What has Mozilla done for the web?

22nd Jan 2012 | 08:00

What has Mozilla done for the web?

How Mozilla promotes openness and innovation

Mozilla: more than a browser

Most people know Mozilla as the maker of the Firefox web browser. Indeed, creating a web browser, or a suite of web tools including a mail client and much more, is how Mozilla started out.

However, it has become far more than a browser creator.

Mozilla now says that its mission is "to promote openness, innovation and opportunity on the web". But where did this wider mission come from? What does it mean? And what projects is Mozilla pursuing today?

The birth of Mozilla

In 1998, Netscape released the source code of its Communicator suite to the public, through the Mozilla Organisation, and tasked it with creating a next generation internet suite named Mozilla.

While Netscape announced this move as a means to "accelerate development and distribution of future versions of Netscape Communicator to business customers and individuals," to many it appeared to be the first evidence that Netscape was losing the browser war with Microsoft.

Although Netscape, or Mozilla itself, never officially sanctioned this idea, in retrospect it seems that their struggles with Microsoft were almost certainly a motivating factor. Microsoft bundled Internet Explorer with Windows, effectively giving away a product for free.

This was fine for Microsoft, which could rely on income from Windows and Office, but it was a huge problem for Netscape: In order for Netscape to maintain market share, it also had to give its primary product away; but unlike Microsoft, Netscape had no other substantial revenue streams. It managed to sustain this for a short time, but it wasn't a burden it could suffer for long.

Open sourcing the code was a way for Netscape to keep fighting for longer, as it gave it access to a pool of talented, passionate developers for little cost. In the end, it became clear that just releasing the source code for Netscape's product wasn't enough to compete with Microsoft's integration of Internet Explorer with Windows.

By the arrival of Internet Explorer 5, Microsoft had gained more than 60% of the market share, and by the time of Internet Explorer 6, it had more than 90%. This led to Netscape being bought by AOL later in 1998, and then being disbanded in 2003.

Netscape had been one of the companies leading the dot-com revolution and the creation of the open web. It was this same action, however, that led to the evolution of the Mozilla Organisation into the Mozilla Foundation. This new entity was independent of Netscape and AOL (which funded its initial operations with a gift of $2 million).

Announcing the Foundation's formation, Mozilla said that it would give it "more freedom to innovate and provide meaningful choice to users on all computer environments". This is a markedly different tone from that taken in the press release noting the creation of the Mozilla Organisation. Rather than being tasked with leveraging free development to help further a private entity's business, the Mozilla Foundation's goal was maintaining freedom of choice, and helping to drive innovation.

Web stagnation

How did this shift happen? Well, without being inside Mozilla at the time, we can only speculate, but it seems the browser wars demonstrated the importance of a competitive browser market, and the open web, to those at Mozilla.

Before Microsoft's outright victory, helped by the inclusion of Internet Explorer in Windows, the browser wars had been fought by all sides on innovation and standards support. Eric Meyer, a well-known web developer and standards advocate, described Internet Explorer 5 as, "a big step forward for web surfing on the Macintosh. In terms of standards, it is far and away the best browser available to Macintosh users…"

This praise was based on the inclusion of innovations such as excellent CSS1 support, fair support for CSS2, full PNG support and Text Zoom. These were all a boon for usability, and massively reduced the complexity of designing new websites.

After Microsoft's victory, everything changed. There were two years between the release of Internet Explorer 5 and 6, and then five years between 6 and 7. Innovation stopped at the exact moment that competition disappeared. Microsoft also discontinued support for Internet Explorer on platforms other than Windows – up until this point it had been available on Windows, Mac and Solaris systems.

If there had been other browsers with significant market share, this might not have been such an issue, but there weren't. The ubiquitous nature of Internet Explorer meant that many sites were created with it specifically in mind, and optimised to work with its increasingly quirky standards implementations.

Following Hurricane Katrina, Ars Technica revealed how the American Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) online registration site for disaster help wouldn't work with any browser other than Internet Explorer 6.

This browser ran only on XP, which precluded the organisation from setting up registration kiosks on some donated hardware, and increased time to deploy because of the need to properly secure the system. It also meant they would have to pay lots for Windows licenses.

Obviously, there were problems with this situation, and Mozilla, having experienced the difficulties first-hand, decided to make it their mission to support an open, competitive Internet.

The browser as a tool

Although what was being fought over had become far greater than just browser market share, the weapon that Mozilla decided to wield in this battle was the web browser (Firefox, to be exact).

Announcing the formation of yet another entity, the Mozilla Corporation, Mozilla said the project's overriding goal was "to provide a web browser with enough market share to drive open standards on the web". In effect, the plan was to create a great web browser, one much better than the competition, but to ensure it complies to web standards.

As users started to adopt Firefox in significant numbers, developers were forced to create websites that complied with standards, and not just Internet Explorer's idea of standards. If they didn't, they'd risk locking out a significant number of tech-savy users. And it worked.

Firefox quickly gained a market share of more than 10%, and racked up more than 100 million downloads. It has gone from strength to strength, and in some jurisdictions has more than a 50% share.

More important than market share, however, is the impact Firefox has had on the rest of the browser landscape. Internet Explorer has lost substantial market share, which has pushed Microsoft to start innovating again; and its latest effort, Internet Explorer 9, is not bad.

Then there's the fact that it opened up the market and made the idea of alternative browsers viable again. Now there's healthy competition in the browser market, between Google, Microsoft and Mozilla, and they're all innovating and pushing web standards; and the web is getting better and faster.

Mozilla hasn't stopped at solving the problem of user choice and freedom on the web. Instead, it has identified a number of other challenges that the open web faces. A common theme in many of these challenges is that Mozilla seeks to resolve the problems by building on open standards, or working with others to create these standards where necessary.

So, what challenges are now on Mozilla's radar, and what solutions are they beginning to build? Let's find out.

Tracking, identity and education

Tracking

The behaviour of online advertising companies and web developers should be of increasing concern to anyone who uses the internet. In recent years, advertisers have begun 'tracking' users across multiple different websites.

So, if you visit a site to help you find a new flat in Bath, it's quite possible that you'll see adverts for flats in Bath on other, unrelated websites later in your browsing session.

This can be useful, enabling you to see only adverts that are most relevant to you, but it can also be quite sinister. Advertisers are able to build a detailed picture of who you are: where you live, what your interests are, what medical conditions you might have… the list goes on.

Worst of all, few users have any idea that this kind of information is being kept about them. There have always been ways for users to deal with this problem, including regularly deleting your cookies, but some advertisers are always finding ways to continue collecting data even after the user has taken these kind of steps.

Recognising this game of privacy cat and mouse, Mozilla set out to do something about it and created the Do Not Track header. When turned on, this sends a signal to every website, telling them that the user doesn't want to be tracked in any way.

It's got a lot going for it – it's simple to use and it's simple for websites to identify and respond to. It's also well on the way to becoming a new standard, with Microsoft and Apple both adding it to their browsers.

Unfortunately, it's not without problems. Most prominently, it doesn't enforce a user's preference, only expresses it to the website. This means users are dependent on advertisers recognising and responding to this setting consistently. Some might disable targeted adverts, for instance, but continue collecting data.

The only solution that will result in a safer internet for everybody is governments getting involved, either by threatening to legislate or legislating in support of Do Not Track.

Since it has gained so much momentum, thanks in part to Mozilla working with others and pushing for it to be standardised, the US and the EU have already expressed a desire to see widespread and consistent implementations of DNT across the web – if they don't, they may well legislate.

Identity

Almost every site we visit on the web wants us to log in. They want us to do this so they can provide a more personal experience: whether that means relaying what our friends thought of the site, making recommendations based on past products we viewed, or letting us comment and engage with that site's community. Yet almost every site implements its own login system.

Every time we join a new community on the web we have to go through the same, annoying process of filling out a registration form. This process is also insecure. Virtually every website will ask us to come up with a new username and password combination.

While we all know that we shouldn't use the same password on every site, remembering a dozen different passwords is hard. This means that we often end up using the same one, or a dozen different, but easy to remember (and hack) variations.

Sites that don't implement their own login system, but instead take advantage of Facebook or Google's offerings, jeopardise user sovereignty. Every time you log in with one of these services, you provide the commercial entity with more information about your browsing habits.

It also means that you're entrusting your online identity, your history of actions, to the long-term survival of a commercial entity. What happens if Facebook disappears from the web? Or if you decide that they're a bit too sinister for your tastes, and you want to move to a different identity provider? With the web as it is, there's not a lot you can do about this.

Step in Mozilla. It has recently launched BrowserID, the first link in its attempts to begin creating "an open source, standards-based platform for universally accessible, decentralised, customised identity on the Web."

With BrowserID, users need only one set of login credentials, so they can make them strong. There's no centralised authority, meaning any email provider can implement support for BrowserID. It's also inherently privacy protecting, as all logins happen through the user's browser.

Education

The open web's continued success depends on new generations coming through that not only understand and care about freedom and openness, but that also understand how technology can affect these social issues.

In the UK, this is an issue that recently received a lot of attention when Eric Schmidt criticised our computer teaching methods. In the McTaggart lecture, he said the UK's IT curriculum "focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it's made".

You might be able to work Word or Excel, or create a profile on Facebook, but if you don't understand how computers work, you'll never understand the downsides associated with these same technologies.

Word and Excel, for example, employ proprietary document formats that not only force others to use the same software as you (and, if governments use them, limit access to important publications to those who can afford the software), but pose a potential hazard for archivists and future generations looking back.

If you've learned how computers work, however, you'll start to understand what data is, how services and programs can communicate with one another, and how much more powerful computers are when this is made possible.

Fortunately, every computer in the world comes with a first-class programming environment that can provide immediate, visual feedback: the web browser. This means that, with the right teaching resources in place, everybody can learn some of these fundamentals without spending another penny.

And it's these teaching resources that Mozilla is trying to put in place. They've built a lot of resources under the School of Webcraft banner, where users can teach and help each other to learn about web programming.

They've also been hard at work on their Hackasaurus, which is aimed at school-age children (and grown-up kids, too). It teaches them to hack the web through interactive narratives, and provides the basis for classroom activities and after-school clubs.

Many Mozilla supporters are even going out to their local schools to teach children about programming and the web.

Journalism

The web is changing journalism, in more ways than the damage to circulation and revenues it's accused of causing. Journalists are gathering information from all possible sources – Twitter, press releases, reporters on the ground, news wires – and throwing it all up to their organisations' websites immediately.

Not long ago, this would have been unthinkable. News operated on a 24-hour cycle, with stories breaking and then rapidly being written up for the next day's editions. In many ways, today's journalism is a wonderful development on the 24-hour news cycle.

As consumers of news, we can find out what's happening at any time of the day. And the information that's forming our opinions is immeasurably richer, with contributions coming from ordinary people caught up in protests, civil wars and stock market trading floors as the events unfold.

At the same time, this model of journalism and news reporting presents real challenges to journalists and us, as consumers of news. There's far less scope for fact checking. How often do we see a suspect arrested and minute details of their lives inspected and distorted, only to later have their name cleared? How can we, as consumers, have confidence in the news we're reading?

The other major question this model of journalism poses is how we can see a story in its wider context, when we're told it in disparate detail as soon as it occurs. Mozilla believes that part of the solution to these problems is news organisations better employing open web technologies.

Can readers be involved in fact checking, providing instant feedback on the accuracy of politicians' speeches? Can web technologies be combined with open data to provide context, and solid facts and figures to support a reporter's case?

Mozilla has partnered with the Knight Foundation to get hackers working on journalistic problems. They're even sponsoring a group of 'fellows' – hackers who are going to be working in the newsrooms of the BBC, Al Jazeera, Zeit Online, the Guardian and the Boston Globe – to help them solve their problems and make their reporting more fit for the digital age.

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First published in Linux Format Issue 153

Liked this? Then check out Do Not Track: what is it?

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