Mozilla's Big Comeback
Published 15:00, 14 November 12
Mozilla is now something of a venerable institution in the open source world - the first release of browser code by Netscape took place back in 1998. Even Firefox is eight years old, which seems pretty incredible.
Given that unusual longevity, it's no wonder that the project has seen its ups and down. I wrote about a particularly dark period a couple of years ago, when people thought that Firefox and Mozilla had peaked in terms of their influence. Six months later, I was reporting on the plans of Mozilla's new CEO; there was clearly a lot starting to happen, but how would it pan out?
Now we are beginning to see, and I'd say that things have gone pretty well. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that Mozilla is enjoying one of its most successful phases ever. That manifests itself in a variety of different ways.
For example, after falling to third place in the rankings for browser market share, Firefox has now pulled ahead of Chrome again. This sector is incredibly dynamic at the moment, so it wouldn't surprise me to see Chrome fight back at some point, but the point is that Firefox is essentially holding its own against a browser that is being pushed quite hard by one of the top online companies in the world.
Mozilla has also started producing much more new open source software. One sub-project that has been running for a while is its Firefox OS, which will offer a truly open mobile software environment (well, at the top of the stack, at least):
Firefox OS enables the Open Web as a platform for mobile devices. We’re making innovation possible by driving the development of new Web standards.
Using HTML5 and the new Mozilla-proposed standard APIs, developers everywhere will be able to create amazing experiences and apps. Developers will no longer need to learn and develop against platform-specific native APIs.
More recently it has launched Shumway:
a HTML5 standalone (no additional native code needed) technology that displays (work in progress) Flash content (SWF).
Alongside that, there is Popcorn Maker:
Popcorn Maker makes it easy to enhance, remix and share web video. Using Popcorn Maker’s simple drag and drop interface, you can add live content to any video — photos, maps, links, social media feeds and more. All right from your browser.
Popcorn Maker is part of a larger project called Mozilla Webmaker:
Mozilla Webmaker wants to help you make something amazing with the web. We’ve got new tools for you to use, projects to help you get started, and a global community of creators — educators, filmmakers, journalists, developers, youth — all making and learning together.
The goal: help millions of people move from using the web to making the web. As part of Mozilla’s non-profit mission, we want to help the world increase their understanding of the web, take greater control of their online lives, and create a more web literate planet.
Mozilla's Thimble App makes it ridiculously simple to create and share your own web pages. Write and edit HTML and CSS right in your browser. Instantly preview your work. Then host and share your finished projects with a single click.
And the charmingly-named X-Ray Goggles:
The X-Ray Goggles make it easy to see and mess around with the building blocks that make up the web. Activate the Goggles to inspect the code behind any web page, from the New York Times to your own blog. Then remix elements with a single click, swapping in your own text, images and more.
I think this idea of turning Web users into Web makers is crucially important - it's hacking, but in a more approachable form. Indeed, once people have tasted the delights of this kind of open coding creativity, some may well move on to the hard stuff.
That is presumably also the hope for yet another major Mozilla project, this time one that has a distinctly UK focus:
Mozilla together with Nesta and Nominet Trust are creating a new fund and umbrella group focused on teaching digital making, web literacy and tech.
Our goal: build a “big tent” in the UK, and invite other organizations and community groups to join us. Together we’re offering financial support, shared resources, and the opportunity to collaborate and learn together.
£225,000 are available in the first round of funding to help support organizations and community groups working on digital making in the UK.
As I and many others have noted before, one of the reasons that open source fares so badly in this country is because it has been locked out of the UK educational system through a series of poor decisions about what should be taught in IT lessons. What we have had for a decade and a half is pretty mindless learning of how to use Microsoft Office. That has not only tightened the lock-in of proprietary software throughout education, business and government, it has also denied children the chance to learn about the joys of real computing, condemning them instead to suffer the tedium of trivial secretarial skills.
Although the UK government has made some noises about moving the teaching of computing in the same direction, I'll believe it when I see it. That's what makes Mozilla's new initiative so important: it is trying to make things happen now, not just talk about it and earn a few political brownie points. The sums available are small, but I'm sure that the enthusiasm of the Mozilla community will more than make up for that.
And if you don't believe me, take a look at the pictures and videos from the Mozilla Festival that took place last weekend in London: the excitement there is palpable. Clearly, it's a great time to be a Mozillan: I can't wait to see what they do next.