Mozilla has a problem. The dilemma is Firefox, its core product that we all credit for turning the modern web browser into what it is today. The browser's role is declining and platforms are beginning to rule the world. But Mozilla has an idea.
Mozilla has been standing still far too long. In a very pessimistic view, you could say that Microsoft has been run over by Google and Apple trains that are carrying the Internet masses from the old Internet to a new Internet - an Internet that we so often describe as walled gardens. Mozilla has a train as well, but it is a slow train that can't carry as many passengers and few people know about that train and its arrival and departure times.
Only if you have been vacationing in the Gobi desert for the past three years you may be able to say that you don't know about the changes our Internet is facing. The open Internet with its variety of websites is moving to a much more app- and services-focused model that has been fueled by the success of mobile devices, most notably iOS and Android products. If Apple and Google have their way, a future consumer Internet will be app-driven and mostly comprised of locked down environments that can be controlled by them. The motivations range from Apple's tight ecosystem to Google's advertising revenues that are leveraged by a product environment that promotes the use of Google products and locks other out.
Add to that equation Microsoft, which is trying to catch up with Windows 8 and establish a similar model next year and you, as a consumer, have a choice between three great environments. Of course, there are more options, but do we really count on WebOS to succeed in this high-rollers game? Or Blackberry? Let's not be silly. We don't.
One of the more silent implications of this whole game, and an implication we often forget to notice is the web browser - the very software we use to navigate the Internet, but a software that many of us don't use anymore on smartphones and a software may be turned into irrelevance as apps become more important. In a likely scenario, the browser will be an enabler of apps, but it may be turned into an occasional app, as it is the case on your phone today. One of the big questions is how Mozilla will react to this big app battle? Can its open web app idea really compete with Apple? How can it use its 400 million users? Will it have to surrender its user base, million by million?
If you have read my columns before, you may remember that I have been arguing since the beginning of time that Mozilla will need a platform itself - a powerful platform that maintains a reason for its users to stay and not switch to Chrome OS, where the only choice is Chrome, not to iOS, where the obvious choice is Safari and Firefox is unavailable, and not to Windows 8, which will pitch IE10 as the best browser. Mozilla's Seabird phone was probably the best indication that Mozilla should build more than a just browser. Boot-to-Gecko was a first sign that Mozilla will expand beyond Firefox with an operating system targeted at smart devices: If Mozilla gets it right, it can squarely position B2G as an open alternative to iOS, Android and Windows Phone. Given its reputation, Mozilla may be the only player left that can challenge the big 3 and keep their feet on the ground.
However, Mozilla isn't stopping at B2G. Chairman Mitchell Baker revealed that Mozilla will also be building non-Gecko products. Those products will be focusing on what Baker calls a platform for your "Internet Life" and help users manage their information in the distributed Internet. It enables Mozilla to go places where Firefox can't go, for example iOS. It will help Mozilla to make a case for Firefox in places it is being denied access to. It is a platform that is complementing Firefox in a way that will help the Mozilla to evolve into a platform.
Of course, if Mozilla is being denied access to iOS today, what would motivate Apple to allow access in the future? Mozilla says it is the openness of the idea and the technology that will make people want to use such a platform. The idea here is basically to attract people to a technology that will give them more power and ultimately more control over their information and technology they use the Internet. In this strategy, an Internet Life platform has to be seen in combination with B2G and Firefox and, in such a case, Mozilla may be able to create a very powerful open alternative to those products that drive corporate interests. Consider it Firefox all over again, just on a much larger scale.
This time, Mozilla isn't going just against Microsoft. This time, Mozilla needs to compete with Google, Apple, Microsoft and most likely Facebook as well. Its products need to be compelling and powerful enough to make an open platform the more attractive alternative to Google's and Apple's walled gardens. Mozilla can't consider its mission a war against the world, but it is a massive undertaking that will include confrontation and challenge Mozilla to the core. It will require Mozilla to make much more efficient use of its resources than Apple and Google do, as it cannot match any of their budgets. Mozilla will have to be driven by its ideals and its talent. If it returns to its roots, it has every chance to succeed and we consumers should understand that Mozilla's balancing forced are important to keep the industry and consumer interests in an open web in a healthy balance.
Whether Mozilla likes it or not, its ideas have to move against the current global trend. Mozilla may make more enemies. However, the participation of Mozilla is likely to drive innovation, and a choice of an open web platform and even an open mobile platform that is tied to the Mozilla brand is an option I would welcome anyday.