Mozilla's plan for 2012: Break the ecosystem lock

Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon--all are targets for Mozilla's plan to use Web apps to free people from ecosystem lock-in. Also: new Firefox features aplenty.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
7 min read
The people's enemy, in Mozilla's eyes, is an ecosystem of devices, operating systems, app stores, services, and apps.
The people's enemy, in Mozilla's eyes, is an ecosystem of devices, operating systems, app stores, services, and apps. Mozilla

Mozilla is best known as the developer of Firefox, but it's reaching well beyond the browser with a 2012 strategy that strives to use the open Web to counteract ecosystem lock-in.

Firefox embodied Mozilla's effort to counter the damage that Microsoft's browser dominance caused on the Web. But now, as revealed in Mozilla 2012 plans published Sunday, the non-profit organization is putting the crosshairs on other big competitors, too: Apple, Google, and Amazon.

Those companies, along with Microsoft, each are building an ecosystem encompassing devices, operating systems, app stores, and apps. People should be worried about getting locked into any of those ecosystems, Mozilla believes.

Some recent non-Firefox projects at Mozilla have come across as dalliances, but the organization is beginning to sound now like it's found a new cause worth fighting for.

"Mozilla believes that the Web is the platform and the entire Web should be your marketplace," one of the 2012 planning documents said.

The 2012 Mozilla road map documents detail plans to improve the Web as a foundation for applications, to create open, decentralized Web-app technology, and to build Mozilla's own app store. That ecosystem-busting work accompanies plans for Firefox's future, efforts to build a browser-based mobile operating system, and better handle identity issues on the Web.

Expanding the mission
Mozilla for years led the charge to modernize Web browsing in a world dominated by Microsoft's Internet Explorer, but in many ways that's last decade's competitive battle. Even as Firefox's user base expanded to the mainstream and made it clear that IE would not rule the world, the old competitive dynamic shattered.

Jay Sullivan, vice president of products at Mozilla
Jay Sullivan, vice president of products at Mozilla Mozilla

In its place grew a browser dynamic that's more complicated by far: For one thing, Google's brought its power to the desktop browser scene with Chrome. For another, Microsoft came to its senses and embraced the Web standards that Mozilla, Opera, and Apple had previously supported on their own. And a new mobile era began, with Apple's Safari dominating and Google's Android browser growing fast.

In short, the browser market is arguably as competitive as it's ever been--and that means Mozilla needs to look beyond merely being a foil to Internet Explorer. It opened several explorations last year, but now it's picked its priorities.

In short, Mozilla wants to liberate people and programmers from lock-in that's spreading across the Internet landscape. Mozilla is picking its battles, but the organization appears to be bridling at everything from Facebook to Google and Apple app stores.

Here's what Jay Sullivan, Mozilla's vice president of products has to say about the matter:

We've entered a new phase of Internet life. People are experiencing the Internet from a wide variety of mobile devices, using touch, voice and other new interfaces. Their Internet experiences have become inherently social.

Along with the development of these new experiences, new Internet ecosystems have developed that are not very much like the Web: ecosystem owners seek to lock in users to vertically integrated stack of hardware, software, identity, and services, rather than enable choice, competition, and innovation at each of these layers.

Mozilla can and must continue to empower people with choice and control over their online lives and give developers the power and freedom to innovate and realize their creative potential.

When it comes to ecosystems, Mozilla is working to fight fire with fire by developing its own.

For its programming technology, it's using the Web, and for its underlying operating system to run those programs, it's got Firefox and a new project called Boot to Gecko that aims to build a browser-based operating system for mobile devices.

To that end, Mozilla launched its Web API effort to endow browsers with the ability to control Webcams, monitor battery usage, and dial phone numbers; more recently it joined forces with Opera and others to marry that Web API effort with the World Wide Web's Device API (DAP) project. Mozilla plans to demonstrate BTG in the first quarter.

Mozilla also is working to improve the Web as a programming foundation. That's work that's been going on for years there and at other browser makers, but it takes on new importance in light of Mozilla's effort to form a competing ecosystem and in light of the success of native applications running on iOS and Android.

"We want the platform in Firefox to enable app-quality experiences and developer productivity that rivals native platforms," Mozilla said in its Web platform roadmap. That means faster networking, push notifications to get users' attention, better multitouch support, mouse-lock to let people use the mouse as a game controller so they can steer without having to hold the mouse button down constantly, support for the "flexbox" interface to adapt layouts to varying screen sizes, and a replacement for the Web intents technology Google proposed as a way to let a Web apps hand off files such as photos to another.

And at a higher level in the ecosystem, Mozilla is building an app store, building off its existing add-ons download site.

"Mozilla is building a marketplace for apps that work across desktops, phones and tablets. Through this marketplace, developers will be able to distribute and monetize their apps," Mozilla said. "Users will be able to get, install and use their apps across all of their devices, regardless of the underlying device/OS platforms. This marketplace will also be the single destination where users can find both cross-platform apps as well as Firefox extensions."

There are a couple differences between Mozilla's ecosystem and its rivals'. First, it lacks any specific underlying hardware. Firefox is widely used, but not on mobile, and BTG so far remains a project without a real-world way to get it into the people's hands. As Hewlett-Packard has shown, it's hard to break into a mobile market dominated by iOS and Android.

Second, it's an ecosystems designed to avoid lock-in. Mozilla wants Web apps to work on multiple browsers, to be available from other app stores besides its own. To that latter point, it's working on an interface that will mean people only have to buy an app once--not once from each app store.

That's in strongest contrast to Google's Chrome Web Store. Apple's app store for native iOS apps is one thing, but one gets the feeling from Mozilla's that it views a proprietary store for Web apps as a particularly offensive abomination.

The Chrome Web Store is an unsurprising outgrowth of Google's need to distribute Chrome extensions and apps for Chrome OS, Google's browser-based operating system. That can make life easier for developers who only have to test apps against a single browser--but it also undermines the cross-platform nature of the Web.

Firefox future
Firefox remains a core element of the Mozilla strategy. That's sensible, given its continuing if diminished influence, the reality that it's the only reason most people have any idea about Mozilla, and the fact that it drives Google search results that provide the lion's share of Mozilla's tens of millions of dollars of annual revenue.

There's plenty in store for the browser, naturally, according to its Firefox road map.

In the first quarter, Mozilla will mark add-ons as compatible by default with new versions of Firefox so the six-week cycle of rapid-release browser upgrades won't be so plagued with breakage. Add-ons will be synchronized across browsers, too.

In the second quarter will come a proof of concept of Firefox for Metro, the touch-centric interface of Windows 8; integration with Mozilla's Web apps marketplace; silent updates so rapid-release Firefox versions arrive without disruption; a restore option to bring Firefox back to its pristine state; and better start-up speed and scrolling.

In the second half, Mozilla plans to release alpha and beta versions of Firefox for Metro; Firefox Share (formerly F1) to post updates to multiple social networks; a new Australis user interface; the next-generation IonMonkey JavaScript engine; integrated translation services such as those Chrome already possesses; a reader mode similar to Safari's; better performance when lots of tabs are open; and a built-in PDF viewer.

Under the rapid-release program, new features can be built in gradually as they're done.

Overall, Firefox users can expect a firmer foundation for browsing.

"Mozilla understands the value of a responsive user experience and a highly stable and performant platform for Web developers," Mozilla said. "In 2012 strengthened and dedicated teams will wipe out any and all Firefox responsiveness issues users face and guarantee the rock solid stability at low memory costs that developers demand for their apps."

The ambitions are big even with Firefox, but at least there Mozilla has a strong foothold. The Web-app ecosystem is another kettle of fish, though: for ecosystems to succeed they need developers making software available users buying it.

Mozilla has a leg up in that all browser rivals are pursuing the dream of a powerful Web foundation, but there's a big difference between a Web site reached through an URL and a Web app purchased through a marketplace. But before you declare Mozilla isn't up to the challenge remember that there was a day when Internet Explorer accounted for more than 90 percent of browser usage.