Mozilla, a tale of gentrification

This post has a high trolling potential, I am aware of it. So let’s start with a few points meant as a caveat emptor. The views expressed here are mine , solely mine and do not represent the views of the Document Foundation nor my current employer. As a consequence I shall take all the blame, yes, I will, “Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognosco et peccatum meum contra me est semper “.

By now I’m sure you’ve read the announcement about Mozilla allowing DRM in Firefox. It stirred up quite a controversy and looking at the news, blogposts and tweets these days it is not really going away. I cannot help but wondering where all those protesters are today, the LGBT cause supporters, who discovered Mozilla was infringing a newly found human right by appointing an opponent of same sex marriage as its CEO, Brendan Eich. You who were so loud and outspoken, where are you today folks? Still as concerned with Mozilla than you were a month ago? Hmm? No? You must not be paying attention. firefox-logo

Contrary to Glyn Moody in his excellent article, I do not judge Mozilla’s decision in the same harsh way. At least not the decision itself: if we were to stick to Glyn’s arguments, then Mozilla should never have allowed Adobe/Macromedia Flash in the first place (that’s the very short argument). However, I believe that Mozilla’s decision must be assessed in a broader context. We are in 2014 and things are quite different from what they were in, say, 2004. From a very practical point of view (read: market share) it could make sense to include what has been outrageously approved by the W3C inside the html5 standard as EME, or in other words, DRM for specific videos. Obviously these only represent  a small fraction of all videos found on the internet, and even a smaller fraction of the most popular ones. But as with all DRM this kind of content is doomed to fail and to be soon forgotten in the cemetary of the stupid and proprietary web technologies that suppress digital freedoms. I am not really worried about that in the long term, but a strong stance against DRM by Mozilla would probably have created quite an impression and helped spread the message and raise the awareness on these  matters.

The problem I see, however, is something I’ve witnessed for some time now, and while I’m aware that I will probably look like I’m howling with the pack (something I do not like at all) I believe I should come clean about it. This problem is about Mozilla itself, what it does, how it operates, its own standing within the Free and Open Source Software community and its revenue model. In fact, I believe all these points are tightly connected and discretely conspired to bring Mozilla where it is today. This is not to say that I don’t like what Mozilla does and has done. This is not to say that there isn’t a whole bunch of great people inside Mozilla: there are, I know several of them. This is not to say that Mozilla is not an exciting set of projects and ventures: I think it will continue to be exciting in the years to come. And many of us know what technology does to any project or company in just a few years: kill it or make it blossom.

What I believe is going on with Mozilla is a quest to be a very respectable player in the IT industry. It is a continued, yet subtle, refusal to be part of the wider Free and Open Source Software community (which is not necessarily wrong in itself), a certain posture that is about words, slogans, nice web sites, but not about a radical course for software and Internet freedom. I am convinced that Mozilla does a lot of good, even after this announcement on DRM, but I also feel a certain gentrification taking place inside Mozilla. And it would probably not be very easy to avoid it if you were in their shoes. I mean, hundreds of millions in the bank, Firefox OS, big telcos all around you, smacking down Internet Explorer, working with charities, what comes next? Barack Obama offers all of you a trip on board of Air Force One? Maybe. Except that from gentrification one can develop a sense of entitlement. You are the project that matters. The browser. 4167751227_d924d393fb_m

You keep the Internet open, no matter what the FCC makes of it. While I trust the leadership of Mozilla to handle all these challenges and successes in the best way possible, I also expect that some of these things will start to turn their heads away from a certain state of things and change the perception not so much of the “reality”, but of what they can, should, and are entitled to do. In their case, it would not be hubris or anything like that; but it would work like a creepy and increasing feeling of isolation matched with a constant care about the survival of the structure; and on top of that, something which is both a blessing and a curse: Mozilla’s revenue model.

One peculiar aspect of the Mozilla project, be it the foundation, Firefox or Firefox OS that seems to have eluded most of the pundits and other commentators is the way it actually functions. Obviously, all this is Free and Open Source Software. You have the code, all the tools you need, you can even contribute bug reports and patches. But projects like Firefox are the kind of projects that rely on developers paid directly by the Mozilla Foundation / Corporation. It is not a bad thing, software freedom does not mandate you to accept anybody else’s contribution. But it does frame the development model and the community governance in a very specific way. Today, Mozilla has several hundreds of employees. You read that well, several hundreds. Not everyone is a software developer, but many are. It  is a very different place compared to LibreOffice or the Linux kernel for instance. Just like with everything else, there are benefits and downsides. Among the latter, not paying attention to contributors and the outside world in general, while developing a sense of “Not Invented Here” while thinking inside the box framed by how the structure work is one of them. I’m not saying this is a major issue for Mozilla, because every structure that is strong ultimately develops this kind of patterns. What I’m trying to do here is to paint a picture of a project heading towards a certain direction and developing a mindset that will ultimately prove detrimental to its own relevance. Survival of the structure is another issue. Every  single structure that is strong enough to survive a few years will develop, though its aggregated teams and individuals an urge to survive. Sociology and anthropology have demonstrated that. In our contemporary world, this usually translates into long brainstorming sessions and internal team meetings that end up amounting to this question: “How do we stay relevant?” Now don’t get me wrong: this may actually be a really good question. But the point here is that the structure wants to survive, not because it’s right, not because it should, only because it ends up working for that purpose, instead of being a tool or an entity established for a purpose different and distinct from itself. As a result, you have people who lose focus on what they  came to do at first but as a paradox acquire a very sharp focus on how their organization is unique and must prevail. There’s now the “we” and then there’s the “them”.

Last but not least, the revenue model. There was yet another set of heated discussion after Mozilla ended up withdrawing their idea of inserting ads in their tabs. I believe it was a right decision after all, but I am not the only one thinking that this issue is one of revenue model. Mozilla famously got rich after they worked out this search engine bar revenue scheme with Google several years ago. And it  ended up becoming insanely rich for an Open Source project. Perhaps too rich, some might say. willy-wonka-and-the-chocolate-factory-willy-wonka-and-the-chocolate-factory-17594222-640-480Well, I don’t believe that’s the case. I  think they chose a revenue model that made sense at that  time, they were successful with it and drove some exciting projects with these resources. Some were a success, some failed. That’s part of what everybody does. But the revenue model puts demands and limits on what Mozilla is able to do. They also have to think in terms of safeguarding the sheer budget volume, and given the size of Google’s contribution (the agreement with Microsoft is of no trivial size as well) this cannot be an easy task. Therein lies the rub: At some point in time, which seems to have already been reached, Mozilla will have to increase the revenue generated by the online ads, which in turn will end up increasing their prevalence inside Mozilla software in general. Yet Mozilla knows users reject these, and no amount of “creative semantics” will convince them. An ad-based business model is fundamentally one relying on the pricing of campaigns and the acceptation by consumers of these ads themselves. The latter part seems somewhat compromised. If the advertising market goes south, and not by a lot, it will hurt Mozilla rather quickly. Mozilla must come up with other sources of revenues, keeping in mind that these might have to mechanically  diminish (advertising market bubble anyone?). When that day arrives, it will not be pretty for the lizards.

This is where I think Mozilla surprizingly failed so far. The revenues generated by their agreement with Google could have set them free to do a lot of things and to help them build services and technologies. Online services requires skills Mozilla already has or can acquire. I am an avid user of Mozilla Sync. Why there hasn’t been any Mozilla challenger to DropBox is a mystery to me. And they could even charge for it beyond a certain storage threshold. I would not mind. Why isn’t there a nifty or shiny online office suite by Mozilla? I do not think it is out of respect for the Document Foundation. Why is Thunderbird left as a second class citizen, with no roadmap, and no clear venue to contribute to its development?

Granted, Mozilla did a lot of other things. They opened up a series of collaborative spaces all around the world, even in places that had already plenty, sometimes barely a block away from such venues(case in point: Paris). Why Mozilla felt they could do this without the local community of hackers, free software supporters, IT entrepreneurs and IT students is beyond me. They have also partnered in the field of web technologies education and free journalism support. And of course, there’s Firefox OS which in my view has great potential.  It is a lot, and somehow it feels too little. If it sounds subjective, it is because it is, in part. My experience within the Document Foundation helps me get a vantage point on what can be done with a certain volume of (limited) resources, and what it means to be lean and mean.

In a nutshell, Mozilla could do a lot better, but the real issue seems to be that they do not intend to take that route. We have talked about Brendan Eich, we have heard interesting terms, trying to call online ads by any other name. We have heard very little about digital freedoms, even though Firefox is instrumental in ensuring these; and what’s with this weird “Open Web” meme that sounds like something halfway between an ISP advertising its latest plan and a new, fashionable yet odd hiking contraption? We are lacking some sense and purpose, some well defined goal – I’m all for memes when they are shared by everyone even if they don’t render the whole  message accurately- but the Open Web? Why not talk about software freedom and digital rights? Is Mozilla that much scared of the bearded Free Software mob that they have to distance themselves from it by competing with the dubious help  of convoluted slogans? Benjamin_Franklin_-_Join_or_Die

I know, some of you must think that I’m jealous. I know some would be. But oddly enough, I do not wish the Document Foundation to ever become as big as Mozilla. Surprising? It shouldn’t be. In our industry, smaller means more agile, better, faster. It also means more personal. Somewhere down these lines, a certain part of Mozilla has been lost. Can we get it back?

I’m almost done, and I don’t want to troll Mozilla to death anyway, at some point I will offend someone there, so let me finish by offering a personal view on what could be done next at Mozilla in terms of strategy and revenue model:

  • As stated above: work on your mission and on your message. I’ll get more people fighting for microbreweries in my own district in Paris  than for something as fantomatic as the Open Web that no one understands anyway.
  • Progressively switch to a donation based model. It actually works with the point above, in that by getting a strong sense of purpose you can mobilize and work with volunteers, who in turn increase by their own networking and by your own communication the individual donations coming from everywhere. Mind you, people will donate 10 bucks, so you need a lot of them to get even somewhere close to a budget based on Google and Microsoft donations. You may of course blend the two models, but the switch will also mean that you will have to work with, by and through your community of volunteers. Which could well bring about the most critical change in the Mozilla project.
  • The good thing with Mozilla is that it has both a foundation and corporation (read: a charity and a business) which means you can also think in terms of business model. I know that it  is already the case otherwise you would have closed the corporation years ago; but here you can monetize on two fronts: OEM/Phone and tablets manufacturers, and service/consultancy for large organizations. I am not too sure the latter would be your bread and butter, but  keep in mind that Mozilla can become or is already a cloud technology provider. This is an interesting path to think about.
  • Attract revenue from the platform. This one is longer term, as it requires that  Firefox OS be at least an installed player; once this would happen Mozilla would benefit from an actual platform, and could derive revenue -no, the App Store is not the only model out there- from the various relations the platform would have enabled an created. It could be anything from specific deals, services, to apps monetization.

The world is a dangerous place, not so much because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.   – Einstein

Rock on Mozilla.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: