, open data, open science and open government, although big strides have been made towards achieving default openness in these domains, too. This, then, is where we really need Mozilla's prestige and influence.

Thanks to its achievements in the Web world – and helped by the uniquely powerful financial clout it has gained thanks to its Web search engine deals – Mozilla occupies a pivotal position in the digital domain. It is now widely respected outside that sphere, too, which enables it to act as a powerful ambassador and advocate for openness and freedom. As important as its achievements have been so far, I hope that during its next 15 years of existence we will see it becoming yet bolder in seizing new opportunities to change the world even more.


Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+. For other feature articles by Glyn Moody, please see the archive.

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