The first time I met Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, he was screwing around with a first-person shooter.
He was all-in. He was geeking out. His enthusiasm was contagious, but he never made a pitch or used a single buzzword.
In short, he was the opposite of your typical tech exec. So how did this unabashed nerd become the chief executive of the Mozilla Corporation, maker of the Firefox browser, parent of the Firefox OS for mobile phones, and general champion of the web?
To hear Eich tell it, it’s all the board’s fault.
“There was a CEO search,” he told me. “They looked at around 100 candidates and interviewed around 25. That didn’t lead to anyone being hired. We also had an internal candidate, Jay Sullivan. The board didn’t pick him; I wish I could tell you why.
“I was asked to put my hat in, and at first I didn’t want to. But now I’m it.”
There’s an odd dissonance to his story. Other sources say three board members resigned over moral differences with Eich (Mozilla PR says those board members left for unrelated reasons). But resignations or none, Eich is ‘it.’
So what’s he going to do now? “We have a long history of technical excellence that’s all web. And it’s hard,” he said. “You can’t just acquire some proprietary software startup.”
Instead, he said, he’ll be managing the talent he has, recruiting more talent to join Mozilla’s growing ranks, and figuring out where Mozilla’s technological might would best be used.
The biggest, buzziest bee in his bonnet right now is privacy.
“I was at this seminar at Harvard on privacy tactics around user data,” he said.”This is important as we’re starting to make smartphones … You’re talking about the ‘API to me.’ How do we keep data from being pulled out and turned into a commodity in someone else’s walled garden?”
While companies such as Apple and Google have a distinct first-mover advantage in the smartphone game, Eich thinks Mozilla has an important ace up its sleeve.
“If we put the user first, unionize them to get very high-scale collective bargaining power against the powers that be, then they can own their own data. … There’s an important turning that’s going to happen over the next five years. If users can stick up for their rights and avoid traps like DRM, there are aspects of user sovereignty that are Mozilla’s to lead.”
Giving users more control, more sovereignty, is something Mozilla “can’t step back from,” Eich said.
“Suppose we get 35 million Firefox OS users this month. They’ll have some ability to consume apps, and they’ll have some user data, maybe pictures, but also the expressed intents. Then that data is theirs, and you should be able to keep it private or control how it’s monetized. That is our mission. We can’t avoid that.
“And it’s Mozilla, we always do the hard thing,” he said, following the remark with a weary but genuine laugh.
Mozilla has always been known for its willingness and ability to keep users safe — protect them from black-hat hackers, protect them from corporate spying. Under Eich, that commitment stands to be strengthened and renewed as he works with the EFF and similar organizations.
And of course, that commitment becomes even more important as technology grows its footprint around the globe.
Eich is counting on trust to win over the “next billion” smartphone users — and he’s also counting on Mozilla’s principles of diversity and inclusion. Mozilla will fail if it fails at mobile. Its mobile efforts will fail if it focuses on the saturated markets of Europe and North America. The foundation/corporation’s future lies in India, Colombia, and the Sudan.
“As we’re going into places like Indonesia, people have a totally different life than people in Silicon Valley, and we have to learn from that,” he said.
“We have ambitious goals as we go into new markets with Firefox OS,” Eich said. “In a few more months, we hope to get out the $25 phone. It’s meant as the first smartphone for the emerging market. It’s not just that we provide more value than the [aging and unsupported] Gingerbread phones, but we’re also getting people off feature phones and onto their first web-connected device.”
Not only will the cheap Firefox OS-powered devices be bigger, brighter, and better. They’ll also have a goldmine of locally built applications made with simple web technologies — and created by people already living in those regions, acutely aware of their neighbors’ problems, needs, and desires.
“It really matters to let people have their own, for example, local music service,” said Eich.
Or local measles-tracking app — a use case that came to Mozilla’s attention when it partnered with Medic Mobile, a phone-centric medical service operating in Africa.
As Eich put it, “Over time, the price advantage goes away, so we want to base our value on local flavor and user privacy, user sovereignty. Users need to know that they are not being bought and sold to pay for the web.”
In addition to Firefox OS, Eich is planning big things for Firefox proper. As part of his proposed reorganization, he’s going to “give Firefox more attention, innovating in ways that can benefit users rather than just in ads.”
One example is in web technologies and standards, the kinds of standards that can help others build excellent and innovative applications for the web. The games initiative is one example of how that plays out in practice.
“The other thing is trust,” said Eich.
“If Firefox can be trusted to not sacrifice privacy or to use better security, we will turn that on until it hurts. We work with the Electronic Frontier Foundation on this, too, to earn even more trust. It’s about having your data in a way that users understand, and having it in such a way that doesn’t make any money for ourselves.”
The number-one player to beat in the browser game right now is Chrome. Eich admitted that the Chrome interface is an excellent one — it’s a browser he uses all the time, he said.
“Neutralizing Chrome is challenging, but I think we can do it,” he continued. “We’re getting closer. It’s our goal to reach.
“Google tends to do things that are more — they don’t want to wait for a standards body, so they’ll do something really hard like Dart; it’s very hard to standardize. We have a pure web play and good friends in standards bodies, so we can take these steps together. … We want to neutralize them on the things any big tech org can do, and we beat them on trust.”
We chat about online-anonymity project Tor (he strongly supports it). We have a fascinating moment around WebRTC (he thinks it can bring the web to parity with native chat/video/etc. apps). And then it’s time for Eich to go into his next set of meetings.
At the end of our time, we’ve spent the vast majority of it talking about tech and where Eich wants to take Mozilla. For a moment, we’ve left our differences at the door and come together as technologists.
“It’s important that Mozilla be different,” he says, “to have this inclusiveness that brings people together. And it may not seem like it, but I think I can do that.
“I have to in order to keep Mozilla thriving.”