Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/03/06/drumbeat_surman/

Mozilla lays foundation for web's next 100 years

Freedom beyond Firefox

By Gavin Clarke

Posted in Software, 6th March 2010 00:13 GMT

The Mozilla Foundation is best known for Firefox, but as its head Mitchell Baker recently told us, the group's mission is not merely to produce a browser that kills Internet Explorer.

"The mission 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," Baker said.

What exactly was Baker talking about?

According to executive director Mark Surman, that mission involves efforts to make the web more open by removing its technological, corporate and cultural choke points and getting more regular people to give a damn about where the internet will be in the next 100 years - not just those already working in tech.

This includes something called Drumbeat, a project Surman is leading.

Among Drumbeat's initiatives is a new set of independent programs in open-web technologies like HTML 5 where students' work is rated and scored using a peer-rating system designed to go beyond the standard Microsoft or Cisco certifications.

Outside of coding, there's work to devise legal agreements we can actually read and comprehend instead of just blowing through and clicking "yes" when signing up to services. The Foundation also wants to give individuals control over their digital identities and freedom to move in the cloud, rather than leaving their sign-in and all their data with a handful of default giants like Microsoft, Google, and Facebook.

"Clearly, the goal is to get out to a new circle of people who care about the web already but who don't have a way to participate," Surman told us during a recent interview. "We don't know what the market will be 100 years from now, but we do know that a dramatic increase in levels of ownership and participation in the web will be critical."

Surman is pushing Drumbeat through community meetings and engagements at events like the recent FOSDEM in Brussels and "local drumbeats" later this month in Brazil. He's also looking for involvement through new projects, with 29 listed on Mozilla's Wiki at the time of writing.

Getting the participation and interest means both technology and non-technology projects.

Breaking the lock

On technology, Mozilla wants to break the lock not just of proprietary technologies on the web but also proprietary and vendor-centric teaching methods that exclude outsiders and help ensure closed technologies such as .NET, Flash, and Cisco routers remain the web's building blocks.

Surman is proposing university courses in HTML 5, Cascading Style Sheets and JavaScript and courses that promote Mozilla's Canvas to bring in a new class of professional programmer. "Those are the things people learn as the side piece of their job and don't take seriously as a suite of tools they can built their careers around," Surman said.

He's also proposing a system of accreditation where developers and their work are rated by peers - an eBay-like system where the sellers and buyers are rated. Also, Surman is proposing a mentoring scheme.

Mozilla ran a pilot peer-to-peer university for one semester last year for 100 people, with a second semester due to begin last month and to then run every two months. The idea already has support from US philanthropic organization the Hewlett Foundation, which lists among its goals helping non-profits improve education for students. Surman hopes to have a clearer story on peer-to-peer rating and other teaching by the middle of the year.

"Hopefully over time that's something that starts to compete with and replace the Cisco academies and Microsoft engineers - more traditional teaching and training. We can use the power and ethics of the web for people to teach each other skills and get jobs."

For the end users, Surman hopes Drumbeat can take the legalese out of signing up for something like a Facebook account or a new version of iTunes. He's already had meetings with US lawyers to institute a system of icons like the Creative Commons icons, which could tell the user very quickly and clearly the terms and conditions they are agreeing to. The idea is users can make more informed choices instead of just scrolling down and clicking 'yes'.

"We just can't grok all this stuff," Surman said. "This will help raise people's consciousness and let them know if they are getting in situations they are uncomfortable with."

With 29 projects on the Drumbeat Wiki, much of this work is nascent. Still, Surman's confident that as the word spreads more people from outside tech will become involved, and Drumbeat will help Mozilla go beyond the 350 million downloads of Firefox so far.

Innit to winnit

This is a long-term project, he noted, but Mozilla is not afraid of that. It might seem like Firefox has always been around and offering a strong competitive challenge to IE, with a quarter of the browsing market, but it has taken six years for Firefox to get where it is today. And while Firefox 1.0 may have been released in 2004, the project itself only got going in response to the perceived bloat in the Mozilla suite - something that used the code released by the now-defunct Netscape more than 10 years ago.

Drumbeat will act virally to hit its goals, Surman believes, pulling in more people in areas they are concerned about - such as open identity, free video, law, browsing, or coding.

"It's not hard to get tens of thousands [involved] - they are knocking on the door now. And they are going to talk to their friends, neighbors, and colleagues, and that will help people who don't know the difference between Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Chrome," Surman said.

"They are the next layer of people who come in five to 10 years from now - and that's the next stage of the game." ®