a new participation infrastructure project: Gossamer

I have a confession to make.

I’ve been a volunteer contributor at Mozilla for a number of years now.. and during this time, I haven’t even begun to do the work that motivated me to join to Mozilla in the first place. I’ve made all sorts of excuses like needing to cultivate new skills, or thinking that Mozilla’s organizational culture needs to change somehow.. and then I can finally do the real work I’m here to do.

Well, I’ve been working to level up my skills and in the past year Mozilla has shown strong signs of becoming the organization I’ve been dreaming it could be! All the excuses I give myself are disappearing, and yet I still don’t feel ready to participate where I think I can make the biggest difference.

Maybe I’ve been looking a this all wrong. Maybe what’s missing isn’t something intrinsic to Mozilla as a whole, nor something within myself. Maybe what’s missing is a process, a clear contribution pathway for me to participate in the work I’d like to do within Mozilla.

The work I’ve long felt driven to participate in is facilitating the design of new architectures for personal data ownership and sovereignty. I want to help find answers to questions around what the web looks and feels like when your user agent is no longer a browser running on top of an operating system, but a networked ecosystem of devices, data services, physical objects, and contextual identities all tied together securely by open infrastructure you can choose to delegate to companies like Google and Microsoft, or completely host under your bed without loss of functionality or experience.

Like so many of the technical challenges facing Mozilla right now, working towards such a vision requires figuring out whether the chicken or the egg comes first. In Firefox, this often translates to Platform or UX. I see a path towards the web I want that begins with UX, but Mozilla doesn’t really have a viable contribution pathway for volunteers (especially non-coding volunteers) to participate in proposing ambitious new browser features.. especially features tied to a longer-term vision. Rapid prototyping is difficult because not only would I have to recruit a developer, but technical overhead is also a barrier (the dev environment, learning how to create browser extensions which often means learning some XUL, etc) for whomever I recruit. And don’t forget the step of sharing an experiment with Mozilla UX to vet the idea and make the case for getting it into Mozilla’s bloodstream.

Provided a volunteer-driven project could get to that point, would the UX team even have the bandwidth to engage volunteers let alone vet and possibly champion their ideas? For my own efforts, I’m confident I could make this happen. I could totally recruit a team, build some prototypes together, and essentially create my own process for pipelining new experimental features into Firefox. But something about this pathway just doesn’t sit right with me. Other people should be able to participate through such a pipeline, but the process I could surgically create for myself definitely wouldn’t scale. Is there a more Mozilla way to do this that paves a viable path for others to follow?

There are many parts of Mozilla that face challenges like this where by increasing volunteer participation, staff would be stuck with the crippling administrative burden of processes meant to drive innovation. What’s needed is trailblazing participation infrastructure that empowers volunteers to largely self-administer their participation while at the same time transforming how Mozilla staff gets work done day to day. An integration of new processes and tooling that unlocks creative possibilities for volunteers and staff alike.

At the recent Mozilla Whistler Work Week, Mark Surman surreally illustrated the need for new tools by first coming on stage with an axe, and then later bringing a chainsaw on the stage. (Or at least, that’s what I think happened.. I was following #mozwww on Twitter and it basically looked like pure insanity. Never change, Mozilla.) To use Surman’s metaphor, the surgical process I described above is an axe I could build to personally accomplish my mission at Mozilla. (And no one should ever do surgery with an axe.)

For the past few weeks, I’ve been collaborating with Jonathan Wilde to build an experimental chainsaw!

Since the #Mozlandia work week last December, Jonathan and I have been talking about how the browser.html project could be used for more than just platform level research, but to bootstrap participation infrastructure that enables research and development in browser UX. A little over a month ago we began work on just that, and refer to it using the codename ‘Gossamer’. You can read more about the technical inspirations and details behind Gossamer on Jonathan’s blog.

We’re not quite ready to share a demo just yet, but we have enough momentum that we want to begin working in the open. We’re also trying to work via Heartbeat-style sprints pioneered by MoFo and recently adopted by the Participation Team.

We’d love your feedback as we work towards our first few rounds of demos! Join us on the irc.mozilla.org channel #gossamer, file some github issues located in the gossamer repo, and tweet at us via @CaptainCalliope and @hellojwilde!

Why Mozilla? Manifesto and Milestones

This post is going to be the first in a series I’ll revisit from time to time answering the question: “Why Mozilla?”

A little known fact: Mozilla is an organization with a Manifesto.

It’s an inspiring document that outlines the principles upon which Mozilla operates toward fulfilling its mission of preserving a free and open web.

There is an ongoing dialogue at the Mozilla Foundation about whether the Manifesto needs revisiting. When I read the Manifesto today, I feel like it is just as relevant now as when it was first published.. but perhaps some of the language could be touched up to add emphasis on how the principles manifest in Mozilla’s efforts to tackle contemporary challenges that didn’t exist just a few short years ago.

I have no specific suggestions along these lines right now, but what I would like to do is discuss the expression of these principles in terms of major historical milestones and begin to explain why, frankly, I’ve become so obsessed with this organization.

Right now, Mozilla has three significant tent-pole projects: Firefox, FirefoxOS, and Webmaker. Each project delivers a milestone that builds upon and supports each other toward accomplishing Mozilla’s mission.

Firefox: The First Avenger Milestone

The initial release of Firefox set the web aflame. It ended the days of vendor lock-in to a stagnant web under Microsoft’s tutelage. In very measurable ways, it was Firefox’s impact on the market that led to the rebirth of the web in the form of ‘Web 2.0’ and social media. As a highly visible project, Firefox was a major source of mass contributing to the momentum of the Open Source movement. It proved that a purpose driven organization like Mozilla could have impact, and its creation made Mozilla a pioneer in the forms of open collaboration that 21st century organizations must adopt in order to achieve excellence.

I’d argue that only one other product has done as much as Firefox to advance the state of the web in recent years: Apple’s iPhone. It was Apple’s work on Webkit for the iPhone that launched the mobile web and mobile web apps before the iPhone even had an App store. Webkit also became the foundation of Google Chrome: an excellent browser worthy of Mozilla’s vision for a platform-agnostic Open Web.

Despite the original positive and high impact the iPhone had on the web, it quickly became a threat. Native Apps backed by cloud-based data silos circumvent and break the web. Google’s Android, despite being a more open platform, is not an Open Web platform and exacerbates this very problem. Although there has been talk of Android and ChromeOS eventually merging, Google’s ultimate incentive is not to preserve the Open Web but to organize the world’s information in the most direct way possible: by swallowing all the data.

Just as in the days before Firefox, vendor lock-in is the name of the game.

FirefoxOS: Scaling Kilimanjaro

As mobile OSs and native app platforms have taken over,  the ‘Web Platform’ has not stayed still. Between HTML5, CSS3, and advances in Javascript rendering engines, the web itself is rapidly becoming a viably cross-platform option for first-class app development.

Few in the technology industry truly understand what FirefoxOS represents. It is not just another competitor entering the already crowded mobile OS market.. it is the beginning of a new era in computing. The success of FirefoxOS isn’t dependent upon adoption of devices, but development toward a future in which Web Browsers and Operating Systems begin to blur.

Developing in parallel to FirefoxOS is Firefox itself. Both projects will benefit from the convergence of projects that began in Mozilla Labs including Persona, WebAPI, and Firefox Marketplace.

There was a thread early last year on the Mozilla Dev Planning mailing list by Damon Sicore titled “The Web as the Platform and The Kilimanjaro Event” which proposed a major milestone for Mozilla to work toward:

“The Kilimanjaro Event is the point in time (not a release) when we realize a tightly integrated set of products that enables users to use the ID of their choice to find and install Web apps from HTML5 App marketplaces–including one created by Mozilla–and have those apps and appropriate data synchronized amongst devices.  It is important to point out that the Kilimanjaro Event is not a single release.  It is an incremental effort where we deliver a series of releases and features to each of our products that result in and enable an end-to-end user experience across these efforts.”

While this may sound like Mozilla playing the vendor lock-in game, the difference is that everything is being built upon open technologies. If other vendors don’t eventually adopt and/or adapt these technologies toward a seamless end-to-end user experience that crosses browsers and operating systems, then Mozilla will have failed to replicate the original success of Firefox in preserving the openness of the web.

The key to scaling this monumental goal is an unprecedented alignment in Mozilla’s organizational capacities.. and Mozilla is well up to the task. The work that we see being done now toward launching FirefoxOS can be viewed as establishing Basecamp at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. This is only the beginning, and there is so much more to come.

However, FirefoxOS does not solve the ultimate problem of apps being a threat to the web. Apps still, more often than not, lead to silo-ed data.

Webmaker: Shooting for the Moon

If FirefoxOS represents the movement toward a high summit, Webmaker is the launch pad for Mozilla’s Moon Shot.

Through Webmaker, Mozilla is tackling the problems of online learning and web literacy. Webmaker is part software, part movement.. just like Firefox.

This may sound like it’s a new area of focus for Mozilla, but it’s actually a natural extension of the work Mozilla has been doing all along. Webmaker is about making the full creative read/write promise of the web accessible to the masses. This is about far more than just ‘teaching people computers’: this is about things like personal security, socioeconomic opportunity, civic engagement, access to food and healthcare, and global security. Web literacy is that important.

As the Web Platform continues to advance, it’s important that we don’t get swept up into the world of apps thereby losing what makes the web so powerful. It may sound like I’m demonizing apps, but they have a saving technological grace: RESTful APIs! Combined with new technologies coming to HTML5 (Web Components, Web Intents/Activities, Web Sockets, etc), I’m convinced that Webmaker will become the platform that closes the loop between Apps, APIs, and the Open Web. I’ve written about this previously here and here, as has Atul Varma here, by Kin Lane here, and this thinking is already impacting Webmaker prototyping and roadmapping efforts.

In the same way Mozilla has been a leading voice in Open Source during the last decade, it will be a leading voice in Open Data during the next one. This will become apparent as many of the tools developed and delivered into the Webmaker product eventually find their way into the core of Firefox.

Where the success of FirefoxOS is predicated upon unprecedented collaborative alignment within Mozilla, the success of Webmaker will be based upon unprecedented collaborative alignment between Mozilla and the world at large.

It begins with personal data remixed to create personal stories, but it will soon expand to the organizational stories told in aggregate via the Apps that help us weave our webs of social (and cultural, political, medical, etc) interaction.

And that’s just the launch pad! At this point, there’s no telling what Mozilla’s actual Moon shot will be.

The end of the Web Browser

While writing this post, I ran across another blog post with the same title, ‘Why Mozilla?’ written almost two years ago by Allen Wirfs-Brock.

In some sense, this post is almost an uncanny mirror image of that one. In fact, he begins his post with the same conclusion I want to end on: we’re about to witness the end of the Web Browser.

The work being done around FirefoxOS and Webmaker together form something of a knockout one-two punch to followup Mozilla’s first act with Firefox.

Mozilla Persona brings identity into the browser and blurs the lines between user agent and user. The FirefoxOS ecosystem, in blurring the lines between OS and browser, will bring identity into the device.. mobile, and otherwise.

And so, the Web Browser as a technology gives way to the Web Browser as a person: a consumer of information via the first global unifying computing paradigm. This is a pretty bleak future.

And this is why the term ‘Web Browser’ must eventually be deprecated: it is an absolutely unacceptable state for humanity to be stuck in. We must aspire to be a world of Webmakers.

Why Mozilla? Because the mountain will be scaled, but preparations are already underway for us (all of us, globally) to reach for the Moon! Who’d want to miss that?