Must race Ubuntu, Tizen and Sailfish onto the battlefield
He’s taking over as Mozilla fights for the hearts and minds of devs who might once have defaulted to Firefox, but are now being dazzled with open-source choices.
As CTO since 2005, Eich's responsibilities had included setting Mozilla’s technical strategy, working on web standards and working on partners, in addition to coding.
Now, Mozilla – the organization Eich helped co-found in 2003 – has seen fit to give him more product focus after eight years in the CTO’s position.
What does that mean?
Summarizing, in Eich’s blog here  he says he’ll be “sharpening” Mozilla’s focus on technology trends including mobile, multi-core and GPU processing, in addition to a “more laser-like focus” on users.
That’s important, he reckons, to deliver on Mozilla’s mission of promoting an open web and to encourage greater participation from ordinary netizens.
He reckoned Mozilla’s on the right track with Firefox OS – formerly Boot to Gecko, Mozilla’s open-source and browser-loving operating system for smart phones – with Firefox for Android, Firefox on the desktop, and initiatives like Persona and Web Maker. But, Eich wrote, Mozilla must “continue, with even sharper focus on what’s in front of us.”
He blogged :
On mobile this means not just great user interfaces and fast, smooth performance. It also means ... expanding up the stack to fight proprietary lock-in that diminishes developer and user experience. We did it with Firefox in 2004, we can do it again with Firefox OS, Firefox for Android, Persona and beyond.
Eich steps up at a critical time.
Firefox has been Mozilla’s biggest single success to date, with the browser eating the market share of IE. For several years however the explosive growth of the mid-to-late 2000s, 40 per cent per year, has stopped and Firefox has stalled – stuck on a quarter of web surfers with the baton handed to Google’s Chrome.
Fortunately for Mozilla, PC sales are falling and tablets and smart phones exploding making this – arguably – less important; that means Firefox must also now ride tablets and smart phones.
Mozilla last year killed its Firefox for iOS. The iPhone and iPad were difficult given Apple’s WebKit-based Safari is the default browser and fact that when Apple customers tap services online they are using the browser’s framework. Native code is not allowed on the iPhone or iPad, so it wasn’t even the full Firefox browser.
Apple's work has meant that the internet is more than just a browser when it comes to a smartphone. It’s now about merging the web and device in such a way that operating system, browser and the phone’s functions – like dialler or camera - merge to deliver the kind of polish Apple has achieved on the iPhone.
Mozilla’s answer to this is Firefox OS, a Linux-based operating system that runs HTML5 web apps using the Gecko open-source layout engine used in Firefox, and that opens up the phone's on-board systems such as the accelerometer or dialler to the web.
Forget Microsoft - the competition is already open
This is no re-run of the early days of IE versus Firefox, though, when Mozilla ran against a complacent incumbent. This time there are at least three rivals in the field and – worse - they are also all coming at Mozilla from the open-source camp. They are Ubuntu for Smartphones from Canonical, the Linux Foundation’s Tizen – with chip giant Intel and electronics giant Samsung leading – and Sailfish based on Meego but from a group of ex Nokia engineers calling themselves Jolla.
All three are architectural cousins, following the Apple model of removing the Chinese Wall that had separated browser, operating system and device in the old days of Java ME and Nokia’s Symbian. All are open source and run HTML 5 using onboard hardware acceleration and without firing up the browser as you would on the desktop.
All will appeal to some sections of the open source and open-web crowd - the question is how many will follow and will their numbers manage to sink the others.
Tizen is the Linux kernel, a set of graphic libraries called the Enlightenment Foundation Libraries (EFL) and the WebKit runtime used in Safari and Chrome browsers. Sailfish uses the Mer fork of MeeGo with its own MeeGo Graphical User Interface, HTML5, QML and Qt – the development framework bought and then spun out by Nokia for building apps spanning devices and desktops, from Windows and Mac to Linux and Symbian.
Calling handset makers
Canonical’s effort uses the same OS as Ubuntu for the desktop and uses the Unity interface but lets developers build native applications that run across phones and desktops alike, with only minor UI changes for different device form factors.
All three are trying to stall the runaway success of Google’s Android on smart phones and – increasingly - tablets. Ubuntu even uses the same device drivers as Android, and Canonical claims it will run on entry-level devices with single-core processors and advanced "superphones" based on multi-core ARM and Intel chips. Ubuntu offers an edge in that you will be able to dock your smart phone with a keyboard and monitor and turn it into a general-purpose Linux PC that can run the full range of desktop applications.
To take on Google all four need handset makers.
Mozilla already has ZTE, which has promised Firefox OS phones in Europe this year, while Spanish carrier Telefonica is slated to deliver handsets in Brazil. But Mozilla is alone as Samsung has - not surprisingly - promised Tizen smartphones due this year. That leaves Canonical bereft - for the moment, at least. The Ubuntu shop says the first Ubuntu phones will be seen in the fourth quarter of 2013, but there’s no word of actual phone makers and its website encourages interested parties to sign up. Canonical does have the relationship with PC makers, though – like Dell. Sailfish is also missing handset makers but Jolla has an agreement with Chinese retailer D.Phone, China's equivalent to Carphone Warehouse.
Who can influence the handset makers, though? That'll be the devs, by refining things such as the Linux kernel, the phones' HTML5 experience, and by providing the number of apps considered necessary to win consumers.
For this purpose, Eich is a legend who might galvanize devs with more success than – say – a faceless corporation like a Samsung.
That was when Microsoft was rolling out Internet Explorer against Netscape, having – in what became something of a habit – been caught sleeping on the job. It ignored the early web as it rolled out Windows 95, believing that the end point of history was a client and server talking over a LAN and WAN.
In the end, Netscape was defeated by industry maneuvering. The open language that should have proved NetScape's life blood proved an irrelevance as Microsoft used its existing relationship with PC makers to prevent the shipping of machines loaded with a rival's browser.
The phone's the thing
In an interview last year, Mozilla Europe president Tristan Nitot told me  that mobility is the key for the web and also for Mozilla. He called it "scary" that tech companies in far off Silicon Valley can control the powerful computer in your pocket that's called a smart phone - instead of you, the user.
Eich's rise suggests Mozilla has recognized that Firefox OS needs to be watertight to win the war against Apple and Google. It needs to be buttoned down on performance, able to run on more chips besides just ARM and open to a broader number of form factors right up to the TV. Also, with the Firefox Marketplace open, Mozilla must attract top application author talent.
Time will tell - and it'll tell very quickly - whether the technical genius and developer cred of Eich is sufficient to stop Firefox OS being ground down into irrelevance by its open-source peers and help Mozilla win the war of the open-web on mobile. ®