Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/02/15/mozilla_mitchell_baker/

Where does Mozilla go when the monopoly witch is dead?

After MS, after browsers - we talk to Mozilla head Mitchell Baker

By John Lettice

Posted in Applications, 15th February 2010 12:02 GMT

So what would Mozilla do if it ever won? The question, which The Register asked of Mozilla Foundation head Mitchell Baker a couple of weeks ago, may be slightly premature, but Mozilla most certainly isn't losing, and The Beast, while still gripping hold of a goodly chunk of the browser market, is bloodied and reeling.

Scarcely a week goes by without somebody saying something hurtful about IE6.

Mitchell Baker, Mozilla

But Microsoft Internet Explorer still has over 60 per cent of the browser market, with Mozilla Firefox lying second at around 25 per cent, and Google's Chrome and Apple Safari down around the 4-5 per cent mark. So for Mozilla, how much is that success, and how much victory?

It's not all about The Beast

Baker points out that perceptions have shifted substantially since the early days of Mozilla. "For a long time we were regarded as being on a fool's mission," she says. "When we started, nobody talked about browsers", because the browser came with the operating system and was, to 'normal' users, part of Windows. Just as, in Microsoft's view, it was inextricably intertwined with the operating system.

But now normal people do talk about browsers, and the company that used to tell you removing IE from Windows was impossible and would break everything is cutting a browser ballot deal with the EU, and accepts at least to some extent that a browser could be something separate.

So it's at least arguable that if there's a threat to any of the objectives set out in the Mozilla Manifesto, it's no longer so likely to come from Microsoft, and it's possibly no longer to do with browsers.

Nor is the complete destruction of Microsoft a necessary part of the deal. Mozilla's mission, says Baker, was not explicitly to get Microsoft - it's set out in rather broader and more enduring terms in the manifesto. Competition is necessary, and had to be re-established, and for Mozilla, the Internet is "a global public resource that must remain open and accessible". Security is fundamental, not optional; the Internet's effectiveness depends on interoperability, transparency, accountability and trust, and "individuals must have the ability to shape their own experiences on the Internet".

That one (point 5) seems to be where Baker is at at the moment, although she's fairly guarded about it. Speaking earlier at a session at DLD in Munich, (video) Baker had described Firefox as the "first necessary step", a mechanism for breaking the monopoly.

This was a process of disruption, and "we still intend to continue disruption… not based so much on cost, because we've now moved into a phase where everything is free of charge to consumers. For Mozilla and Firefox the key to disruption is the control point, so our original disruption of the first monopoly was to actually build an industry and to crack the control point open to get to the stage… of creating value."

Who controls the control point?

Baker's repeated reference to "the control point" is all about manifesto point 5, the individual's ability to shape their own Internet experience. Monopoly one (actually Microsoft's second effort, as the Microsoft Network preceded Bill Gates' discovery of the Internet) was Microsoft's attempt to control the experience via Windows. Firefox certainly played an important part in heading this one off, although Microsoft's failure to build anything sufficiently compelling to keep users within the Church of Windows was probably also a factor.

But by referring to this as "the first monopoly", Baker seems to be suggesting at least the possibility of subsequent monopolies. What, or who, might they be?

She's not specifically telling, and she's annoyingly polite about everybody, but she set the scene to some extent for the DLD audience. "We are building a slice of the internet where the only agenda is the individual control of our online experience… the browser is a first step, [then] probably identity, something to do with data, what is the sense of me, where is the home of me in this giant, large scale, automated Internet?"

Asked about this later, she was guarded. There's more to Mozilla than Firefox. "The mission is not to produce a browser, it is to build certain qualities into the human experience of the Internet… We are in a reasonable spot with the browser, and Firefox is important for the immediate future. But we've barely started in user control."

My little house on the Internet

The Register suggested that her references to "the home of me on the Internet" positioned Mozilla as a potential trusted and trustworthy holder of identity credentials for users. We have Google pitching for this slot, and proposing to sell you personalised stuff while it's about it, and earlier at DLD we'd had Mike Schroepfer, president of engineering at Facebook, offering up Facebook as your one-stop Internet identity shop. Don't laugh - Schroepfer is a techie, ex-Sun and ex-Mozilla, and this is not your Zuckerberg's Facebook. Schroepfer, you could say, is the acceptable face of Facebook identity management.

But in a world where everybody's going to want to look after your stuff for you, Mozilla has certain advantages. Google and Facebook have bosses prone to disastrous privacy gaffes, and while Google says it isn't evil, Mozilla is by definition pretty much beatified.

"We'd like to show what an open solution can look like," says Baker. She says Mozilla is looking at Webfinger, a Google project intended to turn email addresses into identity credentials, and now enabled for Google and Gmail profiles, but "we'll look at it from the point of view, how do I have control?".

That said, she says "a lot of people will choose a Facebook identity", and she thinks Facebook is well positioned to succeed here.

"I think of Facebook as part application, part platform, but not a social browser." So it's "a social application where we interact with our friends, [but also] a building block for a bunch of services which might become web-wide. And then it's a platform which will disrupt other things, but not the browser in particular. I would say Facebook is a potential disruptor for how each one of us accesses the Internet, who am I, where's my identity, where's my entry point."

And here again, she seems to position Mozilla as an alternative/example of purity. "I want at least an option where all of those things are under my control, and cross-web. That's not at all an anti-Facebook play, I mean Facebook is a great thing and lots of people will use it for many things."

Browsers - just so Web 1.0?

But not for disrupting the browser, "in particular"? Whether Facebook as a web entry-point would or would not disrupt the browser is perhaps a moot point, given that Baker indicates that browsers might be getting past their sell-by date (Microsoft trying to make the browser go away - wasn't that where we came in?). "The browser, the way we access the Internet now, is ancient. It's a decade old, it needs to change. We had a little stagnation period due to the monopoly, and then partly we've cracked that now… but we need something different and the browser today is not all it should be… there should be something that disrupts what we're doing and soon, I hope, I just want to be close enough to it."

So yes, with the monopoly at least partially cracked, Mozilla is looking for the something different that might follow the browser. But if Baker has any detail about it other than it being something to do with "the home of me", she's not saying. And although it seems reasonable to speculate that there may come a time when someone other than Microsoft might become the biggest threat to openness, she's not pointing any fingers.

She bridles when The Register refers to Mozilla's "sweethearts" deal with Google: "Sweetheart makes it sound like a chummy relationship. Google and Yahoo! - I spent months with each of them, to understand each other well enough to make a deal successful." And yes, although the money Mozilla gets from Google search is vital for Mozilla, the traffic Google gets from Firefox is important to Google too. But the current Google contract expires next year, and Baker has previously talked about alternatives, and of broadening the revenue base.

What about Bing? Is that completely out of the question? Possibly not, at least in the mind of one Mozilla luminary, who responded to Eric Schmidt's 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear' blooper by recommending in his personal blog that Firefox users switch to Bing. "We don't have a corporate policy that says only spokespeople can blog," says Baker, and "we find Google to be truly a company with net DNA. Their business is about making [the Internet] richer and better."

Which doesn't necessarily mean that Google mightn't, next year, decline to renew the contract. In which case Mozilla would have to look at alternatives, or at least threaten them in order to retain Google's attention. And there's a really bizarre ending to the browser wars somewhere among those alternatives… ®