"Innovation travels from browser to browser"

2. August 2009, 16:51

Mozilla developer Christopher Blizzard talks about the challenges for Open Video, why everybody hates IE6 and where Firefox is better than Google Chrome and Safari

During the last few years the Mozilla project achieved something a lot of people wouldn't have thought to be possible: Breaking the dominance of Microsoft's Internet Explorer on the web and opening this area for a new burst of innovations. Recently Firefox 3.5 was released, this while the open source browser still manages to gain market share from month to month. Currently different metrics see Firefox grab somewhere between 20 and 25 percent on a worldwide basis - a position that is even stronger in Europe. For instance at derStandard.at Firefox surpassed Internet Explorer a few weeks ago, making it the most used browser of our readers.

During the recent Gran Canaria Desktop Summit Andreas Proschofsky managed to conduct the following interview with Christopher Blizzard, Mozillas Open Source Evangelist.

derStandard.at: Firefox 3.5 has just been released a few weeks ago. How happy are you with the reception to it?

Christopher Blizzard: Personally I'm pretty ecstatic. Not only - I think - we've put out something that is a really good upgrade from Firefox 3, but we've also managed to really connect the release with its importance for the web in general. From a theme perspective Version 3 really was an important upgrade for people wanting a better experience from the browser and for 3.5 it's really about the future, adding capabilities to the web platform, so that people can build more interesting things with it.

derStandard.at: How can you really "Upgrade the web" when other major browsers don't support the same functionality - and most likely won't for quite some time - so web developers can't rely on it?

Blizzard: As an organization we try to think as long term as possible, so we're trying to show what is possible today with our browser. We know that there are people building specialized applications with the new possibilities, though you are not going to see Facebook or other large websites do it and leave Internet Explorer behind. But the big thing for us is to inspire and put pressure on the other players in the market. And we expect them to pick all that up very quickly, so we're going to see some movement there.

Internet Explorer is still pretty stagnant, they put out IE8 which is a decent upgrade for a lot of people, for instance with better CSS properties, but it honestly didn't include much more than that. So if we continue to move forward and Microsoft doesn't, there are really only two options: Either Internet Explorer will continue to loose market share - at which point they won't be in the control of the web platform anymore - or they can invest. And even if it takes a couple of years until they catch up - we're patient.

Also people often are more creative than we expect them to be, adding things like canvas-support for IE or fallbacks for the Open-Video-support so that it uses Flash if the browser isn't capable of doing Open Video.

derStandard.at: Open Video is one of the main improvements in Firefox 3.5. How do you want to get video-sites to start using it?

Blizzard: We're going to provide better tools and a better experience. Some of the things we're able to do with Open Video are very difficult to do with Flash. Also the technology is something that isn't that expensive for them to adopt, we saw that with the Daily Motion guys, who set it up in a very short period of time. Video bloggers are going to adopt it first, it's going to be a gradual thing like with a lot of enhancements on the web. Also I think the big sites supporting Open Video is not going to be the ultimate answer to whether this is successful, it's if people are going to be able to do interesting things with it, connect it with the web platform.

From a quality perspective I think we've shown that with our recent investments in the Open Video formats have put it on par with some of the best that's out there. So I think it's just a matter of time, the big video sites are pretty likely to adopt it over time.

To use a comparison: Images on the web? Nobody ever talks about them, PNGs, JPEGs and GIFs - unencumbered, everybody implements them, there are thousands and thousands of tools to manipulate them. And that's not actually the case with video, a lot of it is proprietary, there are a bunch of platforms without Flash. So what we want to see is a baseline format for video, something everybody can implement. You couldn't have built the web without Apache, without all of these things that are out there for everybody to adopt and we need to see this for video as well.

derStandard.at: Having Open Video and Flash means double storage and double encoding for the providers, isn't that a problem?

Blizzard: What's interesting: I thought this is going to be a concern but in my conversations with providers it never came up. They already have to provide multiple versions because Flash isn't consistent either, it's VP6, H.264, H.263... and different versions of Flash support different things, so they already have to have multiple storage and multiple encoding. If you look at Youtube for example - their complaints were about bandwidth during playing videos, they never mentioned storage, they never mentioned CPU.

derStandard.at: Do you think those bandwidth concerns are you going to be solvable in a reasonable amount of time?

Blizzard: I think for most videos Theora is fine, you get the same quality at the same bandwidth. Maybe for some videos this is not the case, but you are not talking about an order of magnitude, you are talking about several percent more bandwidth. Also we're going to continue to make changes and improvements so let's see how it goes in the next year or so.

derStandard.at: HTML5 is not going to contain a video codec recommendation. Isn't this going to have a negative impact on the success of Open Video?

Blizzard: Personally I found that decision to be very disappointing. But I think that is something that is ultimately going to be decided in the market. It certainly hasn't affected our decisions, it hasn't affected Googles decisions - who are going to support Theora in Chrome - so we'll see how this evolves in the future.

derStandard.at: Earlier you mentioned providing better tools, would that be better encoding tools or something else?

Blizzard: Well encoding tools are certainly important to make high quality videos, but it isn't just about that. There are a bunch of tools now that you can use to take apart videos, pull screenshots out of them. There is a site that I use as an example called pad.ma, it's a project where they are providing raw footage, but they have done some neat things with it. So - for example - if you move your mouse pointer over a preview image it will scroll through the video, or you can add keywords to everything, you can add transcripts to video while they are playing. That's something they didn't have to ask anybody for a permission to do it, and I think that's the really powerful thing about it.

Also Wikimedia is trying to build a video editor for people to put together clips and put them on Wikipedia. They're already able to put all those pieces together and do transitions directly in the browser. We like to see that kind of democratization of tools, not necessarily only tools for administrators of sites but also for end users. I haven't seen a lot of that things from Flash or Microsofts Silverlight, I think because they are hard to do. But people are very creative on the web and will find solutions.

derStandard.at: Internet Explorer 8 has some new features like Webslices, are you going to pick up on that?

Blizzard: As far as I know there is no big interest in putting this into Firefox. But we can always do that through our extension mechanism, so for instance with Webslices - they announced it and one of our community members built an add-on for it in just three days. But at the moment there is no big push from the community to actually put it into the browser.

We have this phrase that we use that says "Innovation travels from browser to browser", so you'll find stuff in Safari that we did, you'll find stuff in ours that IE did. So we take good things where it makes sense.

Actually I have to point out that IE8 added a few nice developer features, they did a good job with CSS 2.1 and they deserve credit for that.

derStandard.at: But nothing really outstanding?

Blizzard: I give you some background. I've recently been asked: "Why do web developers hate Internet Explorer 6 so much". Cause that's what they do, like it is the bane of their existence. So I put some research into this and the amount of stuff that everybody is implementing now and any version of IE isn't - especially IE6 - really is staggering . And web developers always code to the worst browser, which means they are stuck with IE6 till it stops being used.

derStandard.at: For the last few releases it always seemed like Firefox was on the edge of innovation, this time it looks like - at least in some respects - you've been overtaken by competitors like Safari and Google Chrome. Are you falling behind a bit?

Blizzard: There are some things they have done better, but Chrome and Safari have never been shy to do an implementation ahead of standards. I'll say I think we've a slightly larger responsibility because we have a much larger user base than they do, so we've to be more careful about doing those changes. But I would say with Firefox 3.5 we've closed a lot of those gaps and in a lot of places we've better implementations than they do. Our font-face implementation is better, our worker threads are better and our development tools have always been better.

So I think in terms of driving the web forward it's nice to see Webkit out there, making strides to implement standards, it's keeping us honest, it's driving us harder which is good for everybody, but I wouldn't say they were ahead with everything. So for instance you can do a lot of things with SVG in Firefox which you can't do in any other browser. There is a perception problem but I would say that the situation is pretty balanced, there is a lot of things that we do, that they don't and there are some things that they do that we don't.

derStandard.at: Safari and Chrome also seem to have significantly shorter release cycle, do you think that also plays a role here?

Blizzard: Yes. Firefox 3 was in development a lot longer than originally planned. But we did the current release in 12 months and I think that is a good pace, faster than that is hard for developers to start absorbing it. I would also point out that Chrome's current pace has more to do with the fact that their browser actually doesn't do very much yet, so they are still adding basic functionality which we've been having for years.

For us I don't think we're going to go another year without another release

derStandard.at: Mozilla is working on making Firefox use a multi-process-approach like Google Chrome does, aren't you afraid this is going to have a huge impact on memory usage?

Blizzard: Yes, that's an issue - there is no other way to say it. Though historically we've always been better on memory usage than the competition, we're the lowest user of memory today, so even if we do multi-process we'll still be better than the competition. Also there has been a change in the industry recently, people seem to be more concerned about power consumption than they used to be, and memory only plays a small role here. So people usually have a lot of memory today, for instance my laptop came with 4 Gig, I don't even use swap on it.

derStandard.at: When talking about browser performance, nowadays this mostly relates to Javascript speed, are there still some areas for gaining improvements in relation to normal rendering speed?

Blizzard: Tons. At the moment we're tracking a bunch of bugs around what we call "snappiness" , improving how fast the browser feels. Usually when people talk about performance they point to the Sunspider Javascript benchmark, but that's not the way we think about it. The most important aspect of performance is interactive performance, how fast things respond to events.

derStandard.at: But how do you measure that?

Blizzard: It is very difficult. We talked about this at a panel with a couple of other browser vendors and we found out that Microsoft and Mozilla actually do it the same way, which is to record a video of the browser loading web pages and look at it frame-by-frame and figure out that way when it's done.

derStandard.at: One of the areas Firefox is getting criticized often is in startup performance.

Blizzard: Yeah, we're working on that too. Actually at a least we haven't regressed at that, we've continuously been getting faster from release to release, even if only a bit. But for instance Chrome is doing a few things we are not doing at the moment, so we're going to look at that for the next release. That's part of the "snappiness".

derStandard.at: Looking to the future, do you envision the browser becoming the universal platform?

Blizzard: In a lot of ways it already is. People still use a lot of desktop applications, especially in business, and for highly specialized applications this is still useful. But there is so much stuff migrating to the web. For instance on my laptop I use a web application for playing music, but I use it through Prism, which is an extension to better integrate web applications with the desktop. So it really feels like a desktop application. And with Firefox 3.5 we already have offline support, so the applications can run locally and when get back online and you can sync up. This stuff is coming, and it's already here in some cases.

(Andreas Proschofsky [@suka_hiroaki on Twitter], derStandard.at, 02.08.2009)

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