Q&A: Mitchell Baker on the Future of Firefox

At least 18 percent of you already know what Firefox is, because you're using it to read this interview. (Or so says the statistics engine behind Newsweek.com, which tracks things like that.) For the unfamiliar, Firefox is a free Web browser that is built by coders around the world whose open-source work is organized by the Mozilla Corp. and its nonprofit parent, the Mozilla Foundation. Introduced in 2004 as an alternative to Microsoft's ubiquitous, but buggy, Internet Explorer, Firefox has been a force for innovation in the browser category, with improvements such as tabbed browsing and plug-ins that work on any operating system. Commissions from search engines appear to keep Mozilla awash in revenue for now ($75 million in 2007; the foundation has not released 2008 data), although the vast majority of that comes from a company, Google, that now has its own competing browser, Chrome. Mozilla's plans for 2009 include a new version of Firefox, which will focus on user-interface polish; an overhaul of Thunderbird, its e-mail client; and taking Firefox mobile. Mitchell Baker, the Mozilla Foundation's chairwoman, spoke to NEWSWEEK's Nick Summers and Barrett Sheridan about the challenges of making a browser for mobile phones, adapting to a socially networked universe and what she really thinks of Chrome and Internet Explorer. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You're competitive on laptops and desktops, but what are your plans for going mobile?
BAKER: We have a version of Firefox for mobile devices, codenamed Fennec. That's a type of fox—South American, I think, with giant ears. The thing about the mobile space is it's very fragmented, with different operating systems and handset makers and so on. What we've been able to do with Firefox on the desktop is unify that fragmentation—on the desktop there's Windows, Linux and Apple, and we built one Firefox, and it runs on any of them. That's a big accomplishment. There's no one else out there that's got a cross-platform browser like we do. We'd like to be able to do something similar in the mobile space as well, because it's hard for users—if you choose a handset, you [are limited by] what the handset can run, and then also by what the carrier permits. We hope to reduce that fragmentation over time. We're still in the early stages.

All those standards—it sounds onerous!
It is! Trying to develop in the mobile space today is difficult. People do it because the potential is so clear, and we're living more and more on mobile. But that fragmentation—it's hard for users, but it's also extremely hard for developers. It's hard to be innovative, because when you start to build some kind of Web app, you have to pick your phone, and you have to pick it a long time in advance, and then you have to get the phone maker and the carrier interested. You make a bet—a very expensive bet—very early on in the process, that this is the right phone and that they'll accept it. You can have a nice product, but if you made the wrong bet, then you're stuck. You have to redevelop it again. That's a giant drag on innovation. We want to make it easier for developers to innovate, and easier for each of us to look up and say, "Wow, that's really what I want. Let me add it to my phone."

Is that an early recognition of the day when most people will be accessing the Web on mobiles?
Yes. If we pay attention to it now and do the right things, we can end up with one Web, when your mobile content and experience isn't separate and hard to integrate with your desktop experience … Your data should be able move. If you're a Firefox user, you get accustomed to your history, and the URL bar, and finding things. That should be available on your mobile phone as well. That requires the mobile client, Fennec, as well as some mobile services. We have an early version of a product called Weave that will allow syncing between machines and, hopefully, sharing with friends.

So if I search for a bar on my desktop, and then I hit the street, my phone will know?
That's the goal.

Will we ever see social utilities like Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook integrated into Firefox itself?
The browser serves so many different people, with so many different needs. If we did that a few years ago, it would have been MySpace. Today it's Facebook. Who knows what the right organization will be? Also, we try to be a platform or, in more general terms, a framework in which many businesses can succeed. We're not trying to be a market maker for a particular business.

Do you Twitter? Were you an early adopter?
I do, and no. Actually, on both MySpace and Facebook, I started out under a different name [an alias]. But that turned out just to be too awkward. I have a personal life and a professional life, and there's no way to separate them; for a while I tried, but no one could find me. Now I try to moderate that in other ways.

Mozilla depends on people donating their time and expertise for free. How does a worsening economy and unemployment rate affect your product? The guy who used to code for you brilliantly in his spare time may now be waiting tables.
There are a lot of different possibilities. That's one. In that case, we're going to see fewer contributions from that person. There are also other people who previously had jobs that took all of their time, but now have more time. Earning your living always comes first. But there's a fair amount of satisfaction in [working for Mozilla]—this is hard for people who aren't technically motivated to internalize. But if you're a programmer, it is like being a writer or a dancer; it just has to happen somehow. Especially if you don't have a job that's providing fulfillment in your technical expertise, there is a lot of reward to working on a very smart and demanding community that will respect you, and will give you leadership and authority based on what you do.

We have not been directly affected nearly as much as most other organizations. We don't live in the market. We have no shares; we don't have investors looking for a financial return. Our stakeholders are looking for a "quality of Internet" return. That provides some stability in a time like this.

Most of our revenues come out of ads and search; if ad rates go down, that will affect us indirectly. On the other hand, if people are home more, maybe they'll use the browser more. You can't have a change of this magnitude in the economic system and not be affected, but we don't know exactly what it'll look like yet.

What does Mozilla think about Chrome, Google's browser?
They certainly have resources that dwarf many of ours. Except our community. So I expect we will see a good product out of Google … [But] if Google were to end up with enough market share that it could control both the client, the way human beings interact with the Internet, and all the services that Google offers, then they have control of both ends of the system, and at that point, I think we need to look pretty carefully.

So Google is the biggest source of revenue to Mozilla, and yet could be your biggest competitor.
I think IE will be our biggest competitor for a long time. But in a certain space, for technical mindshare and new ideas, absolutely, [Google's] our biggest competitor. So yes. Although that is probably less unusual in the Valley than in other industries. There's a phrase, "co-opetition"—cooperation, competition: co-opetition. It's a very complex relationship.

Say something nice about Internet Explorer.
[Thirteen-second pause.] Well, I'd say Microsoft has reconstituted Internet Explorer development, and the really abusive days of IE6 seem to be—they're making progress. Can I really not say anything nice? I'm trying. IE4 was a nice product, but that was a long time ago.