Updated: Q&A with Mozilla’s John Lilly on 10 years of Mozilla and the future of browsers

small5smaller.jpgMozilla, the maker of the free open source Firefox browser, is turning 10 years old on Monday.

More than 160 million users use Firefox, which competes with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer or Apple’s Safari. The nonprofit Mozilla, based in Mountain View, Calif., also publishes the open source Thunderbird email client. I use the beta version of Firefox 3.0. I’m happy with its speed and superior functions (like “restore session” which returns you to all of your open browser windows the next time you start your computer).

mozilla-firefox.jpgMatt Marshall and I sat down with Mozilla CEO John Lilly, who was recently promoted to the top post (our coverage). We talked about everything from the origins of Firefox to what’s wrong with Google’s Android cell phone platform. (update: the latest on Firefox 3.0 beta 5 is here)

Q: What is the organization like?
A: We are an unusual organization. I previously sold Reactivity, a venture-backed startup, to Cisco for $135 million. I was CEO. We have entrepreneurs here. We are acting like we are entrepreneurs but are going against a mission. We are owned by a nonprofit. We aren’t going public. We aren’t raising money. We aren’t making stock options. We pressed pause on our careers because this is really important. It’s exciting to have our fingers on the future of the web. We aren’t complacent.

Q: How do you do you make a nonprofit so competitive?
A: We are a hybrid organization, a nonprofit competing with products in the market. I was critical of Apple last week. I’m not worried about my salary. I’m worried about our mission of keeping the web open. People don’t know what to compare us to, like Google or the Red Cross. There is a this rise of new companies, like Craig’s List, Wikipedia, Kiva.org. They’re competing with product, but because of a mission.

Q: Have you proven at this point that open source has beaten commercial browsers?
A: [We’re trying] to not let the closed world win again. I think three-tiered [closed] systems are coming back in vogue again. Like in the old days. You got your hardware from AT&T, your software from AT&T, and the service from AT&T. That’s like the iPhone. Somebody owns the whole stack or most of the stack.

Q: Were proprietary systems ever not in vogue?
A: The Internet is not a closed stack. It lets people compete at every level. Has open won? If we think we’ve won, we’re hosed. For example, look at the iPhone. We can’t put Firefox on it. They precluded any program that interprets code like Java code or HTML. They are trying to use legal to close. The consumers will open it. Consumers will demand it.

Q: Where do you plan to go beyond computers?
A: We have mobile projects. Nokia ships a browser on their mobile tablet. We are working with more than one manufacturer. Power is shifting from the carriers to the manufacturers because of the iPhone.

small41.jpgQ: Did Opera get a headstart in this area? They are on phones and the Nintendo Wii?
A: I’m not sure I care about the Wii as a platform. People were critical of us last year, saying Opera has sewn it all up. But they won the last market. They have three times as many people as us. You have Opera browsers on the phone, but who uses it? Safari is a real Ajax-enabled browser on your phone and it lets you use your apps like Gmail. It changes the whole game. Opera won the closed, three-tiered system battles. That means you hire a huge sales force and port your software to 300 different phones.
We view the rise of Firefox through a political movement lens. It was people deciding they wanted more [user] control. Respect of privacy laws. We are more egalitarian. Our first motto was, “Take back the web.” Let it be yours…You just can’t do it yet on phones. I think that will change.

Q: Through Google’s Android?
A: Android is a closed platform too. It is run by Google with slightly more openness than Apple’s.

Q: What did Google’s Android choose as a browser?
A: They chose Webkit. So we are working more with the manufacturers now.

Q: That shuts you out of Android for good?
A: We don’t know yet. We have done a lot of performance work. Firefox 3.0 is way faster and smaller in memory footprint. We want consumers to demand Firefox because it gets them better performance.

Q: Can you talk more about the Android choice of browsers?
A: It was as technical choice. They made the decision three years ago. It got baked in. Google acquired Android when it had already made technical decisions. Now the technical details are much different. On Javascript, we are the fastest. We are half the size of Safari and less than half the size of IE in memory footprint.

Q: Google said they chose the stack and that at some point, you can layer in things and innovate on top of it.
A: This reflects old thinking. The manufacturers and carriers think they are in charge. Consumers will call the shots.

Q: Google reportedly thought there were too many flavors of Linux out there and they needed to settle it.
A: The variables in the equation are different now and we think we win.

Q: Does it logically follow if you are fast on a desktop you can be fast on mobile?
A: It is not one to one. But we believe our tests show we can be fast on mobile. We can put a mobile Firefox out by the end of the year.

Q: So your chances in mobile are stronger outside of Android?
A: We have had better luck with manufacturers who think consumers will have a voice. This is a long road. Most of the web sites work with us. Webkit doesn’t render in some languages. We have 160 million desktop users and we can provide online services that bridge. You can close your laptop, open your mobile, and all of your tabs are open and loaded because you’re sharing the same state.

Q: Why is it more secure?
A: We developed Firefox during the era of the web’s worst security state. We knew it was bad to use ActiveX. We make our code available to the world. People looking for exploits can do code analysis on the inside and that community works with us to fix the bugs. There is an antagonistic relationship between Apple, Microsoft and security researchers. We have a better relationship with the security researchers.

small31.jpgQ: Are there lingering concerns about Microsoft on antitrust?
A: Yes, they are a monopolist. They still do anti-competitive things. They are acting better. They are saying nicer words. They seem like they care more about standards and openness and interoperability. We talk to them periodically.

Q: Do you get information from them on the operating system that you need for the browser?
A: I don’t know if we are any different from anyone else. I don’t think we are singled out for exclusion of information. Microsoft does a fair amount of pretty good documentation on their APIs and the courts have pushed them to do more. I am more concerned about the distribution channels. We are effectively excluded from the No. 1 distribution channel. We rely on end-user downloads rather than shipping on OSes. They have succeed in shipping IE in a way that makes OEMs reluctant to change. That has to do with their past practices if not their current ones. I’d like to see that get better. We think courts play a role. We think they need to keep being regulated.

Q: What’s the roadmap?
A: Firefox 3.0 is coming. We’ll have an iteration 3.5 or something coming later this year probably. There will be Firefox 4.0 in a couple of years based on a revision of the Mozilla platform. We are on Mozilla 1.9 now and it will be 2.0. We are working on mobile. We are working on online services. We have three or four other projects we are spending a lot of time on.

Q: Do you think browsing is destined to be a 2-D experience?
A: I don’t think it will be a 2-D experience forever. 3-D for 3-D sake is not the way to go. You’ll see things like Second Life or CoverFlow on a Mac. It uses 2.5 D to show where you have been and what is around you. That will happen more and more.

End

small21.jpg[For novice readers or those just looking for a refresher, here’s a few questions we asked Lilly about Mozilla’s background.]

Q: Can you give us a Mozilla history?
A: Yes, we are a very badly understood organization. Our 10-year anniversary is on Monday, March 31. Bob Lisbonne was the manager in charge of the browser and mail 10 years ago. Internet Explorer was coming. He convinced Jim Barksdale, CEO of Netscape, to give away the browser for free. You had to pay $30 a year to use Netscape. A little while later, Lisbonne was staying up late. He was looking at all of the Microsoft products that Netscape competed with. He looked at the “about” boxes on the products and started counting the names of all of the Microsoft contributors. There 200 at Netscape. There were 2,500 working at Microsoft. So it was clear Netscape could never compete on resources. He thought that Linux seemed to work. So he suggested that we open source the browser. That was easier to get Barksdale to agree to than to give it away for free. That was when Mozilla, the open source browser, started. They didn’t know what it meant. There was no category of open-source consumer software. But they knew they had to do something to compete.

Q: How did it evolve under ownership changes?
A: AOL bought Netscape for $4.2 billion in 1998. Netscape didn’t do so well. In 2001-2002, AOL found it had six different flavors of browsing. It had Netscape, AOL client, Mac client, Mozilla and others. It had this Mozilla group that didn’t look right. It was a group that cared and to AOL’s credit, AOL executive Ted Leonsis let it escape. He said take the code base, keep the trademark, and we’ll give you $2 million. Mitch Kapor also put money in. That was how the Mozilla Foundation started. Most people had forgotten about that browser. They had given up hope about that browser, with hundreds of thousands of users.

mozie.jpgQ: What year was that?
A: 2003. Mozilla didn’t have any way to make money. They kept going. They knew they had a mission to keep the web open and participatory. It was eight people. Within six months, they decided to stop putting resources into the old suite of browsers and stop doing the integrated suites. They just started to do stand-alone packages. Now we have 15,000 to 20,000 people testing our nightly builds today. They released Firefox 1.0 in November, 2004. It got 10 million downloads in the first month. That was a shocking number. I joined in 2005.

Q: So you were up against Internet Explorer?
A: IE6 shipped in 2001 and they didn’t update it for six years. Apple shipped its Safari browser in 2003. They had former Netscape people there.

Q: When did Firefox start proving itself?
A: Well, it had the 10 million downloads in the first month. Microsoft stopped changing its browser in 2001. But the web didn’t stop. The web got scarier in terms of security. The web was this mess of Trojan horses. Our first job was to unbreak the web. Pop-ups were huge problems. CERT (the Computer Emergency Response Team) said it recommended a different browser than IE because of security. Microsoft had 98 percent of the market and then they disbanded the team. The web changed and we had integrated search in the browser. Now that is huge.

Q: How did you develop from there?
A: In 2001, Larry Page and Sergei Brin of Google came over and asked if they could help. That came after we put the search feature in there. We saw interesting things like how we always had these multiple web pages open. The web had changed from link to link. It was surfing for things you need and having things open all the time.

Q: How did Mozilla become self-sustaining?
A: We cut search revenue deals with Yahoo! and Google and others. That was successful beyond everyone’s imagination.

Q: Embarrassingly so, based on the numbers we’ve seen.
A: We saw it was really good. User gets a better feature. Mozilla gets a revenue stream. Yahoo! and Google get more traffic. Issues around the nonprofit status came up. We found we had to find a way to pay taxes on all of this revenue. Today we are 150 people. We have people in 20 countries and will ship in 50 languages. The coolest thing is that Firefox 3.0 is a really good product. About 40 percent of it was written by people who don’t work for Mozilla. We have scaled and scaled the contributors.