Mozilla: We're more than just Firefox, you know

As the Web goes mobile and browser competition continues to toughen, Mozilla clarifies just what it is that the non-profit does, and what it will be doing. Hint: It's more than Firefox.

One of Mozilla's big plans for the future is called 'Boot2Gecko,' and could result in a 'Firefox OS'.

(Credit: Art by CNET)

Although Mozilla has never limited its stated goals to merely building an open-source browser, there's no doubt that Firefox has been the highest-profile project from the Mozilla Foundation.

But now, with skyrocketing mobile connectivity and Google's shockingly fast ascent in the browser world, Mozilla Messaging CEO David Ascher restated yesterday what the nonprofit organization is about, where it's going, and why you should care.

Ascher noted that the first few years of the Mozilla mission have borne useful fruit. Internet Explorer may still be dominant, but it doesn't command anywhere near as much of the market as it used to. Firefox was the first to prove not only that there was widespread popular interest in an alternative, but that alternative could be accompanied by modern Web standards, safer browsing, faster site loading, and, he wrote, "zarro boogs."

But now, he says, Mozilla and the Web have reached a critical turning point because, "[t]he browser isn't the only strategic front in the struggle to promote and maintain people's sovereignty over their online lives." That's more than an allusion to the complicated and myriad ways that we get online these days, it references the principles of the Mozilla Manifesto, a guiding mission statement that the organization has used since its inception. But the organization has also seen some high-profile departures this year, and it's hard to imagine that those haven't taken an impact on the group's direction.

One big change that's now under Mozilla's belt has been moving the browser to a rapid-release cycle, with only six weeks between stable versions.

(Credit: Mozilla)

Ascher is right to say that Mozilla has a unique position beyond its locus for Firefox development. It's the only major software development non-profit with popular name recognition, and it's the only one that's stated a protective interest in user privacy. And despite its competition with Chrome, Mozilla and Google just re-signed their Firefox search deal.

Even as Chrome's market share has grown against Firefox's, the number of people using Firefox has increased because its market share percentage has remained relatively steady as overall Web usage has increased. So new people are still finding Firefox, which means that even amid stiff competition from Chrome, a revitalized Internet Explorer on desktops, and a popular Opera on mobile, there's something about Mozilla's browser that continues to appeal to people.

Three new initiatives debuted this year to form the crux of Mozilla's future, wrote Ascher. There's Boot2Gecko, a root-level approach that could potentially result in a kind of 'Firefox OS' for smartphones; BrowserID, a project that aims to provide a safer alternative to Facebook Connect and Google account logins; and a Mozilla-powered Apps initiative, which aims to make Web technologies the best way to create apps that work on all devices, and to propose a standard for app purchase and installation that fosters competition.

Those goals are definitely bold, and perhaps foolish given stiff competition and aggressive development from Facebook and Google. Mozilla's late entrance to these fields doesn't help matters, and even Ascher admits that he doesn't fully understand the details of Boot2Gecko, and that others at Mozilla feel similarly about BrowserID.

Firefox Share brought a new take on sharing to the browser this year, scrapping an older, more complicated approach called F1.

(Credit: Mozilla)

Moxie Marlinspike, an independent security researcher and an expert on Internet authentication infrastructure, explained to me in an e-mail that the value-added feature of social connectivity was precisely what made Facebook Connect so appealing to identity providers.

"Assuming that the technical details of BrowserID make it an effective decentralized identity provider, it's important to note that the identity provider a service employs is chosen by the service, not the user. When services choose identity providers, it's most often not because they're uninterested in managing their users' logins/passwords, or even because they feel that their users are uninterested in creating another login/password. More often than not, it's because they want to add social value to their service through whatever social data an identity provider can deliver. This is not something that BrowserID can really provide (by design), which makes it a tough sell in a world where Facebook Connect is available."

Nevertheless, BrowserID is moving forward. One of its first public steps is Mozilla Watchdog, introduced yesterday. Watchdog is a research project within Mozilla Identity, meant to complement BrowserID by actively advising the user to make better, more informed password and privacy decisions.

Marlinspike was equally skeptical about Boot2Gecko, saying that without hardware directly tied to the Boot2Gecko plan, as Apple and Google have tied their mobile operating systems to hardware, Boot2Gecko will be "a tough sell."

"In general, by not controlling a large social network or a set of hardware devices, it doesn't feel like Mozilla is extremely well-positioned to push the envelope in the identity or mobile OS spaces," he added.

And yet, Ascher wrote that he's received positive response to these plans from Web developers and entrepreneurs. "[They] are very aware of the dangers of relying on Facebook, Google, or Apple as the bridges to distribution or users. They desperately want an upgrade to the Internet that solves these issues in an infrastructural way."

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