The CEO says the company has just a single agenda: to make the Web better.
John Lilly became chief executive of Mozilla in January, moving up from his role as chief operating officer. He’s been with the company that created the open-source Firefox browser since 2005, the year Firefox 1.5 was released.
Before Firefox, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer dominated the Web. Now Microsoft’s share is down and Mozilla’s share is 20 percent.
The size of the organization makes Mozilla’s tremendous success that much more remarkable. Headquartered in Mountain View, Calif., it has fewer than 200 employees.
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Using an open-source model, its code is published, and users everywhere are encouraged to improve it. Mozilla Corp., which Lilly directs, is a subsidiary of the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation.
Q: In January you become the chief executive of a spread-out, thinly staffed, undercapitalized organization that has 200 million customers. You’ve been with Mozilla since 2005. How do you make it work?
A: Mozilla is this amazing thing. When I got here, there were maybe 15 employees and we had maybe 20 million users. Now, it’s more like 180 employees and more like 200 million users. But that understates the size of the group. In Firefox 3, about 40 percent of code was not written by people at Mozilla, but was written by people in different countries working nights and weekends.
Q: You’ve called Mozilla a “chaordic” organization. What the heck is that?
A: The idea is that you try to take responsibility and authority and decision-making and push it as far to the edges as possible. Lots of systems work that way, like the Internet itself. They tend to result in systems that are unpredictable at some level but also very strong, very robust, very tolerant of people coming and going and contributing, and tend to result in unexpected innovation.
We focus on building tools and systems that enable people to do their own stuff. If a group wants to do a Punjabi localization, we try to help them do that. More than anything else we think of ourselves as force multipliers.
Q: So is it fair to describe Mozilla as a democracy?
A: Oh, definitely not. We have people who are empowered to make decisions without consensus or votes. But along broader lines, the people who have done the code have authority to make decisions. It’s very hard for me to override a product decision. It’s not the way we work.
Q: For example?
A: It’s hard [for me] to change a menu item in Firefox, or the start page. Of course, there are some decisions that are more complicated, some commercial decisions like our relationship with Google. Not everything is pushed to outside.
Q: Your main source of income is licensing payments from Google, which is now a competitor in the browser area with the introduction of Chrome. How will that affect Mozilla?
A: We don’t know yet. I would say we have very good relationship with Google. Google has done a lot to make the Web better, and to make information more accessible. Some of the components of Firefox are shared with some of the components of Chrome. I’m not sure “competing” is the right word. It’s not the way I think about it. We’re trying to make something that provides a good experience for people, and they are too.
Q: You’ve said Mozilla is there to make the Web better. Is that all? No dreams of empire?
A: No, no, no. We talk about our mission literally every day, which is to keep the Web open and participatory. When Mozilla started 2003, it felt that 96 percent of the Web being controlled by Microsoft wasn’t good for anyone.
Our goal is to make the Web better. We have a single agenda. Beyond that, we’re proud about a few things. Our open-source nature is significant.
Our community is significant. I think Google is trying to emulate that with their Chrome project, which is open-sourced.
Q: If someone ever comes up with a better open-source browser than Firefox, and Mozilla disappeared, would that be a success or a failure for the company, or a little of both?
A: It’s not exactly Plan A, but the mission is to keep the Web open. Our most leveraged tool is Firefox. We know we have to build a great Firefox 3 and 3.1 and 4, and great mobile browsers, or people won’t care as much about our products.
Q: And what are you doing in mobile?
A: We want to make sure that the Web on mobile is more like the Web than what the mobile industry offers today, which is closed, separate networks and not a very good information-getting experience for the user. The first thing is to bring Firefox to mobile devices. We’re working on that and we’ll see some alphas in a few weeks.
Q: Are you doing anything with cloud computing, emulating Google, perhaps?
A: Emulating Google is not a smart game to play. We can do things in the cloud that other people can’t. For example, sync services, so your browser on your Mac looks like your browser on your PC.
You can have your bookmarks in the cloud. Think about being at your browser on your desktop, closing it to go home and turning on your mobile device and having it know all the pages you were at, all the tabs and bookmarks. That’s one example.
Once we have that kind of system set up, we should be able to allow other third parties to make applications to deliver stuff to the browser.
There are a lot of interesting problems to work on in the Internet. and as long as we build interesting products, life’s all right.