Internet Freedom Fighter

“The fight is about keeping the Internet – including the mobile Web — an engine of choice and innovation as well as economic value,” says Mozilla Chairman Mitchell Baker,  a scheduled speaker at the Web Summit in Dublin.  “That is why it is so important to build freedom into the technology itself.”

”When the World Wide Web first burst on the scene in the mid-1990s it was a radical, open, distributed public resource that was accessible to all and had no central control, allowing people to experiment with new ideas and offer the results to the world, without the need to ask for permission or to agree to someone else’s terms, recalls Mozilla Chairman Mitchell Baker. The global network exploded, offering vast opportunities to a wide array of players.

Trouble is, she says, over the years various forces have emerged to convert this radical participatory technology back into a more conventional, hierarchical and controlled medium.

The first challenge to this openness was the Microsoft monopoly. After it succeeded in crushing competitor Netscape its Internet Explorer browser had over 95% market share. Enter Baker, who in her various roles at Mozilla  helped lead an army of tensof thousands of programmers and evangelists into battle to keep the Internet open. Against all odds, Mozilla managed to wrest a significant share of the market away from Microsoft. Today she  is helping lead the charge on a different front:  the mobile Web.

“The fight is about keeping the Internet – including the mobile Web — an engine of choice and innovation as well as economic value,” say Baker,  a scheduled speaker at Dublin Web Summit.“  That is why it is so important to build freedom into the technology itself.”

New threats are emerging. Chief among them: Apple, with its native apps, locked-down platform and tight control over which developer apps are released; Google, with its Chrome browser being integrated with Android’s operating system, Google search technology and Google Plus; Microsoft, which is also developing integrated offerings for its desktop and phone operating systems that makes independent offerings and interoperability much more difficult.  “The same pressures to integrate the software stack for short-term convenience, a trade-off that results in long-term control, are with us again,” says Baker.

Mozilla finds the development path of the mobile Web troubling. “Our phones should help put us in control of our lives,” says Baker. “They should not be devices that bind us to a single corporate entity.”

What’s more, in the current environment individual ability to control our experiences on mobile phones is limited, says Baker, as is our ability to control how much we’re logged, tracked and monitored or to share in the economic rewards reaped from our personal data.

Mozilla is launching what it hopes will be a powerful counterweight: the Firefox OS, a browser-based operating system for mobile devices that bills itself as “fully open” and seeks to push the adoption of HTML5 as a viable platform option for the mobile industry (see fact box). “Mozilla’s mission is to bring openness, choice and individual empowerment to Internet life,” says Mitchell. “To do this, we must build these characteristics into the mobile world.”

Mozilla’s approach, based on the new web coding standard HTML5, will allow developers to create apps that could work on any operating system and plug into the advanced software and hardware features of phones even if they aren’t native. The approach is likely to appeal to developers and is also proving attractive to phone operators, who don’t want Google and Apple to dominate the market.

Mozilla and telecom operator partners such as Telefonica plan to focus first on pushing the Firefox OS in markets outside the U.S. Tied to that, Baker, anAmerican, moved to Barcelona with her husband and son this summer.

“Mozilla is an increasingly global community. This is important to the success of our mission. If we hope to have a world of openness and opportunity for all we should be building centers of gravity in many different locales,” Baker wrote in a  blog post last May. “ Barcelona is not only in the heart of Europe, it’s much closer to the Middle East and Africa, and it’s no further from the east coast of Latin America than California.”

Ensuring the Firefox OS is a global success goes to the very core of Mozilla’s mission, says Baker. “The new idea is that our phones should be open, should be “ours,” and should enable us to understand, explore and “change” our worlds. We have seen this approach with the web; we know it brings great opportunity and value creation,” she says.

Fine; but can Mozilla, with 2011 revenues of $121 million, really compete with Apple, Android and Windows Phone?

If history – and the power of an army of developers — is any indicator it would be a mistake to bet against it.

The One and Only Wrangler

In many ways the release of Mozilla OS is a replay of history.

When the Firefox browser was released there was no Apple and no Google standing in Microsoft’s way in its efforts to control this critical part of Internet life. There was only tiny Mozilla, led by Baker.

Work on Firefox started in March of 1998, although the first pre-Firefox  product was not ready before June of 2002 and Firefox itself did not ship until November of 2004.  During this time  Netscape’s market share continued to decline and Internet Explorer grabbed almost 98% of the market.

Today, Internet Explorer accounts for only 54% of global browser usage, thanks in large part to Mozilla’s efforts. Q2 statistics released by NetMarketShare place Firefox’s global market share at 20% (down from its high of 30%) and Google’s Chrome at 19%.

Just as Firefox ensured that anybody could connect to the Web without any corporate entity acting as a gatekeeper, Firefox OS wants to be sure that the mobile Web is equally open, says Baker.

Baker, who has a degree in Asian studies from Berkeley (she honed her Mandarin while living in China in the ’80s) and a law degree from the Bolt Hall School of Law, University of California, has been involved with the Mozilla project from the outset, writingthe Mozilla Public License. In February 1999, she became the chief lizard wrangler of  Mozilla.org, the division of Netscape that coordinated  the Mozilla open source project.

The title Baker chose for herself – chief lizard wrangler — refers to the lizard-like red dinosaur on Mozilla’s logo and to the fact that her responsibilities include negotiating with and herding the developers.

Baker sharpened her mediation skills as a corporate and intellectual property lawyer. And balancing acts are her thing: she is an amateur trapeze artist. But garnering the respect of an industry that had written the browser off as irrelevant wasno easy feat. Baker did that – and much more — with aplomb. “There were years when Mozilla’s very existence was in doubt but she had the stamina and the savvy to bring the organization to great success,” says Bob Lisbonne, a former vice-president and general manager of Netscape’s browser division and a Mozilla Foundation board member.

Baker remains the public face of Mozilla, playing a key role in its continued success.  “When you compare her to other technology leaders it is worth noting that she has succeeded through chapters of Mozilla that were very different,” says Lisbonne. “Many leaders of technology organizations seem to be the right person at the right time but when the times change the person gets changed too.  In Mitchell’s case she was part of Netscape, a big commercial software company, then worked for AOL, then for an independent not-for-profit entity, then as a thriving not-for-profit when Firefox took off, and more recently as chairman and statesman without the day-to-day responsibilities and she has been successful in all of those capacities.”

He notes that Baker was able to write the technical, very precise legal documents for the open software license that cut through complicated concepts and also draft Mozilla’s principled, expansive and visionary manifesto. “That one brain can span both is quite unique,” he says.

Baker was instrumental in the creation of the Mozilla Foundation, an independent non-profit that was launched in July 2003 as AOL shut down the Netscape browser division and drastically scaled back its involvement with the Mozilla project. She became the CEO of the Mozilla Corporation, which launched as a taxable subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation in August 2005.

In January 2008, Baker decided that Mozilla would be best served by adding another senior leader to the team and offered the role of CEO to a colleague, John Lilly. Gary Kovacs, a scheduled speaker at the Dublin Web Summit, took on the role of Mozilla’s third CEO in 2010. Baker retains her role as Chairman of the Mozilla Foundation and Chairman of the Corporation.

Both her legal skill and vision will be needed going forward. Given all the current challenges to the web’s openness it is a good thing that Baker has decided to keep on fighting for Internet freedom, says Lisbonne.

Others agree. “Mozilla has proved that an open approach can work and it is a precious resource for the industry,” says Esther Dyson, founding chairman of ICANN, the Internet governing body, and a respected thought leader on all things digital. “But the model alone isn’t good enough; you need a wrangler like Mitchell to make it work.”

 

Firefox OS At A Glance

 

Key Differentiators:

 

·     Uses HTML5 to allow developers to create apps that can work on any operating system and plug into a device’s advanced hardware and software even if the apps are not native.

·     Allows smaller, local, content developers, businesses, educators, government and community organizations – and even individuals — to publish apps without the need to ask for permission.

 

Partners To Date:

·     Telcos:Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Smart, Sprint, Telecom Italia, Telefonica, Telenor

·     Internet companies: Facebook, Twitter

·     Chipset manufacturers: Qualcomm, Spreadtrum

·     OEMs: TCL (Alcatel) and ZTE

 

Planned Launch:

The first commercial deployment is planned in Latin America with Telefonica in early 2013.

 

Devices:

Mozilla has not yet announced device specifics, saying only that Telefonica is aiming to reach new customers in Latin America with an affordably-priced smartphone with mid-range smartphone capabilities.

 

App store:

The organization says Mozilla Marketplace will offer a range of payment options, including direct to telephone bill options, wherever possible, to help developers monetize their content.

 

Comments

comments

Related posts

Top