Mozilla under fire: 10 questions for the next CEO

Whoever becomes Mozilla's permanent boss must figure out how to promote the Firefox technology, decide whether reliance on Google is a good thing, and set the right balance between idealism and pragmatism.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes 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
9 min read

ZTE Open C running Firefox OS 1.3
ZTE Open C running Firefox OS 1.3 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Brendan Eich's reign as Mozilla's chief executive officer lasted just nine days, after his opposition to gay marriage alienated many people in and around the open-source community. Now the nonprofit organization is searching for a permanent replacement, someone who will shift attention away from the controversy and re-establish trust with the users and developers it relies on to promote the group's Firefox browser and Firefox OS mobile operating system.

The new CEO must also direct an organization potentially ripe for change as Mozilla seeks to regain its balance after being criticized for its handling of the Eich episode.

Above all, Mozilla's next boss will be tasked with convincing the technology community that Mozilla's mission -- to ensure openness on the Web, protect privacy, and give people control over their own data online -- is still worth fighting for.

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Founded in 1998, Mozilla secured its reputation by using its browser to enliven Web programming and push the world beyond Microsoft's 2001-era Internet Explorer 6. Now it's got a new goal: making it easier for people to move among Google's Android, Apple's iOS, and any other mobile operating system without having to worry about losing files, videos, photos, contact lists, apps, and all the other data when they switch from one neighborhood, or ecosystem of interlocked technology, to the next.

Eich, who co-founded Mozilla, was the man behind the mission. Now Mozilla is trying to move on. Chris Beard, Mozilla's former marketing chief, was named interim CEO April 14, and the nonprofit's board has begun a search for a permanent chief. It won't say how the search is going, or whether candidates will be asked to detail their views on gay marriage.

But whoever takes charge must tackle some challenging questions about strategy and the future. Here are 10 of them.

1. How do you get people to really care about Mozilla's mission?

Firefox served a need: It answered Microsoft's complacency about evolving its Internet Explorer browser. It gave hope to developers who wanted to build websites extending beyond what was possible in 2001. It showed what open-source software could accomplish. As a result, Firefox attracted a community of loyal fans who helped promote the browser when it was released in 2004.

But how many people really care about Mozilla's deeper mission beyond building a browser -- the openness, the user control? It's hard to get people passionate about such amorphous concepts.

Meanwhile, it's harder for Mozilla to use Firefox to achieve its goals. Rival browsers -- Google Chrome, Apple Safari, and Microsoft's IE -- are much more competitive in terms of features and performance, and many developers are turning to mobile apps that bypass the Web.

Mozilla's peculiar organizational structure -- a corporation nestled within a nonprofit foundation -- doesn't make it any easier for outsiders to grasp. But it has to find a way to resonate the way it did with Firefox a decade ago.

One suggestion: Mozilla can make it vividly clear to people just what they lose with the closed ecosystems Apple is building around its iOS mobile operating system and Google is building around its Android mobile OS. Want to watch that movie you bought on iTunes if you switch to Android? Want to play that game you bought through Google Play if you switch to iOS? Mozilla can show people the only option is to pay for it again.

2. Does the Brendan Eich CEO debacle mean it's time to dial down Mozilla's crusading rhetoric?

Mozilla is accustomed to taking the moral high ground in its mission, competition, and operations. Heck, it even has a manifesto. But the gay-marriage controversy sparked by Eich, who co-founded Mozilla and served as its CTO for the last eight years, showed what life is like on the receiving end of moral outrage. After Eich concluded he couldn't lead Mozilla under the circumstances and resigned, critics accused Mozilla of squelching free speech.

Is it time to shift from principles toward pragmatism? The open-source movement has shown that quasi-religious fervor can repel some audiences even if it attracts others. In contrast, a more moderate stance centered on the practical benefits of working cooperatively can be effective without losing community spirit. There are precedents -- for example when it accommodated the H.264 video compression technology despite patent encumbrances antithetical to Mozilla.

3. Is it time to bite the bullet and release an iOS version of Firefox?

Apple supplies a special, somewhat restricted browser engine for any third-party iOS program that needs to show Web content or run Web apps on its iOS mobile operating system, which powers the iPhone and iPad. Apple prohibits others from using their own browser engines, including Mozilla's current Gecko and next-gen Servo. Google chose to use Apple's supplied WebKit engine for its iOS version of its Chrome browser, and Opera did the same with its new Coast browser. iOS remains popular, and a WebKit-based Firefox could give Mozilla a foothold there.

A source familiar with Mozilla's history said it decided against the idea years ago. But maybe it's time to re-evaluate, especially now that Apple's Safari will lift a significant performance limit for third-party browsers on the forthcoming iOS 8.

4. How will Mozilla take on Google's Chrome?

Internet Explorer turned out to be the easy browser to conquer. Sure, it had more than 90 percent market share a decade or so ago, after Microsoft won the first browser wars. But it was also a fat, stationary target: Microsoft had put IE development on ice, making it easier for Firefox's performance, user interface, and security advantages to shine.

Chrome is a harder target. It comes from a company that cares passionately about Web services and performance. Google is pushing the frontier of Web programming as fast as it can and has colossal Web properties of its own that dovetail neatly with whatever technologies it chooses to build into Chrome. StatCounter -- an analytics firm that tracks Web usage with a focus on browsers activity -- shows Chrome as king of the PC browser heap with 43 percent of usage to Firefox's 19 percent. How will Mozilla answer the challenge?

5. How do you get Firefox OS into rich countries?

Mozilla has made a credible, if as-yet unproven case, that its Firefox OS will succeed in very cost-sensitive markets. T-Mobile, Telefonica, and other carriers are bringing lower-end phones to places like Poland, Venezuela, Brazil, and Hungary, but the real low-budget push will begin later this year in places like Indonesia and India with a $25 Firefox OS phone with just 128 megabytes of memory that Mozilla says will be sold in bins at the corner store. Materials costs are higher for Android-based devices, which today need a minimum of 512 megabytes of memory. Even if Firefox OS catches on in budget-constrained markets, Mozilla will have tremendous difficulty in wealthier areas where iOS and Android are in power.

In the past first quarter of 2014, Android accounted for 78 percent and iOS 18 percent of the 290 million smartphones shipped, according to analyst firm IDC. Google and Apple's app stores, respectively, each distribute more than a million apps.

6. What if Firefox OS's low-end market weakens its leverage?

Among mobile operating systems, iOS is tops in user activity measurements like app downloads and e-commerce purchases despite the fact that Android phones outsell iPhone. For example, iPhones today account for 22 percent of smartphone Web usage compared with 26 percent for Android phones, StatCounter figures show, even though Android phones outsold iPhones by three to one in the first quarter according to analyst firm Gartner.

Firefox OS is aiming for an even lower-end market, which means it could have relevance problems. Customers buying $25 Firefox OS phones are likely to use them more like feature phones -- basic models limited to built-in apps only. They'll have less money to spend on premium subscriptions with lots of data. And they'll often be limited to 2G networks that are much slower than the 3G and 4G networks US consumers enjoy; faster network speeds generally means customers do more with those networks.

And less activity means app developers would have less incentive to support Firefox OS. That in turn means Web standards related to the mobile OS won't be as relevant or as likely to catch on. Bottom line: Mozilla will have a harder time using Web apps to provide a more open alternative to the relatively closed mobile ecosystems of Google and Apple.

7. Are you worried that Google is your sugar daddy?

In 2012, Mozilla reported revenue of $311 million, enough to fund a lot of programmers. Google supplies the vast majority of those funds by sharing search-ad revenue with companies such as Mozilla that send the Web searches to Google in the first place. Mozilla gets money from similar deals with Yandex, Amazon, Microsoft, and others.

But for now it relies on Google.

So far, it doesn't look like Mozilla has had trouble standing up to its Silicon Valley neighbor. It's resisted Google's attempts to expand Web programming by introducing its own technologies to counter Google Dart and Native Client. And "frenemy" relations are a fixture of today's computing world.

But Mozilla is trying to break the Android ecosystem lock, and Mozilla's CEO will have to decide how wise it is to rely on one of its biggest targets. A further risk: Mozilla could end up profiting directly from sending its users to Google advertising programs Mozilla itself doesn't like.

Google Dart logo
Google Dart logo Google

8. What will you do if Dart gets popular?

Some at Google think the company's Dart programming language is a better alternative to JavaScript, the most popular language. But Mozilla has shunned Dart on the grounds that fragmenting Web programming poses many problems. So far it's an academic issue because no browser runs Dart programs directly; they must first be converted into JavaScript. But Google wants to include Dart support directly in Chrome. What if it proves substantially faster, and programmers indeed find it easier to write complex Web code with Dart? Mozilla may have to rethink its position -- something that might be easier now that Eich, who invented JavaScript and helped advance it, isn't working for Mozilla anymore.

9. Should you try harder to resurrect the Do Not Track effort?

Mozilla rose to the Federal Communications Commission's challenge to find a way to let people on the Web tell advertisers and publishers not to track them, the same way they can join the Do Not Call list to bar telemarketing by phone. Even though advertisers, privacy advocates, and Mozilla began a debate over a Do Not Track standard, the process has been marked more by stalemate than progress. Options for the future include throwing in the towel, taking a less cooperative stance to give consumers control over their data, and of course trying to find a compromise.

If Mozilla succeeds in building industry and user enthusiasm for the Do Not Track effort, it could recapture some of the goodwill Mozilla lost in tech circles. The new CEO could have his or her first public victory with a sound Do Not Track proposal.

10. Can you fight Apple, Google and Microsoft's ecosystems without becoming an ecosystem?

Mozilla has taken some early but significant steps toward building its own ecosystem with a mobile operating system, app store, and services. For example, it's launched an identity program that lets people sync Firefox settings and use the Firefox Marketplace for finding, buying, and installing Firefox OS apps. But identity and app stores are at the heart of the iOS and Android ecosystems that Mozilla is trying to crack open. The Web as a foundation is more open than the programming interfaces of Android and iOS. But if Mozilla wants to run an ecosystem smoothly, a tight grip can help, and all the revenue from apps and services can be alluring.

The risk is probably worth it, but Mozilla has to make sure it doesn't become too much like the companies whose lock-in it seeks to undermine.