It’s been a long time since I wrote openly about technology, with my own voice. Why? Because I spent nine years ghostwriting for Google, after joining the company with the acquisition of JotSpot back in 2006. Good chance you’ve read some of my stuff — marketing copy and product launch announcements for Android, Cloud Platform, and various apps, like Maps and Wallet.
At Google, I needed to be especially careful about what I said publicly, and I probably still do. But, I’m hoping that today marks the start of me more openly expressing my thoughts on technology. Maybe I’ll even stir things up a bit from time to time — but always with a goal of moving things forward.
First, I’m fortunate to have landed what I think is a very cool job — to help tell the story of how the web continues to evolve, and of how Mozilla’s implementation of the web is special. I’m excited about what Mozilla is working on. For example, besides the diligent work required to keep up with the always-improving web standard, Mozilla has been quietly working on a new browser engine, Servo, and Rust, the new systems programming language with which it is coded, for several years. Servo promises to greatly speed up the web through parallelization, taking advantage of new hardware, and re-inventing the widespread web browser engine that effectively is an evolution of the original approach. Rust promises to make the web more secure by giving programmers a new language that’s safer to code with than C++, and helps prevent many of the inadvertent, and sometimes disastrous, security bugs, like buffer overflows, that have plagued browsers and their users for years. Servo and Rust are disruptive, hard, and open technologies that will no doubt power Mozilla’s future web platform, and both have applications beyond browsers.
Now, the other reason I’m joining Mozilla is more personal, and it comes back to values I share with the organization. Put simply, I believe that technology gives us all superpowers, and that every person should be empowered as much as possible. Developers should be able to build any application they can imagine, and we should all be able to use these applications, without restrictions.
Mozilla’s rallying cry to “take back the web”, and its mission to “build a better Internet” that “truly puts people first” have strongly resonated with me ever since Firefox first launched. Put another way, Mozilla’s mission might as well be to make us all as superpowerful as possible, while still protecting our rights and privacy. Mozilla’s organizational structure, with its non-profit Mozilla Foundation being the sole owner of the Mozilla Corporation, gives the organization a unique ability to represent the best interests of users, not shareholders.
The web is the computing platform that we, the people of the world, control. Its standards are driven by intense debate, including business, academic, and individual representatives, always with the goal of making the web as powerful and safe as possible. The web exists for its for users — not for profit. It is the ultimate expression of technical democracy.
In contrast, our most popular consumer operating systems and three out of the four most popular web browsers are developed by for-profit corporations. One of the consequences of this is that, in many cases, major decisions that affect us all are made by just a few high-ranking managers. These companies and the people working there generally try hard to behave ethically, and oftentimes do great things for the world, but for-profit corporations and their management have fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders. They are obligated to extract as much value as possible from their positions (and are very good at it!). I count many employees of these companies as my friends, and having worked at Google, I am proud to have been one of them.
As compared to our forebears, we’re all pretty fortunate to live with modern technology. Just over the past few years we’ve gained tremendous superpowers in the form of amazing devices with millions of apps. But, we have compromised to get where we are. In our personal lives, we constantly and often unknowingly make tradeoffs when we adopt new technology. Sometimes this technology is even “free”, and it’s easy to see the functionality we gain. It’s often much harder to understand the privacy we lose, or the choices we ought to have, but never actually get to make.
The web was originally intended to be a computing platform with no centralized owner and privacy inherent. Arguably, this is only kind of true today. While the web has in many ways “won” on desktop, with so many of us spending our work days in the browser, the web is now dominated by a few companies, and has become a vehicle for pervasive user tracking.
On mobile, native app ecosystems have flourished, and have imposed fees and limitations on developers and users. Meanwhile, the mobile web has seemingly been relegated to being a backfill for content, or a lightweight platform for web apps we sparingly use. Many developers have reduced or entirely paused their efforts to create mobile web apps. Making matters worse, on mobile, the tight coupling between operating systems and web browsers has led to mobile browser market shares reminiscent of Internet Explorer before Firefox.
My belief is that it’s not too late for things to change. I think that more of us are starting to understand the sacrifices we make when we use software. And, as the web advances to include features and performance that are currently exclusive to native apps, there’s no enduring reason that web apps cannot flourish on mobile devices. Developers will, however, need to consciously reinvest in the mobile web as a platform.
I believe that Mozilla has a vital role in pushing the web, and the broader technology industry, forward, while acting as an uncompromised agent for consumer interests. And so, I’m voting with my feet, and with my fingertips. I’m joining Mozilla, and I’m switching to Firefox on all my devices: the ones that run iOS, Android, Windows, and macOS.
It’s not easy to change, to speak up, or to start a new job. But perhaps we can all try a bit harder to control the powerful things that too often control us. Perhaps we can take back the web, our technology, and our lives, once and for all.