May, 2007


16
May 07

hearts on sleeves

It’s been an interesting week in the Mozilla blogosphere. So much conversation, explanation, accusation, retraction, questioning, talking, talking, talking. One of the clear examples of the leverage that I spent a while writing about on Sunday. It’s one of the brilliances of what mozilla.org set up around a decade ago — conversations are happening in a highly decentralized way, around the whole world (and at every hour of the day, it seems to me). The two most active conversations, of course, are about XULRunner investment and reactions to Chris’ provocative video.

Everyone I know involved with Mozilla has taken both of these conversations very seriously. I think we’ve addressed much of the issue with XULRunner (at least the miscommunication issue, although there are clearly differences of opinion that can & should be discussed more in online forums, in blogs, at Developer Days, etc). But the other issue, I think, not so much.

I believe there are two basic set of issues here: (1) the content & the questions, and (2) the way the conversation is happening. This post is about the second set of issues: the way the conversation is happening.

First, here’s what I know from my experience with Mozilla: everyone I know who’s involved at any level, in any language, in any country, is extremely aware of the place Mozilla sits on the Web. Everyone is incredibly sensitive to what developers think about what’s happening, what users think about what’s happening, and what other voices on the web think about what’s happening. And it’s a very populist movement: everyone I know here wants the web to be open, uncontrolled & free. For the moment that fight is in the browser window, but everybody knows that the edges are moving around.

So when prominent voices put up thoughts about direction, details, intent — most everyone pays attention. Everyone’s first reaction is “I wonder if I did something wrong here. Wonder what I need to fix.”

Tara posted yesterday that one of the first rules of responding to criticism is to try not to take it personally. Obviously a correct point of view, but here’s the rub: Mozilla exists because everyone takes criticisms exceptionally personally, irrespective of whether they’re fair or not, based on fact or not, reasonable or not.

And I’ll assert that that type of personal accountability & reaction is what the world needs, actually. It’s companies that don’t take criticism personally. It’s organizations. It’s individuals who don’t care. But that’s not Mozilla. In the 2 years that I’ve been here, I’ve observed hundreds or thousands of people around the world who take it personally that the web’s not open to everyone, that companies think it can be controlled. And it’s caused a whole lot of people to do unnatural acts to remedy that. Working for days straight to get builds done. Flying halfway around the world to help someone start a community in Taipei or Beijing or Prague. Being available pretty much 24-7 on IRC/IM/forums/…

So in my view what’s happened over the last week or so is a large set of frustrated, personal reaction to some assertions that were almost framed as questions. But the tone of accusation is getting in the way of the conversation.

For example, we should talk more about what’s happening in cities around the world and what’s happening on university campuses, because there’s an incredible amount of activity. But the point was put this way: “dump spreadfirefox; get your focus back. power to the people — not more centralization. where’s the college teams? run it like a presidential but stop asking for donations. events, mash pits… MozCamps… whatever… I know something is happening in Japan with Joi Ito… but that’s about all I know about.” Stuff like this (and more, like professors writing curriculum on open source) is happening! The implication that’s being made (explicitly) is that it isn’t. Posing it differently: “What’s happening on campuses? In other countries?” elicits a completely different response. It should make Mozilla folks reflect on what parts they thought were clearly communicated (but obviously aren’t) and how to make that better.

Anyway, all I know is this: taking things personally is what motivates people to work harder, to make things better. Mozilla people all wear their hearts on their sleeves, and I think that’s the engine for both being proud of where things are and wanting to become more.

Having said that, I’d like to see if we can get moved past that, and focus on the content for a while. I can pick out some questions in Chris’ post and others — questions like “What’s Mozilla’s position/response on Silverlight/Flash/Java FX?”, “What does Moz spend most of its time on now?”, “What’s happening internationally?”, and “What about XULRunner?” Those are all good questions to be clearer on, help get better understanding of everyone’s position on.

But there are a lot more. What are they?


13
May 07

Rant, by Chuck Pahlaniuk


I’ve enjoyed Pahlaniuk for several years, since I (finally) read Fight Club a while back. Pahlaniuk is a pretty fantastic writer — I find that when I read his books, I always feel different — there’s a manic pacing that he seems to be unique in being able to create. Having said that, Fight Club is a better book — this is probably the weakest of the several books of his I’ve read (although the book jacket is fantastic). It feels gross in some places just to be gross (a Pahlaniuk special), other times the writing sparkles. Good to read, but not his best. (I also finished Jonathan Lethem’s new book this weekend, also good, but a stark contrast in styles.)


13
May 07

leverage

I’ve been thinking a lot the last few days about the debate that’s been going on about what “Mozilla” should do. [I put “Mozilla” in quotes here because it’s a quite unusual & difficult to understand thing — but the link to Mike’s post is maybe the best articulation I’ve seen, especially when viewed through special, snark-reducing glasses. (I don’t reduce the snark, personally — it’s what I like about Mike’s posts.)] Or, rather, what Mozilla should do more of, do faster, do better. They’re all right, of course. We should do more, faster, and do it better. The criticisms in the debate, both explicit & implicit, tend to create a lot of introspection & wider debate, which I think, ultimately is good, healthy and productive. Even debates like the one on languages that pops up from time to time helps to clarify things.

Like Mike, I’m having a tough time reconciling calls for centralized decision-making in something that’s fundamentally decentralized. Even with Mozilla (Foundation + Corporation) making some decisions on where to put money or people to work, I believe we’re still one of the most decentralized, global, egalitarian and successful technology/product organisms in the world. But more on that later…

What I’ve been thinking about specifically this morning is the conversation about whether Mozilla (again, a loosely defined concept at best, but for the moment, let’s assume that people mean Mozilla Corporation + Foundation) should focus on Firefox and whether we should focus on building a platform for application development. It’s a bit of a false framing of the problem, though, and here’s why: Firefox is, of course, an application that somewhere north of 100 million people in the world use to interact with the Internet. (and only around 50% of them use English language versions, which is a topic for another time.) But it also, today, is 3 separate and distinct platforms for building applications on.

1. It’s XUL, of course, for building extensions — and at last count, there are around 2,500 extensions that have been written that we know about that run the gamut from trivial to shockingly useful. These extensions work in the browser, and (mostly) make your browsing experience more productive. There are a number of startups who have built these — several even using Firefox extensions as their initial or primary entry point. Some of the venture-backed (or angel-backed) ones that come immediately to mind are: del.icio.us, StumbleUpon, FoxMarks, JetEye, Yoono, AllPeers, FoxyTunes, ScribeFire, AdaptiveBlue, CoolIris — that’s 10 quick ones, but there are many more that I’ve forgotten or not ever known about.

2. It’s a framework for building other applications that aren’t within the browser — commonly called (and grouped together) as something called XULRunner (or, more precisely, a collection of things which includes XULRunner, Gecko, and more). We’re a little loose in what we call XULRunner, but here I’ll just lump together applications that are using XUL as a platform to build more things that aren’t browser-based on top of it (I know this is broader than most people’s definition). Using XULRunner (or the Mozilla codebase) to build standalone apps (or derivative browsers) is so far quite popular among startups and large enterprises alike. Some of the venture-funded endeavors here are backed by the most successful VCs on the planet, and a brief, non-exhaustive list, includes Joost, Songbird, and Flock, plus many more in stealth mode and behind corporate firewalls. And not to mention Thunderbird, an e-mail client used by 5M+ people, and projects like Camino and SeaMonkey and the Democracy Player, all of which are doing amazingly well.

3. Most importantly, it’s the web. In no small measure, the explosion of high interactivity AJAX applications can thank Firefox’s emergence in 2004, both in terms of a good platform to develop on (and getting better, with fantastic extensions like Firebug), and in terms of the pressure that it’s put on Microsoft to put out a better, more standards-oriented browser and do real development on the web again. These applications are uncountable — thousands, or hundreds-of-thousands. Lots, anyway, and, as I said, resulting in 100M+ Firefox users, even before counting the positive impact on the 100s of millions of more IE users around the world.

And while I’m on the subject of the open web, in our web-focused community, we keep talking about it like the fight is won. Like the web is open forever, for everyone. But it isn’t. It isn’t for, say, the 137M users in China, 99% of whom use IE-based browsers and are plagued by spyware — most who I talked with figure all the malicious software on their computers is just the price of being on the Internet. It isn’t for folks whose langage is Thai or Kurdish or Vietnamese — or countless others — who don’t yet have a browser that’s in their own language. It isn’t for Koreans, where the overwhelming force of government and industry has built a Windows-oriented monoculture.

And it isn’t, really, even with content. Flash is doing fantastically, driven by successes of companies like YouTube. And there are 3 major, potentially industry-changing efforts (Microsoft’s Silverlight, Adobe’s Apollo, Sun’s JavaFX) to build new platforms that use words like open, but are as proprietary as Java ever was for Sun, and probably more so. They’re all awesome technologies, and awesome demos. But they’re not the open web. They’re built by a vendor, controlled by a vendor, tooled by a vendor. And Adobe’s putting up $100M — significantly more than the wherewithal of a project like Mozilla — to help companies take that first hit.

This isn’t the most useful way to measure, but Mozilla has done this with fewer than 100 employees. We were fewer than half that a year ago, and more like 15 people total 2 years ago. This obviously and absolutely undercounts the whole of Mozilla — 25%+ code for Firefox was contributed by volunteers; all non-English localizations were; and clearly the debate which I mentioned is involving many, many people in our extended world.

So here’s a little summary. By my count, the absolute most conservative view is that 100 paid people are supporting more than a dozen funded startups building extensions for Firefox, more than a half dozen funded startups building completely new applications, countless web-based application startups, and more than a million users per employee. All for less money than Adobe is putting into Apollo’s launch. Way less.

That’s crazy high leverage. As much leverage as any organization I know of in the world.

Can Mozilla do more? Yes. Can it go faster? Yes. Can Mozilla continue to support a giant ecosystem of enterprises built on top of Moz technology? Absolutely. Can Mozilla do everything? Save the world? Absolutely not. And, to be honest, nobody is more critical of Mozilla than people in our community. Far from being frustrating, it’s actually amazing. Enabling. And it’s the reason that Mozilla (in the large, not in the Foundation + Corporation sense) keeps moving forward, keeps making things better.

We do have to make choices, though. There’s only so much time, there’s only so much attention. It’s tough for a small band of folks to change the world, and sometimes you do things in an order you may not like the best.

But some days we’re faced with real, explicit choices. Like whether to ship Firefox 3 this year. Or how much time to devote to making sure that those aforementioned Thais can finally get a browser that actually works in their native language. Or how to help users in Dalian, users in Osaka, users in Great Falls, users in Ankara — to help them understand that there are choices here, and that they can (and should) have more control over their web experience than they do. Or, as many have pointed out, to make XULrunner more complete so startups can do their legitimate work and change the world in their own ways.

These goals are all laudable. They’re all important. They’re all gigantic. So sometimes we make choices. Sometimes we go with the grain of the wood, so to speak, and try to spotlight great things that are happening in spite of any choices that “we” make.

I’ll say this: the fact that this conversation is happening is a huge testament to the entire community — it means that Mozilla has relevance, that it’s got an opportunity to continue to do amazing things. For a market that everyone, including me (well, everyone except the Mozilla community) thought was moribund just a few years ago, that’s a special, maybe singular accomplishment. While there are real, contentious, meaty conversations happening about what “Mozilla” should do, we should all remember what an amazing set of things are happening already, and tomorrow, and the next day, too.


12
May 07

Letter Perfect, by David Sacks


I’ve had this book around for 2 or 3 years — I kept reading a chapter or two, then putting it down. I finally got through it the past few weeks — it’s an interesting book. It’s all about our alphabet, and how it came to be the way it is, in terms of which letters are in our alphabet, how they look, and how they sound. After the introduction, there’s a chapter for each letter — some are better than others, for sure. My favorite is on the letter “E” (always the glory hog, at least in English — see, there E goes again, starting that word) — and how it’s derived from a semitic character that is itself derived from an earlier character that was effectively “hey!” — both in meaning & pronunciation — and that the capital E letter shape itself is really from a person with both arms up yelling (rotate it counter-clockwise 90 degrees — teh end bars are the person’s arms, the middle is the head). Funny.

Anyway, fun book for letter & type nerds.


1
May 07

microsoft & silverlight

I’ve been thinking for a while about Silverlight, the new tools+browser plugin+platform stuff from Microsoft. it’s very clearly designed to attack Adobe Flash as the rich media platform on the web (and the desktop). I can’t help but think, though, that they’re fighting the wrong war here.

Flash is very strong; there’s no doubt of that — it’s on something like 95% of the Internet-connected computers in the world — and the success of YouTube & other video sites has really cemented its place on the Web. But it’s not open or standard — it’s owned by one company here on the left coast of the US — not such a different situation than Java was in a decade or so ago. And we all know how how that story played out (when’s the last time you ran a Java applet? Don’t know? Right.)

And so Microsoft looks around at what they’ve got, and their Studio.Net tools are one of their absolute strongest franchises. Combine that with the new religion that they’ve got about services (instead of software), and they start to think they need to build yet another proprietary platform to compete head on with Flash, but leveraging their tool set. They know ubiquity is important, so in their version of “ubiquity” they build for PC & Mac, for IE, Firefox & Safari. Which looks a lot like ubiquitous, but it actually isn’t, and that’s telling.

But here’s the mistake I think they’re making: they’re gunning at Flash alone, with their own proprietary, closed stack — Mix07 hype notwithstanding, they’re not going to get any real help from anyone outside of Redmond.

And so if they really believe that Flash is the #1 threat to them on the web (I mean, aside from those cute & cuddly googlers in Mountain View), and if they really believe that services are the bulk of their future business, then they should line up with the open web. Build tools that emit not some weird stuff for yet another balkanized browser plugin. (Ever tried Windows Media Player on a Mac?) But instead use their huge tools franchise to create apps for the Web, using standards like SVG & Canvas & DHTML & Javascript.

Then, suddenly, they’re on the side of the web, on the side of a billion Internet users, on the side of everybody who’s not Adobe. But I think they can’t see it because of their history, even with a new guy at the helm.

So now it’s Adobe v Microsoft v the Web. I don’t see how they can really win this one.

[As an aside, I think a ton of stuff that Adobe has done lately shows that they’re thinking much further down this path than Microsoft is, and my hat’s off to them for that.]