Mozilla: "Firefox OS is a huge and scary step"

  • Dave Mason, Product Manager for the Web Platform at Mozilla
    foto: andreas proschofsky / derstandard.at

    Dave Mason, Product Manager for the Web Platform at Mozilla

Dave Mason of Mozilla talks about a possible replacement to "Gecko" and what makes Firefox better than other browsers

 

derStandard.at: After years of constant growth current market trends show a slight downwards trend for Firefox, did Google outpace you with Chrome?

Dave Mason: Let's talk about those numbers first of all. The thing that is actually never shown is how the internet is still growing as a whole, as it reaches areas of the world where it wasn't available before. Plus we have phone usage, so those are all new installations (or even new users). So yes: If you look at the market shares we seem to be losing, but the number of Firefox users still continues to grow.

derStandard.at: What are the key selling points for Firefox in comparison to other browsers? Why should someone make the switch from Chrome or IE?

Dave Mason: Privacy. We pound on things like "Do not track" or the Collusion addon that allows you to see who is tracking you. Sometimes it's scary to see the way the internet has evolved in that sense. The number of companies that know exactly what you are doing is just wrong. And we have some new ideas especially around Collusion that should come together soon.

Luckily we also reinvested in performance recently, and as a result test now show that we perform quite well, sometimes even outperforming other browsers.

derStandard.at: Mozilla is getting most of its funding from Google, which makes most of its money by tracking users and delivering ads based on that informatione. So the privacy enhancements you mentioned don't seem to be in their interest. Did they ever put pressure on you to not include such things?

Dave Mason: No. Despite their size Google is quite good at playing fair with us. I don't know that all companies would approach that situation as well as they have, certainly in the earlier days of the internet this would have been impossible. But in the end the search engine deal is also good business for Google, we drive a LOT of traffic to them through that.

derStandard.at: The Mozilla Roadmap lists a whole bunch of upcoming changes for Firefox. If you had to choose one, which one are you most excited of?

Dave Mason: It has to be Firefox OS which is a huge step for Mozilla. It is exciting and scary at the same time. This is the first time we had to partner with some other companies to get to the end results so that's a hard transition for us.

derStandard.at: Which markets are you targeting with Firefox OS?

Dave Mason: Initially it will be those areas where the Internet just takes off, places like Brazil or Columbia, where smartphones are sometimes too expensive. And we are hoping to come in on a price point that is far below what most smartphones cost nowadays.

derStandard.at: What is Mozillas motivation behind doing Firefox OS?

Dave Mason: The web has been steadily moving to phones, to smaller devices. And if we are going to fulfill our mission - which is to keep the web open - we have to be there as well. We started that off with Firefox for Android, so this the logical next step. A lot of people's usage of the web has moved to apps and currently the idea of open and free - as in free software - apps is not really there. The platform is not there, there are too many silos around Apples and Androids stores. And we want to open that up. We want to be able to use known and fairly easy to use applications that run anywhere. And having a phone OS is a huge part of that.

derStandard.at:The team you've got working on this is considerably smaller than the ones Apple or Google employ. Do you think you can realistically compete with them?

Dave Mason: I think so. And if you look at the space we are trying to fill, in some ways it's not direct competition - at least initially. Hopefully we will become competition too as Firefox OS spreads out to other countries, but right now we are not.

derStandard.at: Firefox OS uses some fairly high-level technologies like HTML/CSS and Javascript for most of the code. Will you even be able to deliver a decent performance for low-end devices?

Dave Mason: I'd say that the initial builds we have are showing: Yes we can. They are not perfect right now, but that wasn't an initial priority. We just recently had code completion and now it's all about performance.

derStandard.at: Did you consider cooperating with other projects like Tizen which are also heading in the HTML5/CSS/Javascript direction?

Dave Mason: This is not how we approached it. Boot2Gecko started as an experiment where we just wanted to know what would happen if we booted a phone into Gecko. It wasn't like: We want in the phone business and here are our options. But when we announced it - because we are open about everything - we were surprised at the reaction we got, especially from telecommunications companies who immediately showed great interest. They are especially interested in an app ecosystem that is as open as the web, some of those companies find the silos that Apple and - in some ways - Google are building difficult to deal with.

derStandard.at: Is supporting tablets out of the question?

Dave Mason: No not at all. It's just not something we are focused on right now, so we have no plans for it. But with Firefox OS being completely open I can see some people starting work on it - even without us.

derStandard.at: In regards to apps: I guess the plan is to have apps that run both on the mobile platforms and on the desktop?

Dave Mason: That's the plan. This is about having web runtimes on all of those platforms, and we actually have started on this, we already have something on Linux, Windows and Android - and all those apps should work perfectly on Firefox OS too. And to make such an app is fairly simple too, it's just some HTML and Javascript plus a small manifest file that declares what it is - that's it.

And for me that's one of the big draws for Mozilla: I'm a big believer in allowing more people to develop technologies. And HTML5/CSS - and to some extent Javascript - is a much lower entry level than most classic toolkits for making apps.

I spent some of my work between working for Red Hat and then for Mozilla by working for a public health company that was doing technologies for health workers - mostly in Africa. And one of the things we were focused on was making sure that anything we created was sustainable within the country we took it too. So that we wouldn't have to be the ones they call if they needed to fix something. Nonprofits usually work with various level of funding and you have that funding only up to a certain date. So if you go in somewhere and you say "We built this amazing new technology but we have to go now cause the money has run out" then they are left there without knowing how to fix things.

And that changed my whole thinking on how to approach technology. There has to be more effort to opening up technology to everyone.

derStandard.at: At the moment Mozilla is working on a whole new rendering engine in the form of Servo. Is this strictly an experiment or will this replace Gecko at some point?

Dave Mason: I'd say this is less of an experiment than other things we are working on as we have a full team working on this and Rust (the language Servo is built on). And we all have it in the back of our heads that one day we are going to replace Gecko with Servo, but we don't have a specific time frame on it as Servo still so early in the development.

derStandard.at: What are the deficiencies in Gecko that you are trying to migitate with Servo?

Dave Mason: Performance is probably on the top of this list. Also separating processes in a more sane way than it would be possible with Gecko...

derStandard.at: ...which is what basically failed with the project "Electrolysis"?

Dave Mason: Well it failed in the sense that we didn't get it going fast enough. And by the time we decided to end that project there were other ways of getting better performance that would take much less time than "Electrolysis". So we did take far too long developing it which has been somewhat of a historic problem at Mozilla that I think has changed now with our new release cycle.

derStandard.at: Guess the obvious question here is: If you are already thinking about changing the rendering engine, why not just use Webkit - and join Apple and Google in improving it?

Dave Mason: I wish it was as easy as it sounds to do that. One problem is: There is not one Webkit. There is a Webkit that lives in Chrome, there is almost a secondary Webkit that lives in Chromium, there is a third Webkit that lives in Apple, there is even a fourth Webkit that lives in iOS that is not the same and then there is the upstream, KDE-originated Webkit. And if you look at some HTML5 tests - all those single browsers vary significantly.

For us ripping out Gecko right now would be very difficult and would break a lot of things. And at the moment Gecko is getting to a point where it is so competitive against Webkit - despite some perceptions - that I'm not sure it is the right choice right now. I'm not saying that we are totally against it or that we would never use it, but removing Gecko would take more effort than making it better.

(Andreas Proschofsky, derStandard.at, 12.08.12)

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