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Firefox maker moves towards a browser-free world

Mobiles need 'a strong infusion of Mozilla values'

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Open...and Shut Something interesting is brewing at Mozilla, and it appears to have very little to do with browsers.

For years, Mozilla's brand has been closely aligned with its open source browser, Firefox, despite the non-profit's efforts to branch out into mail suites (Thunderbird), social networking (Raindrop), and more.

Now, Mozilla is moving beyond the browser, just when the web seems to be outgrowing the browser.

The browser is dead. Long live the web?

Not exactly. No one at Mozilla is offering eulogies for the browser just yet, but the language at Mozilla does seem to be changing. At least, a little.

Mozilla, while always centered more on freedom of the internet than any particular software program used to access it, used to identify itself much more with the browser. For example, in February 2004 Mozilla touted its mission as "maintain[ing] choice and innovation on the Internet by developing the acclaimed, open source, Mozilla 1.6 web and email suite and related products and technology."

These days, Mitchell Baker, Mozilla Foundation chair, states that "Mozilla’s mission is to build user sovereignty into the fabric of the Internet." It's no longer about browsers, in other words, but rather something much more fundamental.

As Baker goes on to say, the fragmented, super-closed platforms of mobile computing need a heavy dose of Mozilla's values to keep the web from becoming the province of a few titans:

Mobile computing needs a strong infusion of Mozilla values. This means Firefox and other software on the new platforms, it means apps and it means bringing the Firefox experience to data and services as well. Mozilla has a unique ability to put user sovereignty first in all of these areas.

Perhaps, but Mozilla isn't alone in conceptualizing a more open approach to the mobile app revolution. While half of the mobile market is currently overrun by highly integrated, end-to-end mobile platforms, according to recent Nielsen data, Google's Android and open web apps also offer a Mozilla-like reprieve.

This is why noted investor Roger McNamee tells developers to focus on Apple for now, because that's where the money is, but look to HTML5 apps for the long-term future. And while many think of HTML5 as a way to run apps in the browser, it's actually much more than this, as Strobe CEO Charles Jolley made plain in a recent DevCon5 presentation. (Discloser: I work for Strobe.) Jolley identified web apps, distributed over the web or through app stores, as a key to enabling broad distribution of apps beyond any one vendor's platform.

Mozilla thinks it has a key part to play in this post-browser world.

Indeed, Mozilla is setting itself up as a fulcrum for this new browser-less (or, more and less than a browser) web. With Boot-to-Gecko, the company is angling to take on not only iOS, webOS, and other closed operating systems, but also Android and the very idea of an OS that is required to load the browser. In Mozilla's emerging vision, similar to Google Chrome OS, the browser is the operating system ... but it's not your mother's OS.

Will B2G work? Maybe, maybe not. Chrome OS has hardly taken the world by storm.

But it's a long-term vision, one that is likely to gain converts in the wake of Apple's and Google's dominance of nascent mobile platforms. Microsoft has already shown itself to be a fan of HTML5 to bolster its mobile efforts, and HP, RIM, and others have also been embracing HTML5 as a way to break the iOS and Android strangleholds.

Mozilla is in a central position to lead out on the open web, just as it did on the open browser. It's a great way for the Foundation to remain relevant in an increasingly app-ified world. We may all be the beneficiaries one day. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.

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