Mozilla under fire: Beyond JavaScript, 3 ways Eich changed the Web

Mozilla's co-founder and former CEO Brendan Eich has been at the center of Internet development for almost 20 years.

Mozilla CTO and JavaScript founder Brendan Eich
JavaScript founder Brendan Eich has had a wide-ranging history of influence on the Web. Stephen Shankland

Any consideration of Brendan Eich's career will always take note of his short, controversial tenure as the head honcho at Mozilla, the nonprofit maker of the Firefox browser. Eich has exerted enormous influence on the Web since the 1990s, and the Internet wouldn't be the same without his contributions.

Eich's perhaps best known for inventing JavaScript during a 10-day period in 1995. That was a pivotal moment in Web development which allowed Web pages to evolve from rigid presentations into interactive experiences. JavaScript does much of the heavy lifting on the Web that we now take for granted.

For instance, JavaScript allows pages to update without you needing to reload. It also animates static elements on a page and lets you play interactive content such as games or videos. Advertisers also owe Eich a debt of gratitude since JavaScript allows them to track how people use their sites, an important insight that companies can use to customize their pages.

Since then, Eich has been a prolific and active member of Web development and Web standards organizations. He advises companies like OTOY, Box, and Palantir Technologies. Besides JavaScript, Eich made significant contributions to these tools that you're probably using whenever you fire up your Web browser.

1. Harmony is the sixth version of JavaScript, officially known as ECMAScript. Harmony is a massive update to JavaScript to make it easier to use, faster to render, and better able to compete with the programming languages that power native applications on Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS operating systems.

Harmony's standards aren't done yet, but its features are already finding their way into Firefox and Chrome. Google supports the project and has built a transpiler tool (which takes in code in one programing language and spits it back out in another programing language) called Traceur to help developers get Harmony code into working form on today's browsers. Harmony is considered to be essential in getting Web apps to be as robust as native apps.

2. Although Mozilla got blindsided by Google when the Chrome browser launched in 2008 with an emphasis on speed, Eich has been part of the effort to make the Web itself faster. A big part of that has been the recent launch of ASM.js, a subset of JavaScript that makes JavaScript run faster.

Used with the Emscripten project, which converts other programming languages to JavaScript, ASM.js is an Eich-driven project that speeds up the Web without having to rely on significant changes to the browser. Recent benchmarks have placed ASM.js-enhanced code running at around 1.5 times slower than native code -- a major accomplishment in the short time ASM.js has been around.

That puts it ahead of similar projects that hope to accelerate the Web, like Google's Native Client. ASM.js and Emscripten are still new, but ASM.js optimizations are already supported by Firefox and Chrome. Game developers like Unity have also signed on with ASM.js as a way to get their games running on the Web without plug-ins, add on computer programs that works in conjunction with larger applications.

3. Firefox OS is a major Mozilla project that is slowly delivering on its promise of an open-source smartphone operating system -- powered by HTML5, JavaScript, and CSS -- that will help bring the Internet to people who can't afford computers or other smartphones. It's Mozilla's biggest undertaking and encompasses hardware and carrier partnerships -- new territory for the company, and not Eich's bailiwick.

His involvement was important helping to develop the Web's missing pieces, application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow Web technology to function as a mobile operating system. These include WebRTC, the real-time communications APIs for streaming video, audio, and data without a plug-in like Adobe Flash; the contacts API for managing an address book; and the notifications API for pushing notifications to the screen.

Those may sound like basic functions, but they didn't exist as options for Web developers before Mozilla began working on Firefox OS. Phones have launched in Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, and about a dozen other countries, but the real test for Firefox OS will come later this year, when Mozilla launches $25 Firefox OS smartphones in India and Indonesia.

 

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