Listening to Aza Raskin talk about the future of the web makes you realise how clunky it is right now.
Why does it take 12 steps or more to translate a piece of text when you’re reading something in another language on the browser? Why do we have to have countless identities on different websites and remember passwords and usernames from each?
Why do we have to navigate through different calendars and applications when we’re trying to find contact information?
These are the kinds of problems that Mozilla Labs is trying to solve. As the experimental arm of the company that brings us the ever-popular Firefox browser, Mozilla Labs is about ‘imagining the future of the web and then building it together’.
By ‘together’ Mozilla means the thousands of volunteers around the world who work with a small staff in Mountain View, California, to iteratively develop new features for the browser.
Mozilla is unique in many ways. The company is competing with organisations like Apple and Microsoft (Firefox is the second biggest browser after Internet Explorer) but it has only about 250 employees.
It is able to compete effectively by being really close to its users. For every one employee, there are ten volunteers that, in turn, serve at least one million users. Raskin jokes that when you arrive at Mozilla they say: “Welcome. Here are your one million users. Please don’t abuse them.”
Mozilla is also unique in that the $75 million operation is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the non-profit Mozilla Foundation. This means that, according to Mitchell Baker, chair of the Mozilla Foundation: “We’re motivated by our mission of promoting openness, innovation and opportunity on the web rather than business concerns like profits or the price of our stock (guess what: we don’t even have stock).”
A base of 400 000+ users of Mozilla Labs is tiny in comparison with Firefox’s 320 million users, but Raskin says that if a product gains enough traction in the Labs community, it will be considered as a feature in future Firefox releases. Raskin believes that ‘the future of the web is about participation’ and that Mozilla is about ‘imagining that anyone who uses a browser should be able to create the browser’.
It’s in this spirit that Labs is experimenting with users in developing what it believes is the future of the web. “What does it mean when the browser understands who you are?” asks Raskin.
“Why can’t the browser – which already knows who you are, already knows what sites you visit, already knows who your friends are – just deal with log on?”
This is what developers on the Weave project are working on. Weave aims to develop the browser’s ability to ‘broker rich experiences while increasing user control over their data and personal information’.
According to Raskin: ‘When you go to sign up on a site, the browser could say, ‘Hey, you’re signing up for a new service, why not choose one of your ID cards here – incognito (the browser just makes something up for me because I’m never coming back here again), basic information (name and e-mail) or secure (everything about me for things like credit card transactions)’.”
The Weave Sync prototype currently supports the synchronisation of bookmarks, browsing history, saved passwords and tabs across multiple browsers, so that your desktop, laptop and mobile phone can all work together.
“Your friends, your social graph,” says Raskin, “are too important to have any one vendor control them. The browser knows who your friends are; it knows how you’re connected to them – it can scrape this information from Friendster, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn.”
Says Raskin: “As soon as you see an e-mail address box, the browser automatically detects it and can pull in an e-mail address, a Twitter address. I now own my data, I own my social graph, I don’t have to depend on something like Facebook Connect because it’s the browser that is my broker of trust, my insanely smart butler.
“With Google, you type what you want to find. With Ubiquity you type what you want to do. This enables you to drastically reduce the problem space and lets you be much more extensible.”
“We’re beginning to store a lot more of our important data in the cloud,” says Raskin, “making it more and more likely that our data is going to escape somehow.” He says that the way that Mozilla thinks about these problems is in turning technology problems into people problems.
“If the browser understands who our friends are, then we can turn these security problems into people problems. The browser can tell us that, ‘If you’re trying out a new website, then these three people who are your friends also use it so it’s probably okay’.”
Will the open web win?
Raskin is upbeat about the future of the web. “Before, when we wanted to add a map to Gmail,” he says, “we had to wait for them to do it. Now we’re in control.” He believes that as the web moves towards this very modular functionality, it’s possible for someone to make functionality for software instead of having to build the entire web app stack. “The browser is slowly getting closer to that web operating system we’ve been hearing about,” says Raskin.
If this happens, and if Mozilla continues to iterate in collaboration with its users towards a web that is focused on what Raskin calls ‘you-centric’ browsing, then we may all just end up winning.