The Future of Mozilla: Fast Second Follow
No one wants to be a follower. Except Mozilla.
Mozilla rarely moves the consumer needle with its own inventions. Rather, the company is at its best — and its best is revolutionary — when it takes an existing product and re-envisions it as a public benefit product, where the people making have a top-down directive to never include revenue as part of a decision making process.
Mozilla, a nonprofit, must capitalize on its record of fast-second-follow success, identifying products that have already found consumer traction and then remaking them Mozilla-style.
Five years ago, I joined Mozilla as part of an aqui-hire. I was a founding member of Mozilla Labs, and served as creative lead during the Firefox 4 release. While I am no longer on the paid staff, I carry Mozilla DNA and often find myself reiterating Mozilla mantras. Safe to say, any critique I offer here is not meant as a slight; every company has strengths and weaknesses, and it’s important to know how to play to those fortes. “Once a king or queen of Narnia, always a king or queen of Narnia”, noveslist C.S. Lewis famously wrote. And, so it goes in open-source projects: Once a contributor to Mozilla, always a contributor to Mozilla.
When Firefox debuted in 2002, Microsoft had all but abandoned its Internet Explorer development team. By streamlining and improving an existing product, Mozilla revitalized the stagnating browser space to protect the most important shared resource of our times. Today, the space is intensely competitive, with browsers from Apple, Google, and Microsoft each vying to be the fastest, most capable and most compliant. The majority of web now surfs on open-source browsers. That’s a huge Mozilla victory, and a huge victory for the open web.
The story of Thunderbid, Mozilla’s desktop email application, recapitulates the theme. Thunderbird started strong as a second-mover with tens of millions of users. But, as technology and consumers moved to web solutions — relying on heavy servers and light clients that provided rich and instant access to email from anywhere — desktop clients became less and less relevant. Mozilla is culturally distrustful of any product that centralizes user data, so it invested in desktop-centric, server-agnostic solutions. It lost the email space not for lack of trying: Mozilla created its first and only spin-off, Mozilla Messaging, to tackle the problem. Caught between an inability to innovate as a first-mover on mobile and culturally unable to be a second-mover on the web, Mozilla’s email presence atrophied. Mozilla Messaging was soon rolled into Mozilla Labs and the company quietly lost the war, letting the the future of communication fall into the control of companies that are ultimately beholden to their bottom line, and not the user’s best interest. This isn’t a conspiracy-theory what-if: In 2006, Yahoo was called to testify before congress for yielding to the Chinese government’s demand for access to a journalist’s email. Yahoo’s capitulation, which resulted in 10 years of jail time for the journalist. This is, of course, just one example of many.
Late or Strategic Second-Mover?
When it comes to mobile, there’s still hope. Mozilla is a second-mover with the Firefox phone. The company has taken something that we know works for consumers and recreated it with open DNA — the user interest trumping the commercial. It’s a make-or-break moment for Mozilla.
Let’s take another example: Instagram.
The app now has more than 100 million users, nearly a fifth the size of Firefox, with an accelerating growth curve. Its square photos document a society grappling with the sudden ubiquity of cameras capable of capturing and broadcasting every moment. Instagram has always been a good actor, with a fantastic set of APIs, but should we trust the future of this shared resource to Facebook?
In doing so Mozilla could become a powerful second-mover in the market. But why stop with Instagram? We should be prying open Mailbox, Gmail, AWS, and many others. By amplifying an existing product and injecting it with our DNA, Mozilla can defend the open web.
Developing products that embody openness is the most powerful way to shape the policy conversation. Back those products with hundreds of millions of users and you have a game-changing social movement. Expanding those social movements beyond the browser is the legacy that Firefox deserves.