John Paczkowski

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Mozilla: In the Shadow of the “Don’t-Be-Evil Bulldozer”

John Lilly at D7

As CEO and chairman of Mozilla, respectively, John Lilly and Mitchell Baker steward the development of Firefox, the open-source browser that challenged and then broke Microsoft’s choke hold on the browser market. As of April 2009, Firefox claimed 22.48 percent of Web browser market, according to Net Applications. That makes it the second most popular browser world-wide, after Internet Explorer, which holds 66.1 percent. An impressive feat. And an important one. Because by dislodging Internet Explorer from its dominant market position, Firefox has proven not only that open-source projects often provide better software–something to which any Linux geek will attest–but that it’s possible for a particularly well done one to become an everyday consumer application.

Session Highlights

Live Blog

  • “How many people here have heard of Firefox?” Walt asks. Applause. And with that, Mitchell Baker and John Lilly join him onstage.
  • When I test a Windows computer, says Walt, the very first thing I do is download Firefox to see if it works. Because if it doesn’t, there are obviously problems. How many people use Firefox? 300 million says Lilly. But that’s just about 20 percent. Which is shocking. Because that means most folks end up using the browser that comes with their computers. And we spend more time with our browsers than with our families.
  • Walt asks about the Firefox growth curve. Baker says the curve has been relatively linear after an initial spike. “Why don’t people use Firefox?” Walt asks. Lilly says people just aren’t aware. “Most people think of the browser as a pane of glass; they don’t realize that it really effects the way they see the Web. Baker adds that many people fear their computers, and that might make them reticent to experiment with a new browser.

Mitchell Baker at D7

  • Firefox’s initial browser improvements in speed and extensibility have been matched. Mozilla is a far smaller outfit than Microsoft (MSFT), Apple (AAPL) and now Google GOOG). Sure, you’re nimble. But how are you going to keep up with these guys? Lilly acknowledges that rival browsers are formidable. But Firefox is still making advances in speed and performance. It’s a “modern” browser, he says contrasting it to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Walt presses further. Notes that Google Chrome has what the company claims is the fastest Javascript engine around. Apple makes similar claims with Safari. Again, how do you compete? Baker: “If you were a business picking a space in which to compete, you wouldn’t pick one with Microsoft, Apple and Google.” But remember, she says, that wasn’t the case a few years ago. It was really just IE. We’ve been around for a while and we’ve had great success. Mozilla is undaunted by Microsoft et al., apparently.
  • Walt: 71 of the foreign-language versions of Firefox are written by volunteers. Why should I use a product like that? Lilly says Mozilla has a system for verifying the quality of these other versions and vets them prior to release. Beyond that, users will alert the company to any problems.
  • Walt: Why wouldn’t it just be better for the consumer to go with the company that’s hired experts to do its translations? Baker: How much software do you really think is great? Walt: Not very much. Lilly: But it’s all written by experts. Walt nods, point taken.
  • Walt presses on, noting that many open-source products are rough. Baker concedes. Circling back, Walt takes issue with Lilly’s characterization of IE as not a “modern” browser.” Explain that. Fast, Supports new graphics standards. Runs apps well. Lilly says IE doesn’t. Walt asks for an example. Lilly says Zimbra.
  • How does it feel to be competing with Chrome, Walt asks, noting that Mozilla has long had a relationship with Google. “You’re now where Google’s “don’t-be-evil bulldozer is heading. How does that feel?” Baker says relations between the two companies are still good. They are still cooperating on geolocation, for example. The next version of Firefox will ship with that and it’s a Google service. It doesn’t have to be a Google service, but Google provides it for free and as such, is the obvious source. Lilly jumps in: As long as we build a good browser, we’re OK. We’re not without assets. “We’re not simply going to shut down because Google is entering our market.” Our point of view is that the browser can do more for you. That’s not really Google’s vision. We think of the browser as a “user agent.”
  • Lilly says he likes Chrome. “Really?” asks Walt. Lilly says yes. He notes that rival browsers like Chrome and Safari have made Firefox better. A nice change from competing against, IE, apparently.
  • Walt asks why Mozilla doesn’t making non-Web browser software. “What we’re actually trying to do,” says Baker, “is improve the Web itself….Our main goal is to make more capabilities available, and right now, the browser is the main delivery mechanism….We’re trying to be the delivery mechanism upon which others build innovations.”
  • Lilly mentions Thunderbird, Mozilla’s email app. Walt dismisses it as a geek app. He notes the difference between it and Firefox, which is a polished, mainstream app. Lilly says Thunderbird is not a niche app. It’s got a sizable user base.
  • On to the issue of mobile… Why am I not using Firefox on my iPhone or BlackBerry? Lilly notes that prior to Apple’s App store, people were not that accustomed to installing apps on their phone. “We needed that to change….That moved the power away from the carriers and manufacturers to the consumers. And we didn’t want to do ‘Firefox Mobile’; we wanted to do Firefox–the fullblown app.”
  • Something about Windows mobile, presumably negative [I missed it].

    Walt: I wish Ballmer was still here.

    Lilly: Who doesn’t? [laughter]

  • Baker: “What we really want to do is make Firefox a mediation layer for developers.” Rather than building 15 different versions of the browser, Mozilla wants to build a single application layer for all of them.
  • Q&A: The first question is about whether the company worries about a shift from a nonprofit to for-profit business. Baker says Mozilla can’t be successful with a for-profit model. “We are only successful because of our current status.”
  • Is Firefox responsible for Google’s market dominance? Short answer: Obviously not.
  • What’s the value proposition for Firefox now that Chrome exists? Questioner has switched to Chrome because it runs Google Apps better (which is the way Google designed it). So why use Firefox? People like the interface, says Lilly. They can modify it. They can skin it, etc. Lots of legitimate reasons.

A note about our coverage: This liveblog is not an official transcript of the conversation that occurred onstage. Rather, it is a compilation of quotes, paraphrased statements and ad-lib observations written and posted to the Web as quickly as we were able. It was not intended as a transcript and should not be interpreted as one.

Mitchell Baker and John Lilly Session Photos

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Walt interviews John Lilly and Mitchell Baker from Mozilla at D7.

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