Title: IM Interview with Ali Ebrahim
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Added on: 15 May 2008
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Interview with Ali Ebrahim over instant messenger.


AIM IM with Ali Ebrahim.
10:02 AM
Giny Cheong: Good morning!
Ali Ebrahim: Shall we start?
Giny Cheong: Alright. Thanks again for talking with me!
Ali Ebrahim: Sure -- I hope that I can contribute something interesting
Giny Cheong: Let's start off with... When did you begin using computers? How did you get interested in computers?
Ali Ebrahim: I began using computers as a young child. My oldest brother is 12 years older to me and I remember using his Apple II and IBM laptop during the mid-late 1980s when I was about 6 years old. My first experiences that I clearly recall were playing Space Invaders and using some DOS based text editing software. I've been hooked since then.
Giny Cheong: What is your education background; have you had formal
computer training?
Ali Ebrahim: I've had some formal computer training at my high school in Hong Kong, though at university I chose to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Political Science instead.
10:15 AM
Giny Cheong: When did you begin contributing to open source project and how did you first connect to open source (e.g. magazines/newsletters, bulletin
board systems, conventions, clubs, etc...)
Ali Ebrahim: I don't recall how I first came across open source, but my first experience with open source was Red Hat Linux 5.2, which I dual booted with Windows. This was a good many years ago and my next real experience with open source after that was with Firefox (which at the time was Phoenix)
Ali Ebrahim: One of my friends who works in the IT industry introduced me to Phoenix (at the time it was 0.4) as an alternative browser to IE and at first I was sceptical, particularly of pre-alpha software, but I took the plunge and never looked back. I don't know why but something clicked and I enjoyed the experience enough to want to contribute something back.
Ali Ebrahim: (And it was fun to contribute too -- there was so much to learn)
Giny Cheong: How did you start contributing to Mozilla?
Ali Ebrahim: At first I was active on the MozillaZine forums, more as a lurker than as a participant but slowly as I learned the ropes I also began to respond to queries. I also spent a lot of time on the #firefox channel on irc.mozilla.org and kept a tab on developments. Around the 0.4-era of Phoenix development was so rapid and things would move at an insanely fast pace and it was exciting to keep up.
Ali Ebrahim: I started to take an active interest in building Phoenix/Firebird/Firefox (whatever you can call it) from source on Windows and I started to provide builds that were optimised for various platforms (for example, built for Pentium 4 systems with SSE2 support).
Ali Ebrahim: The response from the community was amazing and the encouragement I got requests for builds for all sorts of architectures. If I recall for a long time, I'd build targetting 2 or 3 different architectures daily and upload the builds, and many people would choose to use my builds over the official Mozilla.org releases.
Ali Ebrahim: (let me dig up an example link)
Ali Ebrahim: http://forums.mozillazine.org/viewtopic.php?t=12427
Ali Ebrahim: Building Firefox was really a stepping stone for me, and eventually I focused my efforts on triaging bugs in Bugzilla
Ali Ebrahim: For over a year I was the QA contact for the Firefox Download Manager and during this time I would on a daily basis spend a couple of hours on Bugzilla triaging bugs, which involved confirming real bugs, weeding out duplicates, etc.
Ali Ebrahim: I can thank mconnor for roping me in to that
Ali Ebrahim: Really, most of my contributions to Firefox were in the pre-1.0 days.
Giny Cheong: Do you work officially for Mozilla or do you contribute as a volunteer in your spare time?
Ali Ebrahim: I've always volunteered in my spare time.
Giny Cheong: What do you do for your day job?
Ali Ebrahim: Back when I was actively contributing (around 2003-2005), I was a full time student.
Giny Cheong: Do you still contribute extensively to Mozilla or keep in touch via the community boards?
Ali Ebrahim: At the moment - no I don't.
10:35 AM
Ali Ebrahim: btw, I found my first MozillaZine post: http://forums.mozillazine.org/viewtopic.php?t=725
Giny Cheong: How did you become the QA contact for the Firefox Download Manager?
Ali Ebrahim: Prior to Firefox 0.8 or so, there was a lot fewer people working on Bugzilla on the Firebird product (prior to 0.8 it was called Firebird). I was one of the people who were spending a lot of time going through Bugzilla weeding out the duplicate and invalid bugs, and confirming the real ones. By that time I also had a pretty solid working knowledge of the browser and Mike Connor asked me if I'd take responsibility for the Download Manager QA, and I agreed.
Ali Ebrahim: I can't say that I really spent time fixing bugs (though I did contribute a few small patches), but most of my time was spent on keeping Bugzilla in a clean-ish state so the the real developers could work more efficiently. That's what QA was all about at the time (though some developers would fill both roles).
Giny Cheong: Would you say that the majority of your work was on the community boards or did you have other methods of communication?
Ali Ebrahim: With regards to the QA work, whatever wasn't on Bugzilla itself, almost 100% was handled on IRC.
Ali Ebrahim: IRC is a godsend for open source.
Giny Cheong: How important do you think Bugzilla became for Mozilla?
Ali Ebrahim: Oh, I think Bugzilla was and still is hugely important for the success of all Mozilla products. It keeps track of all open bugs, sorts them by priority, keeps track of bug and feature dependencies, and is a central place where all information pertaining to any given bug can be tracked efficiently. Without this kind of a tool I think chaos would ensue
Giny Cheong: To what extent has Mozilla relied on the work of volunteers?
Ali Ebrahim: Remember that although Bugzilla is an open source product in its own right, it's been developed specifically with the needs of Mozilla developers in mind so it's really uniquely suited to that purpose.
Ali Ebrahim: I've actually blogged about this before: http://blog.ebrahim.org/archives/2005/09/29/community_building.php
Ali Ebrahim: But I'll try to summarize a bit as well
Ali Ebrahim: I'll speak to how things were in 2003-2005, as I am a bit out of touch with regards to present day. At that time a lot of work was done by developers who were paid to work on Firefox. That doesn't necessarily mean employed by Mozilla, but could be by third parties such as Google or IBM.
Ali Ebrahim: However, a very large portion was also done by volunteers, which I think fall into two classes.
Ali Ebrahim: The first are those with solid programming skills who made invaluable contributions to both the frontend and backend codebase.
Ali Ebrahim: The second are those who don't necessarily have programming skills, but have the time and capacity to learn useful skills such as bug triage, running smoketests, and giving the developers useful information about where problems exist.
Ali Ebrahim: Both types of volunteers are really important and complementary to each other.
Giny Cheong: Have you noticed any tension between those who work on the front end and those who work on the back end?
Ali Ebrahim: Not really. Personally I think there is a *lot* more potential for tension between those who work within the same area. Debates can get pretty heated like that.
Ali Ebrahim: One of the biggest problems faced by open source projects is how to handle divergent ideas.
Ali Ebrahim: Unpaid volunteers work on open source because they believe not only in open source but because they stand behind the product they work on. What this often means is that they have uncompromising views on how things *should* work.
Ali Ebrahim: As far as I can tell, there's no equitable way to reconcile these differences. Firefox has never been designed by commitee and decisions have usually been taken by one person alone.
Ali Ebrahim: This approach has its merits and its drawbacks.
Giny Cheong: Who's usually in charge or makes the decisions?
Ali Ebrahim: A bit more about those kind of issues is here: http://blog.ebrahim.org/archives/2005/05/25/challenges_faced_by_community_projects.php
Ali Ebrahim: Today, honestly I'm not sure. Can't say I'm in the loop anymore.
11:00 AM
Giny Cheong: Why do you think Mozilla? in particular Mozilla Firefox?
has been able to attract a large number of users? What sets it apart
from other open source projects? What sets it apart from other Mozilla
Ali Ebrahim: Other than Firefox, I don't think that Mozilla has been able to attract a critical mass of users. Firefox is orders of magnitude more popular than any other Mozilla product. What sets Firefox apart from the rest, I think, is that it took one of the most basic activities that one does on the computer, and made it better.
Ali Ebrahim: It sounds very simple when one says it like that, but it's the simplicity that really made the difference.
Ali Ebrahim: There are few applications that one spends more time in than a web browser and Firefox brought some revolutionary (not evolutionary) changes to web browsing at the right price point (free). That's not to say that Firefox was the first to implement all of it's features - but I think it was probably the first browser to package a universally appealing featureset exciting enough to turn users into evangelists that brought in more users.
Ali Ebrahim: Plus, the barrier to entry is so low. How long does it take to install a web browser?
Ali Ebrahim: One could argue that Linux also offers a hugely compelling featureset. But the barrier to entry is a lot higher.
Ali Ebrahim: I think the open source development model of strong peer review made Firefox the great browser that it is - but I don't really believe that it matters to the end user how the software is licensed.
Ali Ebrahim: Which is a little ironic, to say the least
Giny Cheong: How would you list Mozilla's priorities? How does this compare
with its priorities in 1998?
11:15 AM
Ali Ebrahim: I wasn't around in 1998 so I really can't look that far back. As recently as 2005, Mozilla was really commited to delivering a suite of products (Firefox/Thuderbird) and a platform that others could build in (XULrunner). Of late I've seen the focus become much more Firefox-centric. It's hard to predict where this will lead.
Giny Cheong: The Spread Firefox website states that Spread ffx was "founded
on the same principles of community involvement that drive the
development and testing of Firefox." How do open source
principles influence marketing techniques? Do you see marketing as
something coders can do or does this require marketing experts? Have
there been clashes between developers and the more business oriented
11:25 AM
Ali Ebrahim: I think that open source principles definitely influence the nature of Firefox advertising. The NYT ad was a good example of how open source projects recognise that the projects are driven forward by individual contributions.
Ali Ebrahim: I don't think that coders are the most suited to marketing. Marketing people and code developers have very different priorities and I think it's necessary for the two to find a happy medium.
11:30 AM
Giny Cheong: Chase Phillips has described the Mozilla Corporation as
"opaque" and lacking "knowledge of where the place
as a whole was headed." What do you think about that
characterization? How does it square with your own experiences?
Ali Ebrahim: I think his experiences within the Corporation give him a unique perspective to comment on this. I can't say I've had any personal experiences with the Foundation or Corporation so I'll reserve my own judgement.
Giny Cheong: Recently there has been much discussion over Mozilla's decision to
change it's support of Thunderbird. A few months before this Ben
Goodger even went so far as to write, "The Mozilla Corporation should
rename itself the "Firefox Corporation", since that is clearly what it
is for." (http://www.bengoodger.com/2007/04/the_autonomous_future.html)
How do you feel about these decisions with regard to Mozilla's focus?
Ali Ebrahim: The Mozilla Corporation has a huge amount of resources available to it, and I am a little troubled that Thunderbird is getting short changed on the account of Firefox's huge success. In a way it's not surprising because it makes business sense to focus on Firefox and spin off Thunderbird, but then again Mozilla is not a business and back in 2005 I wouldn't have guessed that this would be Thunderbird's fate. I would love to see more of Mozilla's resources focused on Thunderbird.
Giny Cheong: What is your vision for Mozilla moving forward?
Ali Ebrahim: To be perfectly honest, I've been inactive long enough that I don't have a good enough idea of which direction is the best way to go.
Giny Cheong: How would you define open source, in general?
Giny Cheong: Different than the next question... How would you define a successful open source project?
Ali Ebrahim: That's a pretty open-ended question. If I had to sum it up in a sentence, I'd say that open source is where people or corporations work towards a common goal on the understanding that their work can be shared or modified for any purpose.
Ali Ebrahim: A successful open source project is one where a community has developed where end users can find volunteer support, developers have the support from users in reporting bugs, and volunteers find that their input is considered in determining future direction. It's symbiotic.
Giny Cheong: Do you have any experiences working on commercial products? How did those experiences differ from working on open source?
Ali Ebrahim: I don't have any experience in this area.
Giny Cheong: Do you consider open source software projects as public service?
Ali Ebrahim: Yes. Contributors to open source projects certainly benefit from the products they develop, and that is natural. The great thing about open source is the aggregate sum of contributor efforts is packaged in a form that anybody in the world can use and derive benefit from. Open source projects have had a huge impact on people's daily computing experience and I think many people don't realise this.
Giny Cheong: What (if anything) do you think the popularity of Firefox will do for
the open source software movement as a whole? Do you think open source techniques can be applied to other areas of production in
today's society?
Ali Ebrahim: I'd like to be optimistic and say that Firefox is going to be a boon for open source. The pessimist in me says that the vast majority of end users only care about price and not about licensing, and that Firefox's popularity is not going to translate into increased awareness of open source.
Ali Ebrahim: I don't expect that open source techniques can be a model for production of non-software products. Today's business models and incentive structures are such that for production of physical goods, and even other abstract items such as scientific concepts or methodology, it's always most advantageous for the inventor to acquire patents and control rights. I don't think this is likely to change in the foreseebale future.
Ali Ebrahim: However, I could be totally wrong on that. I don't have a crystal ball
Giny Cheong: What do you think will happen with open source in the future?
12:10 PM
Ali Ebrahim: I think the future of open source in the longer term is potentially threatened by legislation that is designed to create "approved" methods of doing a task. Historically developers have never been restricted in what software they develop and how the software can be used. Looking back 20 years, who would have thought that legislation like the DMCA would come into play and change the playing field? Who could have predicted that writing software to rip music from media for storage could result in jail time more severe than one might get for violent crimes? This is the power of the corporate lobby, and I believe that the future of open source depends on keeping this type of legislation in check.
Giny Cheong: Do you think that this is an American issue or international?
Ali Ebrahim: I think it's very much international. For better or for worse, the United States is pressuring countries to adopt legislation similar to its own, and they have had varying degrees of success. In many cases United States laws are the only ones that matter, because software manufacturers are unwilling to offer different versions of software for different markets, so will just design software that meets the most restrictive set of laws.
Giny Cheong: Alright, thanks again for your time! Please feel free to email me anytime!
Ali Ebrahim: Sure - no problem. Take care. I'm off to bed now, it's 1:30am in Hong Kong
Giny Cheong: Good night!
Ali Ebrahim: Bye



[Anonymous], Mozilla Digital Memory Bank, Object #7526, 15 May 2008, <http://mozillamemory.org/detailview.php?id=7526> (accesed 9 April 2021)

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Title: IM Interview with Ali Ebrahim
Creator: [no creator]
Subject: [no subject]
Description: Interview with Ali Ebrahim over instant messenger.
Publisher: [no publisher]
Contributor: [no contributor]
Date: 2007-11-12
Type: text
Format: .txt
Identifier: [no identifier]
Source: [no source]
Language: En
Relation: [no relation]
Coverage: [no coverage]
Rights: [no rights]