Mozilla's Mitchell Baker on Being the Alternative to Microsoft, Google and Apple

May 10, 2012

Fourteen years ago, as a lawyer for Netscape, Mitchell Baker created the open source license that made Netscape’s code free. It was a fateful event for both Baker and the web: Baker ended up leading a small skunkworks project called Mozilla that was eventually spun out into a standalone foundation devoted to making the web better generally, and to offering an alternative to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer specifically. With its Firefox browser, Mozilla is now bigger and more influential than ever, and Baker still serves as its chair.

Meanwhile, the open source, open-web spirit of Mozilla lives on in thousands of projects: GitHub, Android development, HTML5 apps and in Firefox itself. Now, with a healthy 25 percent browser share, Firefox is in a fast-paced browser race with Google’s own open source browser and Microsoft’s vastly improved IE9.

Not bad for a scrappy non-profit that had to fight for the hearts, minds and desktops of the world’s computer users, nearly all of whom were deeply controlled by Microsoft’s monopoly.

For her efforts fighting for user software that doesn’t suck, Baker is being inducted into the Internet Society’s Hall of Fame in its inaugural year.

In this interview with Wired, Baker looks back on Firefox’s success and what it meant — and explains why she thinks Mozilla’s new push to create a mobile operating system to rival Apple’s and Google’s matters just as much as Firefox did.

Wired: Firefox 1.0 came out in November 2004. The release had a lot to do with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer not getting any better and being full of popups and malware, but there was also something like a movement aspect to Firefox. What did it feel like? What was that sort of explosion all about?

Mitchell Baker: In in 2001 and 2002 there was no competition in the part of the software that actual human beings touch, i.e., the client; i.e., the browser. In those days the server-side capabilities of the web were growing dramatically and there was a lot of innovation and a lot of things happening. We were on our way to Web 2.0 in those days. We didn’t know it yet. We were just starting to talking about AJAX.

But all of that went through a single client, Internet Explorer, and there was no competition for that. It’s a completely rational economic decision when you own the market and you have 97 to 99 percent marketshare, and you also have 99 percent marketshare of the OS below it, [...] it is a rational economic decision not to compete with yourself and improve your product. Nevertheless, the result for the consumer was an abusive setting.

Consumers were interested in getting to the web and the only way to get there was through this tool, which was insecure — one of the most risky pieces of software you could put on your machine! A vector for all sorts of terrible stuff for which there was no competition. And for which there was no rational economic model for competition.

There was no interest in the venture capital world in funding another browser. Netscape had died trying to fight Microsoft. Who would ever try and compete in that space, especially after the browser had been done away with as a separate product and combined with the operating system? So in that setting, many of us were eager to interact with the web but the only available tool for doing so was low-quality, poor-performing, and a security risk.

Wired: So what was so different about Firefox?

Baker: This particular piece of software — the browser — is really important to the user experience, and it can be radically different.

It doesn’t need to be integrated into a vertical silo. You can actually have some control of it and there are range of possibilities in this browser space that seems silly only because nobody’s done them and nobody else in the system has an interest in doing them.

So that all sounds really abstract and idealist and blah blah blah. But when you actually take those ideas and you build them into Firefox, and you put Firefox in front of people, then they have a great product experience and the stuff we’ve been saying suddenly make sense.

And what we found right after we released Firefox was a wave of mail saying, ‘Well my computer runs so much better. Like everything is better.’ So what was happening was that the user experience of the web was deteriorating but people didn’t really understand that or understand why. It wasn’t until we were able to put the product in front of people, that what we were saying became clear.

Wired: Was that wave coming and you guys just happened to have the right surfboard?

Baker: Mozilla has one foot in the Valley, Silicon Valley product technology, and partly one foot in the social enterprise space. So in the Valley, of course, you need the right product at the right time. And some piece of it is really, really hard work and good vision, and some piece of it is being in the environment and seeing what happens and being nimble. And some piece of it is the right time. So we had all of these.

So that idea of a movement for a better web, that’s what Mozilla is. But that’s not exactly what Netscape founded it to be, but that’s what we made it into.

Wired: In 1998 when the decision was made at Netscape to open-source the Mozilla code base, you wrote the license and then later, Jim Barksdale suggested that you take over that part of Mozilla. At that point were these ideas fully fleshed out or was it a more nebulous and it wasn’t clear what was going to happen with the code base?

Baker: Those ideas were not nearly as well fleshed out, but the set of people who have led and managed Mozilla and participated in Mozilla, have built something so much richer than anybody envisioned in 1998 or ’99.

Netscape was looking for a way to have an alternative in the marketplace to IE and Netscape’s goal of course, was to be a successful company. So their management was very forward-looking and was willing to consider and then implement a pretty radical solution at the time, which was open-source and free software.

But by the time Firefox had come along, we had expanded the set of people who understood that the browser was important and that Firefox really made a difference in internet life to include those who were more on the evangelism and outreach and adoption side. And so for an open source project, we were one of the early projects to go beyond software developers writing code to include evangelism and outreach within consumers

Wired: What sort of changes did we start on the open web besides people generally not being vulnerable to Active X hacks?

Baker: Today open source and open source in browsers was not surprising. But in that era, it was. And it was a radical change. IE6 was a bad experience for consumers, but it was a terrible for developers. Not only it was technically bad, but it was closed and you couldn’t do much with it.

In fact, Tim O’Reilly described Firefox as the “Oxygen for Web 2.0″.

Before that, with IE, everything was secret. All the innovation had to run through the Microsoft technology stack and the Microsoft business stack. And again, this is in particular to Microsoft, some characteristics that are closed systems, you know from top to bottom is controlled by one company has some convenience factor. But it has also some controlling and centralizing factor. That turned out to be not productive on the web and so Firefox broke all that open.

Wired: Can we draw a path from Firefox 1.0 to the HTML5 standard that makes it possible to do so much more in the browser?

Baker: I think HTML5 is one area where Mozilla has done very poorly at actually communicating what we have done. We were have been a central driving for HTML 5.0, long before it was popular — from even before Firefox hit. So that would be 2003, when we were just a new little foundation. We didn’t have a product yet. We were founding members of the HTML5 working group. W3C wasn’t interested in HTML 5.0, and didn’t think that it was necessary. They thought that the semantic web work was more important.

And so basically HTML 5 was not welcome. We were a founding part of the working group, which is what kept HTML5 alive.

The standards piece is very important to us, and we continue to do that. We have been a force in moving video to the web. We’re currently also a force in bringing in a bunch of web APIs, new APIs, so that you can access mobile devices through the web. I say through the browser but it doesn’t need to look or feel like a browser, so that the web has the capabilities to access accelerometers and cameras and all the things that mobile devices have that the old machines don’t.

Wired: We’re talking just a few days after the billion dollar purchase of Instagram, which hardly has a website. This is a little cliche, but there still is this battle between the open web and closed web and HTML5 and apps. Has the open web lost the war, as our cover story declared?

Baker: No. The web has not lost the war. I don’t think the issue is about HTML5 versus apps‚ because a lot of apps use HTML5 and so on. The question really is, there is the interconnected, distributed, broad nature of the web, and the app mode which in some ways is quite different. The web as a platform is the most powerful platform we have ever seen. In the last few years we’ve seen the rise of new, exciting platforms, iOS in particular, and Android. And so now were are in a setting where we don’t just have one platform called the web that people are interested in; we have multiple platforms.

We know that there’s a bunch of things about apps that people really like. They’re lightweight; they’re more focused on a single task; they’re not as broad as a browser and the whole web. You get them on your device and it feels really nice. For developers, there is a little bit of a tradeoff. Some aspects of development are much easier because you are just putting it on a client machine. On the other hand, you are deeply controlled by Apple or Google.

And so, what we are working on at Mozilla is to say, ‘How do we take the power and richness and vitality of the web as a platform and bring it to the apps world?”

When you are describing it to people — again it’s a little bit like the browser‚’Oh! That sounds nice but who would ever do that?’ and ‘The existing platforms are already entrenched and that all sounds a little abstract.’ Well, you know, we have seen that before and it’s hard to imagine, it’s hard to feel that those things could change, but, in fact, that’s what Mozilla is.

Wired: In 2005 you did an interview with Charlie Rose and then he asked you can were you thought you be in like 5 years and you said, ‘I don’t know. Maybe Mozilla or maybe something else,’ then as it turned out it‚ it’s Mozilla. What kept you there?

Baker: The main answer is that the importance of what Mozilla is doing hasn’t changed. The question of whether you or I or any person is actually going to have any control over our Internet life is still very real. It’s even scarier today — we are engaging in such a high degree of self-surveillance.

It is an open question whether we have any control over that. And if so, how and who would want to build that and who is going to do the oddball thing of trying to build that when it’s not exactly clear how do you make money out of it?

I do not want to live in a Big Brother world and I don’t want whether it’s a government and I don’t want to live in it even in a commercial setting even if I get some convenience back.

The web can be more than commercial organization; it can be more than Silicon Valley; it can be global; the web can be us; and you know, I might have the place in this world, too. So, that motivates me a lot. There is still a lot to do and I think the answer has been when I think of about what’s the best place to build the kind of web I want to live in, Mozilla continues to be that place.

Wired: But given that many people see Facebook as mostly their web these days, or spend a lot of time in Foursquare or Instagram‚ are they unhappy as they were in the IE6 days? It seems like a lot of the open-web movement, things like activity streams, have just petered out. People seem to be okay with closed networks.

Baker: I don’t think people are as unhappy as they were. But also keep in mind when we were building Firefox, we didn’t anticipate reaching the kind of marketshare that we did.

Our goal in building Firefox was to provide a better alternative, and ideally, to have enough impact to be able to move the industry. That’s our same goal right now. And so for us, our success criteria are that we offer an alternative; and that enough people use it that it’s viable.

Because at that point, you or I, we can use it or we can say, for this part of my life which is more sensitive than other parts, I have an alternative. I’m perfectly happy with everything that is going on for 90 percent of my life, but there’s 10 percent of it where I am not actually sure that that system works for me. And there is an alternative that’s technically excellent and the rest of the Web will recognize it enough that it works.

And to put in front of people the promise that things can be different‚ not just the promise — the example — because that is when you know how happy people really are. I think this sense that people are totally happy with the way things are, well, it’s not until we actually put a product in front of them and test it and see if that’s true.

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.