Firefox, Linux and the future of the web

Catching up with Mozilla Europe's Tristan Nitot

Meet the Mozilla man

Tristan Nitot started working for Netscape in 1997, and was one of the first volunteers to work on the Mozilla project that rose out of Netscape's ashes.

He started Mozilla Europe (he's now president of that organisation) and has seen the birth, growth and worldwide success of Firefox from the inside – so who better to ask about the future of the project, how its guiding philosophy chimes with that of Linux and why the folks at Mozilla welcome the competition from Google's mighty Chrome.

He sat down with Linux Format to have a chat.

Linux Format: Could you briefly describe the Mozilla community for us? Most users are happy with the software and don't think about the people behind it.

Tristan Nitot: The Mozilla community is a very energetic, passionate group. It seems to be getting bigger all the time: every year we need bigger facilities for our meetups!

Like most communities, there is an international element, where people communicate in English, and sometimes French or Spanish – at least in Europe – and there are local communities who are especially active in their own region, have their own site, and their own meetups, and will usually drive localisation for their language or locale.

Equally, there are many people involved at Mozilla who probably don't feel an affiliation to a particular regional community, but to the global project. That's the beauty of the internet. The community covers quite a range of interests.

We have a lot of web developers who are very active inside Mozilla, a lot of FLOSS hackers and a lot of open culture activists too. At our core is a shared belief in the public benefit of the internet: an internet that is transparent, open, international, shared and participatory.

That probably describes the Mozilla community the best: participatory.

LXF: How have you seen the landscape of the browser wars change over the years?

TN: It evolved from the 90s from a duopoly (Netscape vs Microsoft) to a scary monopoly by Microsoft. Innovation totally stopped back then, and if you weren't using a Windows computer, your experience of the web was likely to be quite inferior.

This was quite depressing, since we are – even today – in the early days of the internet, and tons of things remain to be invented. It's only when Firefox started to take massive market share from Internet Explorer that Microsoft decided to reinvest into Internet Explorer and start to support more open standards.

Now things are looking a lot better for the future of the web, as users have a choice of browsers and innovation is here. I don't think it is a coincidence that the development of the web has coincided with more choice in the desktop operating system market.

LXF: Where do you feel Firefox fits into the current landscape of browsers today?

TN: The browser is what represents us online. It's the piece of software that knows the most about you. This is why you need to have a web browser that is secure and built by an organisation you can trust.

Mozilla – which is an online community led by a public benefit organisation – is uniquely positioned to deliver such a browser, independent and secure, yet very easy to use and of course customisable.

LXF: What can we expect to see in future releases from the Firefox stable?

TN: Performance, innovation and customisation. The upcoming Firefox 4 is very fast and offers things that make it easier and more productive to browse the web.

A few things I love about Firefox 4 are: a new theme which leaves more space for the content; the notion of "App tabs" so that web applications such as your webmail are always visible in the Tab bar; and Panorama, a feature that enables me to visually organise my dozens of tabs.

We're also close to finally implementing support for HTML5 and a few other related open standards, and Sync (which started as the Weave project) is included in Firefox by default.

LXF: How is Mozilla embracing the mobile market?

TN: Bringing Firefox to mobile phones is the next step towards fulfilling Mozilla's mission of providing access to the web for everyone, regardless of device or location. Additionally, Mozilla aims to provide a rich platform for developers to create compelling content and innovative apps.

Firefox is fast, secure and customisable: something that most mobile browser don't really offer. Firefox mobile will also syncs with the Firefox on your desktop. In addition to our work on Maemo/MeeGo, we have just released Firefox 4 beta for Android, our first version for Android phones.

We're investing heavily in this market: Mobile is the future of browsing and Android is a growing market and a platform that enables us to develop and offer a full-featured browser!

LXF: There has been criticism in the past that Mozilla doesn't care about Linux so much these days. What is the current position on Linux from Mozilla?

TN: Our vision for the web is that it is a truly interoperable platform: that it is a good measure of our success if you can experience the web as well on Linux as you can on a proprietary operating system. This is what the browser wars were about, after all.

And while the web is winning today, we're never going to be complacent about that. And we've been investing in the GNU/Linux market since day one.

Linux is important for us for a number of reasons: our missions align, many of our community members run Linux, and Android and MeeGo/Maemo, the phone markets on which we focus, are Linux derivatives.

LXF: In recent months the browser of choice for many Linux users has been Chromium. What do you think of Chromium and how it compares to Firefox?


TN: Chromium is a very good product, but its guiding philosophy is very different from Firefox. Following the Linux philosophy, Firefox tries to use the libraries that are already in your system (XRender, Pango) and we contribute in order to improve these libraries.

Chromium, on the other hand, is statically built against its own libraries. This allows Chromium to be slightly faster but uses more memory, and in many cases Google's coding investments in these libraries are less beneficial to the Linux ecosystem.

When you want to sync your browsing history between several browsers, several options are available. With Chromium, you could sync via your Google account. We at Mozilla consider that your browsing history is yours and should remain private. While data has to be stored on a server to be synced, our solution is to encrypt everything on the client-side before sending it to the Mozilla server. This way, Mozilla cannot data-mine your data.

Furthermore, our server is open source, so you can install and run your own instance of the service, should you want to. We've made very significant progress in terms of performance with Firefox 4, and we offer key differentiators in terms of privacy and extensibility. And this is the world we want to be in: competition is good.

LXF: How has Mozilla changed as an organisation over the years?

TN: The biggest change is probably that we are now financially sustainable and have reached significant market share, especially in Europe. For example, we're really close to 50% of the market in Germany and Poland, with an average of 33% in Europe.

This translates into being taken seriously as an important part of 'the web' and gives us the chance to influence future developments. And this leads me to the aspects that have not changed: Mozilla continues to be a community of people who want the open web to succeed.

We want it to be beneficial to individuals, and we all plan to be like this for a very long time.

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