Brendan Eich, Mozilla's alpha nerd, takes over as CEO (Q&A)

The inventor of JavaScript and the Firefox developer's chief technology officer now is running the show. Top agenda items: Firefox OS and Mozilla services.

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
5 min read

Mozilla CEO and JavaScript founder Brendan Eich
Mozilla CEO and JavaScript founder Brendan Eich Stephen Shankland

Brendan Eich, the programmer who invented JavaScript in a 10-day burst of activity at Netscape in 1995, now is the chief executive of Mozilla, the nonprofit organization that develops the Firefox browser and Firefox OS mobile operating system.

Eich worked on the Netscape Navigator browser and -- after Microsoft won the first browser wars of the 1990s -- on Mozilla's effort to make something useful of the Netscape open-source code base. Although Mozilla succeeded in restoring competition to the browser market, and JavaScript has proved remarkably adaptable as the Web's programming language, Eich is now grappling with bigger issues than just competing against Microsoft.

Specifically, Mozilla is trying to crack the mobile OS market, first with Firefox for Android and now with the Firefox OS smartphone operating system. And it's trying to launch services, too. That puts companies like Apple and Google in Mozilla's crosshairs.

Mozilla has been looking for a new CEO since Gary Kovacs announced in April that he'd be leaving. Mozilla announced Eich's new role on Monday, when he spoke with CNET's Stephen Shankland. The following is an edited transcript.

Stephen Shankland: You've been chief technology officer at Mozilla, but now the nerd is in charge of the whole show. What's changed?

Brendan Eich: I've been doing management for a while. I was just CTO, but last January, I took over responsibility for managing engineering, and I was doing management before then. I was having all the angst and none of the authority, but now I have both.

Mozilla is made of people, and people fu is more important than code fu. I've been working with [Mozilla Foundation Executive Chairwoman] Mitchell Baker for 15 years, including 2003, when we were spinning out the Mozilla Foundation [from AOL] and bringing Firefox 1.0 to market. This is a natural progression to make best use of me and the other people at Mozilla.

Will you still have time for technology matters like wrestling with JavaScript at the TC39 standards group and shepherding Web standards at the World Wide Web Consortium?

Eich: I will not be doing a lot of that technology stuff. I tried to replace myself -- good leaders hire smart people. I feel engineering is in good hands. I have other things to do in advancing Mozilla to higher levels of discourse than just deal with HTML and JavaScript and CSS [the three broad technologies that power Web sites and, increasingly, Web apps, too].

I haven't pushed a patch in 14 months now. I feel OK about that. I'll still be there sometimes to make rain or peace in the standards bodies, but I'll have helpers who will do better than I would.

Will the CEO title give you more clout when negotiating with others in the technology domain, like Mozilla's effort a few years ago to get Microsoft to permit a full-fledged third-party browser in Windows 8's Metro mode? What new projects will you tackle with the authority of CEO?

Eich: The title carries more clout. I'll be leading all the parts of Mozilla, including the marketing effort, which we call engagement. We're already working up the stack to higher levels above HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. We announced partnerships with Unity [a game development technology company] and Epic Games' Unreal Engine 4. You'll see a lot more of that rolling forward without me needing to be involved.

The higher levels are about things like identity -- owning your own stuff on the Web, not stuck in some proprietary silo. The way the first- and second-mover advantage, they take power. People tend to get pulled into those power centers, to get signed up and monetized. A lot of users would like choice to come and go or have choice. With a browser and OS, you can start to climb up domain discourse stack to user identity and messaging and user sovereignty. When we started Firefox, we were going up against the Microsoft IE monopoly that was not good for users. But people didn't think about the cloud even though they were using browsers. For us to advance Mozilla's mission now requires us to have Firefox OS with enough adoption to matter to developers on mobile. And you have to have services, or partnerships for services, with user choice.

So we'll see more Mozilla user services?

Eich: Yes. One we've mentioned is the Mozilla Location Service. We're starting to work with the wardriving community and Stumbler apps to make a location service based on radio triangulation.

Whose location services do you use now?

Eich: We've had Google for location on desktop. Firefox OS uses Qualcomm for location and Nokia Here for map tiles.

According to analytics firm StatCounter, Firefox is holding steady in browser usage share. It's struggled to gain a foothold in the mobile market, though, which is why Firefox OS is Mozilla's top job now.
According to analytics firm StatCounter, Firefox is holding steady in browser usage share. It's struggled to gain a foothold in the mobile market, though, which is why Firefox OS is Mozilla's top job now. StatCounter

In the old days Microsoft was the competitor. Who's on Mozilla's enemies list now that you're trying to break down the walled gardens? Apple, Facebook, Google?

Eich: We don't really have an enemies list. We have frenemies everywhere. We're trying to help the people who feel owned or rented by some of the silos, but we also are fine allies to some of those.

You've been trying to give people control over how much data they share with advertisers through the Do Not Track effort, but it looks right now like that effort is toast. Will DNT ever amount to anything?

Eich: It's not toast. The idea is a timeless, good idea -- that users should have their wishes respected. We're working on the Electronic Freedom Foundation's experiments on enforce EFF on the client side [in other words, in the browser or on a computing device].

Is Firefox OS your top priority now?

Eich: I see it as the highest priority. It's like the great circus act -- spinning plates while doing back handsprings, and we are definitely turning mobile in the only way that can be really effective. The highest priority is to get volume to Firefox OS, especially the $25 phones.

To get high volumes of developers and users?

Eich: To get developer and user volume, we can go after not only smartphones at the really low end, and we can also mature upward. It's like a wedge going upwards and downwards. You already saw at Mobile World Congress that there will be better devices over time.

A year ago you planned to tackle the US market. Why did you back off that? At some point you have to take on iOS and Android more directly, not just take on markets below their price range.

Eich: That decision was a bit of ours and our partner's, Sprint. We'll get there. It's a matter of timing and focus.

What's the division of labor between you and Mitchell Baker? You've worked together for years now.

Eich: Mitchell is executive chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation, and she's chairwoman of the board, too. That's a powerful role. I've worked with her forever. Mitchell and I do have a good way of working together. Her domain is the broader work the foundation does as well as what we do inside Firefox. Most of the operationally heavy stuff is going to be me.

As CEO, you're now the money guy, too. Will Mozilla's finances be changing? [Mozilla currently makes the lion's share of its money from search ads on Google shown to people Firefox refers to the search engine.]

Eich: We're in a good place with Firefox. We have a competitive search market in the US. Our goal should be first to serve users and build good products and services and Firefox OS.