|Title:||Interview with Gervase Markham|
|Contributed by:||[no contributor]|
|Added on:||23 February 2007|
|Type of Object:||Sound|
Mozilla Foundation employee Gervase Markham discusses his experiences working for Mozilla and his ideas about the open source movement.
Olivia Ryan: Can you just state your name and tell us what you do for Mozilla?
Gervase Markham: My name is Gervase Markham known mostly as Gerv and, at the moment, I work part-time for the Mozilla Foundation.
OR: In what capacity?
GM: There’s three of us in the Foundation part which is sort of the parent of the corporation and so we have a sort of a slightly different role to them and although Frank Hecker, who’s the guy in charge—he’s I guess Director of Policy—Zach and I who are the two other people who don’t really have formally defined roles or job titles. We kind of do whatever needs doing. I guess I can tell you a bit about my areas of responsibility if that would help. I’ve been working on licensing, both trademark and code. I’ve been working some sort of security stuff: UI and certificates, a bit of anti-phising thinking and work on that. And general, also, the Foundation is at the moment trying to develop its strategy in terms of how exactly we’re going to distribute some of the proceeds of our success to the community, both the Mozilla community and the wider community, and Frank and Zach and I are working on that together.
Tom Scheinfeldt: How did you come to be involved with Mozilla?
GM: Back in, I guess it was— Well, I started off at university, at Oxford University in the U.K. in 1997, and I was doing chemistry and for the first year that was kind of okay and for the second year it got rapidly worse. So by the summer of ’99 which was the end of my second year I wasn’t really enjoying it very much at all and I sort of always knew I wanted to be a software engineer. I didn’t quite know why I ended up doing chemistry at university, I guess I enjoyed it at school. I’ll try not to make this too long, but basically what happened was I ended up changing courses and it was very— it was all very sudden. I’d arrived for the third year and I was well behind and it was all very miserable and I was talking to my teachers and saying what can I do and they were presenting some not very helpful suggestions and I was on the point of leaving and applying for jobs but within a week God just opened all the doors and changed everything and I was on a different course doing a different thing.
I moved straight into the second year of the three-year computation course, which is quite unusual, and I did that instead. So having spent my first term catching up a lot with the stuff that I missed from the first year and I also decided at the start of 2000 that it would be really good to get involved in the free software project. And I read a comment on slash dot from a guy—I’ve tried to find it since—I think it was a guy called Matthew Thomas who was heavily involved with UI in those days, the projects are much less involved now. I think he now works for Ubuntu, the Linux distribution that’s in Brazil. He was in New Zealand then and he was saying the Mozilla project could use some help so I went along to the site and looked around and they had a thing called the bugathon which was a sort of test case thing where if there was a rendering problem you got it down to a minimal test case and uploaded that and you could get points for doing a number of the test cases and they’d send you like T-shirts and stuff like that and I thought that was kind of cool and fun and something I knew that I could do and so I did a few of those. And I kind of ended up doing this day testing of the builds called smoke testing, you know, you’d fire it up and see if smoke comes out. And kind of ended up with sort of some responsibility for making that happen every day and sort of coordinating volunteers and finding people to do that and it all kind of moved from there. I mean, Asa Dotzler, have you talked to him?
TS: We’re hoping to this afternoon.
GM: He and I kind of got involved around the same time around the same [inaudible]. There was a lady called— A guy called Eli Goldberg who I’m having dinner with on Friday actually. He now works for Flock who are doing stuff with the Mozilla code base and a lady called Christine Vagel were two Netscape QA people who were very keen on getting community involvement and they’d written documents and stuff and sort of working with them and Asa at that time. That’s really how I got involved.
Things sort of took off so that at the end— when I graduated at the end of 2001, summer 2001, I spent three-and-a-half months here working for Netscape but as an intern with Mozilla.org which is a sort of the virtual organization that ran the projects at that time, which is a division of Netscape. And so several people before who had internships with Netscape working for Netscape, but I was the first person to work for Mozilla.org. And it was at that time that I became a member of the Mozilla.org staff, the organizing group sort of more by— It kind of happened by accident really. It kind of happened sort of before I kind of noticed it happening and then they’d kind of grown fond of me and I realized, but— which was very kind of them, but I try and help out.
And so I got involved with that then and ever since then back in the U.K.—where I up until last July anyway—I had a full-time job in software with the company in north London. I’ve been doing staff stuff and trying to help keep the project moving in the right direction. Obviously things have changed a bit since then. We have the Foundation and then the Foundation and the Corporation. And last July I was offered a job and we kind of negotiated this thing. I now work two days a week for the Foundation and two-and-a-half days a week half-time for the company I’ve been working for since I graduated and the other half day a week I’m unemployed which is great because I get more holiday.
TS: Could you maybe briefly just sort of describe the relationship of the Foundation to the Corporation?
GM: Okay, so, what happened, back in 2003 it was kind of clear that Netscape had been bought by AOL and then AOL had merged with Time Warner and for their own internal business reasons, which they’ve since reversed, they were getting out of the browser business and people didn’t want the Mozilla project to die and so basically the Mozilla Foundation was the lifeboat as the Netscape ship went down. What happened was that AOL was persuaded to give $2 million in seed funding, the rights to change the license, the trademarks, the machines that were running all of the services and they handed it all over and sort of like five people ended up in an office at one end of downtown Mountain View going okay, like we’ve got two million quid so that gives us about x months to figure out how to make some money. What do we do now?
And that was when Firefox and Thunderbird were just starting. They were kind of a reaction to Netscape’s control of the UI and to the fact that the suite was monolithic and wasn’t really— It was too complicated for people that wanted to do something simple and more stripped down and there’d been that desire for a while, but basically they decided to forge out and do that project and so those were up and coming and they decided to focus on those over time. And so the Foundation was around for a little while and Firefox really took off and this created a problem. It was one of those good problems to have where we had quite a bit of money coming in.
Now there’s a rule about 501c(3) non-profits which is that only up to a third of their income can come from— Well, I mean, I don’t know the exact legal situation or the exact words used, but basically it’s like business income, income from commercial ventures. And so we were going to get into tax difficulties if we carried on just taking all of this money from our relationships and putting it into the Foundation. And so we needed a way to pay tax and, as it turns out, forming a subsidiary corporation is the most convenient way to do that. And so all of these sort of day-to-day revenue-generating activities, the production of the key products Firefox and Thunderbird have moved into the Corporation whereas the Foundation is responsible for the sort of overall control of the project, project governance, how decisions are made, but also looking after the things which are not Corporation focused, things like Bugzilla which is a bug-tracking system, Camino which is a browser specifically for Mac, SeaMonkey which is the continuation of the Suite. The Corporation decided no longer to continue the Suite but a bunch of contributors, actually mostly from Europe, felt that it was important to them and so they’ve continued it under the name of SeaMonkey which was its original code name and other projects like that.
TS: How was the decision made to put certain activities into the Corporation and keep others with the Foundation?
GM: Basically the stuff that makes money goes into the Corporation—the stuff that was generating revenue. And also it’s very difficult because, on the one hand, the Mozilla organization as a whole wants to support its contributors and anything that they choose to do. On the other hand, there’s undeniably [inaudible] conflicts between Firefox and SeaMonkey and Camino and so this has always caused a certain amount of tension and putting— Basically when Firefox moved into the Corporation, this was saying basically that in terms of browsers, Firefox is the thing. We’re going to provide resources in terms of infrastructure and resources for the other things but— And if you guys want to do it, you’re on your own, but all of the effort of this money is feeding back into hiring contributors and the hereafter is going to be focused on Firefox, Thunderbird, all that sort of stuff.
TS: If you could just elaborate on that a little bit, what kind of tensions are there between kind of the marketing products and the others?
GM: It’s a promotion thing, isn’t it? One viewpoint would say, okay, Mozilla.org has these three browsers and so what we should do is on the front page, we could go, okay, we’ve got three browsers, we’ve got Firefox, we’ve got the Suite and we’ve got Camino. You should choose the one that’s best for you. On the other hand, another point of view says that the consumer is not really set up to start making those choices. They don’t want to have that handed to them. They want to be told this is the best thing for you and for it to be the best thing for them. And sort of splitting our resources into three projects even if people were equally interested in promoting all three probably isn’t the best way. I think certainly that if we had some sort of equal opportunities policy and this attitude towards all the things that people wanted to do, then Firefox would not be the success it is today.
Firefox is a success because we have a very single-minded focus on making it particularly a success and we have a bunch of contributors who also have that focus. People like Spread Firefox and the community and, in fact, which has really caught the public imagination. Whereas if the Mozilla story was not, hey, we have Firefox, isn’t it cool, it was, hey, we have this wonderful choice of browsers, isn’t choice great? I don’t feel that there would be quite that thing there. So basically that leaves the guys from SeaMonkey and Camino in the situation that we’re supporting them with infrastructure but we’re not doing any promotion and they understand that. And I think in a sense there’s a realization come to that, because most of the people who are working on SeaMonkey, for example, are like, well, we prefer a suite. We want it all integrated. We don’t like the separate applications and we’re doing it for ourselves, right, and if other people download it, that’s cool, whereas—
And Camino is still, you know, we want a native Mac browser, we want something that integrates well with our operating system because we’re Mac addicts (you know that slightly strange thing that Mac people have, it’s a little bit difficult, I try to get them into therapy). So that’s the tension. When they feel that—I think they mostly made they’re peace with being second fiddle, but sometimes when they want to do a release and all the build and release— it’s sometimes around infrastructures where the tension is because all of the build and release people are in the Corporation, right. Whereas build and release is something that actually is needed for all of the projects, you know, the infrastructure and so if build and release all tied up doing a Firefox release and the SeaMonkey release has to wait a month, that’s kind of a little bit difficult. But this was one of the difficulties switching the Foundation and the Corporation—where do those people go? If you have two teams, you know, what do you do? And in the end, we decided we’re going to put it all in the Corporation, for better or for worse. But that does present some problems. But, I mean, this is minor stuff, I think, in the grand scheme of things.
TS: How would you characterize kind of the relationship of people who kind of work here to kind of the wider community of volunteers?
GM: That’s a tough one. The Mozilla project has been innovating in sort of the free software project space in a bunch of different ways for a very long time. I mean, we were the first large free software project when Netscape freed the code. And so we’ve hit a lot of problems before other people and also we’ve encountered a lot of problems that are a little bit all right. For example, because we had this corporate sponsor originally, this single one, we’ve always had a— I don’t know how to put it. That always cast a shadow. It was always, no matter how much we tried to gain our independence, and we did over time, it was quite a bit that Netscape was in charge of a number of things. And so there’s always been for the project one central sort of nucleus of where the majority of contributors are. It’s not like some of the other free software projects where it’s pretty evenly spread, you know what I mean. And so I feel that we’re in a constant fight to make sure that decisions are not just made by some guy looking over the cubicle wall and talking to some other guy and they decide, all right, this is what we’re going to do and then they might or might not tell everyone else what the decision is. But that if decisions are important and other people have a stake, then they have an opportunity to have a say. And I guess that that tension in some ways characterizes the relationship between the Corporation and the community because what would be best is if everyone was part of the community and it was all kind of like even, but because the Corporation tends to hire the high quality contributors and because they’re all in one place, in practice, that doesn’t necessarily happen.
There are certain observations you can make. I mean, Mitchell’s been saying that full openness is bad and sometimes you just need to make a decision and that’s true. But I think perhaps what characterizes the relationship between the Corporation and the community is— I don’t want to say an imbalance, but a difference certainly which isn’t necessarily harmful but, I mean, you can just treat it as a fact of life.
TS: What kinds of like communication channels are open between the Corporation, the Foundation and the community? How do you try to mitigate those challenges?
GM: Well, see, I think thinking about in terms of communication between the Corporation and the community is already thinking about it the wrong way because it kind of assumes these two blobs which have these defined channels. I mean, the project tries very hard to have communication channels which open such that two guys in the two cubicles next to each other are communicating by an open channel. We have the Bugzilla bug system where bugs are discussed. We have news groups which were sort of atrophying for a long time but have recently, hopefully, been revitalized. And I think to get in the Corporation, too, in the past few months, there’s been an increasing realization that we need more openness and they’ve gone back to, in a sense, some of what we used to do before and have been surprised by the results. I mean, Mike Beltzner, who is the new UI guy comes from IBM and they’re having these status meetings for Bon Echo which is the code name for Firefox 2 and, you know, he was saying that people are saying about Bon Echo that we should have an open planning process, dial in, anyone could dial in, publish all the meeting notes on the Wiki and it would be completely open and everybody was like ah, yah, scary. But in fact he was saying it’s worked really well and I’m never interrupted on the phone by someone who doesn’t have a good point to make and I feel that we’re really gaining from this openness. And I think that the need for that is becoming more and more felt by people in the Corporation and so I feel that we are moving in the right direction in that way. That didn’t really answer your question.
Your question was about how the two communicate. I think the answer is that we try very hard to provide tools that enable everyone in the project to communicate with each other and try and make it easy to communicate openly, so if it’s just as easy to communicate openly, people are more likely to do it. If it takes effort to kind of have the discussion in a way that is inclusive, then it’s much easier to default to: oh, I really could not be bothered to do that right now, I’m just going to call Bill and I’m going to chat it through with him and we’ll sort something out. and, I mean, having hired a lot of people from the community, one hopes that they don’t forget, you know what I mean, when they were on the outside and they were thinking that things weren’t too transparent, you hope that once they get on the inside they remember that. And I think for a little while that’s true although I think that people who’ve been on the inside for a while, they forget it after a bit. We have to keep reminding them.
OR: What do you think the popularity of Firefox or why do you think that Mozilla and, in particular, Mozilla Firefox has been able to attract such a large number of users? I mean, you touched about it a little bit, but like what specifically?
GM: The right place at the right time, I think, probably. People were hurting, you know. IE hadn’t been updated since 2001. People were using the web in different ways. They were using it in more ways. Unscrupulous people had been figuring out how to do attack people with not just exploits and sort of activate stuff but with pop-ups and with all that sort of thing and people were trying to manage their information with a tool that was not suited for the task.
And then along comes Firefox and starts innovating and there’s some stuff that we picked up from other people and made famous, in a sense like tabs. We didn’t invent tabs and people often accuse of claiming that we did, but we don’t. We don’t say that, but we did popularize them. There’re 150 million users or however many it is now or 150 million downloads, but anyway, and we sort of rolled it all together and we did something that I think was important. It was a drop-in replacement for IE. You install it. It migrates your data and sets itself up as the default if you ask it and then you just keep going and you can use it exactly the same as you used to use it, but as you discover the new features, you can start using them. There isn’t a big cognitive gap. And I think that sort of replace it something incrementally better, revolutionary better in some ways, but it’s a replacement rather than a sort of a big new way of doing things, I think was part of the key to success.
I think also we benefited from having a cool name and a cool logo and a lot of buzz which was self-feeding when Firefox was cool, people come along and they tell their friends and it becomes more cool and you’ve got a virtual circle going there and I think that was— I think people cursed IE but didn’t know what to do about it and so we kind of rode that wave a little bit. And now, of course, IE 7 is coming and basically it seems to me that while they’ve innovated in a couple of areas, basically what this release is is a catch-up release and in a sense, that might be enough for them. It could be, you know, I’m using Firefox, but IE now just about as good, has most of the features, I’ll switch back. But the next release might be even better and we have to carry on innovating and that’s good because in a sense the reason we started is because people weren’t innovating and so we don’t have any right to rest on our laurels and say we’re going to stop now, we’ve done something cool and, hey, just go away and use it. We have to keep doing good stuff and things that we’re doing for Firefox 2 like places which is sorting out the long-overdue mess that is bookmarks and history I think is a case in point.
Back in 1996, when Netscape invented bookmarks, technical people were like, yeah, I’m going to file this bookmark. Now, I’m going to file it under shops and then under clothing and I’m going to put in there and next time I want to buy some clothing I’ll go to shops, clothing and pick it out. People may have worked that way, but they don’t work that way now. It’s like I want you to remember this stuff, sort it out. I want you to fill in my forms. I want you to remember my password. I want you to do all that. I want it to just work for me. And it’s the same with bookmarks and history and all the places you’ve been. I want to like type in something that remind— there’s a reminder of where I’ve been and I want you to give me some ideas. I want you to tell me where you think it is that I mean. Do what I mean, not what I say. And I’m hoping that some of this stuff we’re doing with places for Firefox 2 and more for Firefox 3 will sort that problem out and I think that’s really quite exciting.
TS: This may be a difficult question, but what do you think made Firefox cool?
OR: For users.
GM: Oh, yeah. Gervase Markham, ultimate arbiter of the cool, like I can tell.
TS: Another way to put it might be to say why do people buy Firefox T-shirts?
GM: I find it difficult, right, to get on top of the concept of brand because I’m a fairly straightforward person and if I need a shirt, I’ll buy a shirt; I don’t care what’s written on it. Whereas there’s some people like I must have the Nike trainers, I must have the Gap jeans. Now, part of me says that is because people get their sense of self-worth from the clothes that they wear. Now, I’m a Christian. I get my sense of self-worth from the fact that I’m a child of God and I’m known and loved by Him. And that’s wonderful and so things like whether I’m wearing Nike trainers really don’t matter to me. But there are people who don’t have that and maybe they get their self-worth from what their friends think of them more, whether they’re wearing the right clothes or whether they’re in with the in crowd. And so I can only draw analogies. Maybe Firefox has become like Nike or why do you drink Coke? I mean, why do you drink Coke rather than Pepsi? Well, do people care these days? So, actually it’s a question I feel very unqualified to answer because I don’t think in the way that people think who care about brand.
OR: How would you maybe compare Mozilla’s vision in 1998 with the present reality?
GM: What vision did we have in 1998? I think in 1998— Well, I wasn’t around in ’98, right, I arrived in 2000. But I think the vision over the first few years was just to ship something. I mean, I don’t know much you know about the history. They shipped it in 1998 and they worked on it for a few months and then the decision was taken, basically by Netscape, to throw away the Netscape 4 rendering engine and replace it with Gecko, which was the new one which had been written by some guys. And they were like, yeah, you know, in six months we can have a product built based on this and it took four years. And a rendering engine is hard. It has to cope with absolutely anything that anyone has decided to write out there on the web and there’re billions of web pages and you have to do roughly what the person thought would happened, you know, bug for bug compatible and they’re hard things to do. And I don’t know whether management didn’t realize that or I’m sure there are other people among the project who were around at the time who can tell you much more. Maybe Brendan and people like that.
I mean, that should be interesting to hear from the people who actually wrote who supported the change because everyone you talk to now if they’re still with the project said at the time, we thought it was the wrong thing to do. But they made that change and so the key focus, at least when I arrived in 2000, was shipping something. We want to get something out the door that actually uses our technology. We don’t want to be the project that never ships. We don’t want to be stuck in perpetual beta and in fact that desire was so strong, both on the part of I think people in the project and on the part of Netscape who’d like done Netscape 4, right, at the same time as IE 4. Then IE 5 came out and it was better and then IE 5.5 was better still and they had no answer and then I can’t remember which came out, IE 6 or Netscape 6, but it was a fairly close one. Maybe Netscape 6 was first.
But they wanted to ship something built from their new stuff and Netscape 6 was a dog. It sucked. Things weren’t ready. They made some— I was around at the ship time. That was when I was doing my internship and so I kind of got a little bit of inside into the process from inside Netscape and the decisions they were making, it was like, for example, this is a tiny thing, but maybe it’s a good example. You know when you have a window and you maximize it? What happens to the edges is they kind of move just off the screen so if your cursor goes to the edge you can’t accidentally resize the window and stuff like that, right? It basically just occupies the whole thing, right? The new tool kit that they designed couldn’t do that. When you maximized it, the edges just went to the edge. If you went to the edge and tried to hit the scroll bar and missed, you would like drag the window edge in and it was incredibly irritating. It cannot maximize windows properly. How much does that suck? I mean, small thing but I’m a usability guy at this kind of stuff, so it sticks in my head and they shipped it. It’s like, oh, we have not got time to fix this. There’s a patch, it’s too risky, too destabilizing, we’re going to fix it and, you know, on the one hand, if they wanted to hit a ship date, then you have to make those decisions. On the other hand, the product bombed in the marketplace. It sucked. No one liked it. They did a few updates and didn’t really improve matters.
Netscape 7 was better. It was still, you know, sold out to commercial interests and that’s why no one really uses Netscape anymore. That’s kind of the over-arching reason but people didn’t use Netscape 6 for two reasons: it was sold out to commercial interests and it sucked. So, yeah, I mean, the aim back in ’98 and 2000 was let’s ship something. We want to produce something good and once we’ve done something good, then we can move on and do something better. The aim today is ship some more. We’ve shipped. We’ve shipped Mozilla 1. We shipped Netscape 7. We shipped Mozilla 1.4 which is the next one. We shipped Firefox 1.0 and we shipped Firefox 1.5. Let’s ship and ship again, you know, we’ve got the taste for it. And so I think the next six months the aim is to produce something that will compete with what other people are doing and I don’t think— It’s embarrassing to say that. We want to innovate. We want to make life better for our users and we want to make life so much better for our users that people want to use our product. Why not?
TS: Why do you think people volunteer for Mozilla? What do you think their motivations are?
GM: We just had that discussion about that actually in a breakout session and we had a whole thing about recruiting new people and we discussed how some of us have come to the project. I mean, from my point of view, I volunteered because I wanted to get involved in writing some— because you do a course at university and there’s a bit of software writing, but you want to get involved in something bigger, you want to get involved in something that’s actually producing stuff, something that actually means something. And the original comment that I read was like, look, if Mozilla doesn’t succeed, then IE owns the web and if IE owns the web, then Microsoft gets to say what happens on it and that’s good for nobody but Microsoft. And that’s still true today. That’s why we have support from so many companies is because people realize that having one company owning the web is a really really bad thing. And that’s true of most ideas, you know, a level playing field produces the best games, so I mean, I got involved—
So there was that idealistic thing and then when I actually arrived at the website and I wanted something to do, there was stuff for me to do. It was like there’s this competition and you make these test cases and you release them. Did I talk about that or was in that session? I think— There was a thing called the bugathon where you— yeah, I did talk about that a bit—and it was like I had stuff to do and I just started doing it and I enjoyed it and the people were nice and I had fun and there was a community feel and I just got in with it. And I think there are people who— I mean, again, we were discussing this. It’s about people self-select a little bit for tenaciousness, you know what I mean? If you turn up and go, hey, how can I help, give me something to do, people feel that the perception is among current contributors is that people like that tend not to last. It’s people who sort of turn up and just dive in and say, hey I did this, is it useful? Or hey, this needed doing so I did it, here you go, are the people who tend to stick around more.
In one sense, you could say that’s kind of bad because you’re excluding a bunch of people from contributing and if it were great to find ways to get the other people roped in, that’s great. But on the other hand, the reality of it is that mainly in a project this size people are going to have to be a little bit self-managing, self-directing because it’s never going to be like a company where you, you are assigned to teach this person and you will give them one-and-half days a week of your time and you will give them things to do and you will hold their hand until they can— It’s just not going to happen. This person has all the things that they need to do and more and they don’t have much time for you and that’s not a reflection on your value. It’s just a reflection on their busy-ness, so, yeah.
But why do people get involved was the original question. I think probably because it’s fun. I mean, it’s got to be fun, hasn’t it? No one is going to do something in their spare time if it’s not fun. I mean, there’s fun and there’s fun, right? If you’re a football player, a soccer player, you train and you’re out there in the wet and the mud and you’re tromping around and you’re thinking this is pretty miserable, but you do it because you’re going to go out and play the games and you win the games, right? In the same way, people who volunteer and do stuff that sucks if they can see that it’s not universally sucking and that it will continue through to being able to do something cool or to have some cool effect or to produce some cool new software. And so it doesn’t all have to be fun but it kind of has to be aggregate fun. Does that make sense?
Now, back when Netscape originally released, they made a— I mean, you could say it’s a strategic error, there were reasons for it, maybe they’re not worth going into—but you could not just take the code they released, download it, build it, have a browser, make some changes, build it again and have a browser with your changes, right? You couldn’t do that. It was very hard to build or almost unbuildable in fact in its released form when you started. It was really tough and that had a seriously deleterious effect upon volunteers. Because if you can’t get that feedback of seeing your changes, then it’s very hard to motivate people. And I think in the beginning that was something that we really suffered from, although not today. And a lot of other projects have learned from our experience. I mean, there are loads of lessons that people know about how to do open source right that I think were first learned by us. You know, things like you’ve got to starting with working code, right? You know, if you want to do a project, if you just say, hey, we’re going to do project X, you’ll end up with 20 people on a mailing list and three guys designing the icon, right.
If you say we want to do X and here’s why; it doesn’t do X but it does something. Here’s the CVS repository, send patches. Here’s a list of things you might like it to do. Then you will get much further because people will say, hey, that doesn’t meet my needs but it could. I can see it could. And I can make these changes and it’s a bit closer and I think that motivates people.
OR: Do you consider open source software work as providing a public service? Have you ever thought about in that way?
GM: I’m wondering how loaded you think the words public service are because there’s like, there’s public service television, right? I think it provides a— One of the reasons that I think open source and free software are great, I mean, free software particularly, the ideology rather than open source business method. I mean, do I need I go into the difference?
GM: Okay, right, is that I think there are— You know, people in not ridiculously poor countries but fairly poor countries, right, who I think it’s great that if I write code, they can have it and they can use it and they can do stuff with it that makes their lives better, right? And I don’t have to— I can do that for one person or a million people for the same effort. And that’s basically only true of software. It’s something that is functional like a machine, yet has the reproduction characteristics of information. It’s functional information and so software is kind of unique in that sense. And so building software is really great because you can give it to those people and I love that. I think it’s fantastic so in that sense, yes, it does provide a public service and I think it’s really important.
TS: Do you see any other examples of open source production kind of in the culture more generally outside of software? Or can you see these kinds of business practices, these kinds of modes of working working in other areas of cultural production?
GM: The principles which apply to building free software I think probably translate best to knowledge production rather than production of physical objects, goods or services, physical objects or goods. So it makes sense to have an open source car design. It doesn’t make much sense to have an open source project to build a car. Right? You don’t want to say, okay, guys, meet up at the back parking lot on Friday night and bring any bits of metal that you’ve got and we’ll see what we get, right? Not going to work so well, right, but if you have a website that says, look, we’re going to design a car that’s really easy to build and suitable for production and in environments where people wouldn’t otherwise have one. We’re going to do this, that and the other. Maybe a car’s bad example. People have done—
There’s a place called Think Cycle which does, in a sense, collaborative development of solutions for the Third World water filters, plows, that sort of stuff. And that sort of collaborative open thinking where it’s not incumbered by people going, oh, I have a patent on this, oh, this is my super secret idea and I’m going to exploit it, where people are working together for the common good. You can see those ideas applying, but I guess things like that, maybe “open source” books, open source conglomeration of knowledge, Wikipedia, that sort of thing. I mean, you can see all of those happenings. Anything where knowledge is required. And I think anyone whose business model is purely selling knowledge needs to be reasonably concerned because eventually their business is going to get eaten and they’re going to have to do something different.
I mean, you can sell assurance, right. Britannica could make a business model by saying that, okay, what we’re going to do is we’re going to take our stuff and Wikipedia’s stuff, put it together. We get this encyclopedia, but what you get when you buy our encyclopedia is that every single page has been fact checked as opposed to Wikipedia where you just get what you get. And then you have people who go, okay, I don’t mind, I don’t care too much, I want to read about King James II, I’m just going to go and read the Wikipedia article. And they’ve got people going, well I’m doing research, I need better stuff. So, you’re selling this level of assurance. But if you just say here’s Britannica, a big disclaimer in the front, you know, we don’t say any of this is accurate, but hey, it’s just another source, then I’m not convinced that business model is going to survive. So yeah, I can see the sort of collaborative development principles working in other areas but mostly in the production of things that are intangible. They fit best there.
OR: So, what do you think the popularity of Firefox now will do for sort of the future of open source, either just for software or for the larger open source idea?
GM: Well, what it’ll do for the future of open source and what it’ll do for the free software are actually two different things because open source is like, hey, this method of production produces better software, let’s do that, right, and if it doesn’t produce software, the corollary is, well, maybe we shouldn’t use it and there are people who believe that and in terms of that, it’s not particularly revolutionary at all. It just happens to be one of those cases where doing it that way would produce software and if the IE 8 is better, then people will go back.
Now, in terms of its effects on the future of free software, the ideology that doing software collaboratively in this way is something that people should have, you know, a right to modify your software is like your right to walk down the street on the left and your right to privacy in your home. Then maybe not as much as it should because Firefox is sold as an open source project and not a free software project. When people get Firefox, they don’t get— They get the freedom, you see what I mean, but they don’t know they’ve got it, right? They don’t— There’s no— And I’m not sure how you would even do this, but there’s no real attempt to say, okay, you’ve got this. It’s cool but it’s also different and here’s why and this is why it’s important to you and I think that’s a little bit sad.
I think there’s an opportunity that’s missed there. And I’m not quite sure what you would do about it and how you would go about making a change that improved that situation, but the fact that things like Firefox and Open Office are taking off is an opportunity for people—if that’s something that you believe—to tell people why software freedom is important and it’s not one that we’re currently taking. And that could be because the Mozilla project in general, generalizing, is not necessarily made up with people who care about software freedom so much. Perhaps that’s due to our history, the fact that we have a reasonably commercial-friendly or a reasonably proprietary software-friendly license in the MPL. You know, you can add proprietary stuff on, that’s what Netscape wanted to do and they did with Netscape 7, so that’s why the license works that way. Whereas other free software projects have— Basically you have to give it all back type license. And those projects may be attractive to a crowd who are more keen on the whole idea of software freedom has arrived. So maybe that’s part of the reason why the project doesn’t push it so much. It’s because there’s not a real sort of strong impetus among the contributors that that’s something that we need to be telling people about. Who knows?
TS: Where do you see kind of— Where do you see the—last question—the sort of moving forward? Where do you see the Mozilla Foundation, Mozilla Corporation, going as we move ahead?
GM: Well, the Mozilla Foundation itself is hoping to do some good with the product of our success and we hope to make grants both within the Mozilla community, the free software community and to a very small extent, wider than that, to try and encourage, you know, fill in the gaps and encourage things to happen that aren’t otherwise happening that we see as strategic and important. And so that hopefully is a big part of the future. It’s the first time that a free software project has made a bunch of money which goes to the project and not to the some sort of corporate entity that sponsors it and ends up in the hands of the shareholders. And so in a very sort of general sense, the community can look in that and go and say, wow, this is our money rather than IBM’s money or Sun’s money and so we need to figure out what we’re going to do with it and we’re in the middle of doing that and that’s something that’s quite exciting.
In terms of the products themselves, I’m very confident that we have a bunch of smart people who will continue to innovate in the space in making people’s lives better, both in terms of the browser and I hope in terms of the e-mail client, although exactly how much emphasis is put on that as opposed to Firefox is currently a matter of some discussion. But I rather think decent alternative to Outlook and Outlook Express is very important, both of them are bug riddled and horribly insecure. We need to make people’s lives better there, too. But on the other hand, the single-minded focus which has put Firefox in the front, of course, the single-minded focus and you can’t have— You can’t concentrate your resources across the board, can you? And, yeah, I mean, the products are going to keep getting better.
I mean, world domination would be nice, but as long as we keep sufficient market share, the web remains open. I think that’s the best thing that we can do for the world at large. Because if the guy who was born yesterday in India grows up and wants to use the web and he can use it on his one laptop with his free software browser rather than going, hey, half of this doesn’t work because it’s all written in Microsoft new vista-specific, you know, [inaudible] then I think that’s the— I mean, that comes back to the core mission of the Foundation which is to promote choice and innovation on the Internet. Firefox is our big leader, our big stick for keeping the Internet open and I think that’s the key thing and if that continues to happen and stay that way, then I think we’re a success.
TS: Great. Thanks very much.
Mozilla Digital Memory Bank, Object #982, 23 February 2007, <http://mozillamemory.org/detailview.php?id=982> (accesed 11 March 2014)
|Title:||Interview with Gervase Markham|
|Subject:||Mozilla, open source|
|Description:||Mozilla Foundation employee Gervase Markham discusses his experiences working for Mozilla and his ideas about the open source movement.|
|Format:||.wav, .mp3, .pdf|