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Mozilla Europe's Tristan Nitot, interviewed by Sean Daly
Sunday, February 24 2008 @ 11:11 AM EST

Interview with Tristan Nitot, President, Mozilla Europe,
by Sean Daly
[Ogg]

Q: This is Sean Daly reporting for Groklaw. I'm at FOSDEM 1 in Brussels, and I'm seated here with Tristan Nitot who is president of Mozilla Europe. Thank you very much for being with us today.

Tristan Nitot: Oh, it's a pleasure.

Q: I would like to ask you a few questions. First of all, could you tell me how many Mozilla developers are here in Brussels this weekend?

Tristan Nitot: It depends what you call a developer. I would rather say contributor. We're, I think, pretty close to a hundred.

Q: A hundred? Now, let me ask you another question: What do 100 Mozilla contributors do together in a room?

Tristan Nitot: Well, we communicate. We socialize. You know, we collaborate on a daily basis using electronic means; we use Bugzilla, we use IRC, we use e-mail. But nothing replaces the bandwidth of, you know, human interaction and face-to-face. And nothing replaces the fact that you share a beer with someone you've been maybe fighting a bit over time on such-and-such feature that was not included or was, you know -- you don't always agree when you work together, and especially it's easy to fight on e-mail or stuff like that, but when you're facing the person and you say, "OK, let me buy you a beer", and suddenly things go smoother again. So it's very important to meet in person.

Q: Well, Brussels is certainly one of the finest places to find a beer to work out differences with anybody. [laughter] Now, I saw that Firefox 3 Beta 1 is out. Can you tell us what's coming up in Firefox 3?

Tristan Nitot: So we just released Firefox v3 beta 3 now, and we're soon going to release beta 4, so things are moving fast -- some people would complain it's not moving fast enough, but there are many changes in Firefox 3. We've been discussing earlier today that 13,000 bug reports were fixed, marked as fixed, in ... between the initial work on Firefox 3 and now that we are approaching release. So there are literally thousands, dozens of thousands, of changes in the product.

Now, just to name a few highly visible ones: Speed. There is a lot of increase in speed. A lot of increase, a lot of improvement in terms of memory management -- and these are two things that, you know, our users have been asking for. And in terms of user interface, there are improvements related to the extension manager. There's a new download manager.

And maybe the most visible thing that really gets people excited and that keeps them running Firefox 3 beta instead of trying it and returning to a stable product is what we call "The Awesome Bar," which is kind of a joke for a name, but it's the address bar that's much smarter than before that enables you to retrieve places or sites that you've been visiting before.

So we kind of merged the history, the navigation history, with the bookmarks all together, and so you start typing a keyword, and we suggest places that you want to go to, because you've been visiting them in the past based on the address title and the URL itself and the number of times you've visited it, and the frequency, and last visit, and that kind of thing, and whether you've marked it as one of your favorite pages or not. So all together, it's amazing. I mean, you type literally three letters of a keyword that comes to your mind, you know, like "Oh, I've been visiting that page about fish, or animals, or something." You start typing "fish", F-I-S, and then bam, you have a list of websites you've been visiting about it. And we've even added tags to the bookmark system, so for those of us who are fans of tagging bookmarks, it's a great feature.

[04:44]

Q: Well, that sounds great. Now, I understand that Firefox's market share is higher in Europe than elsewhere. Is that the case? If so, why?

Tristan Nitot: It is indeed the case. If you visit XitiMonitor.com which publishes regularly reports on this topic, you'll see that on average, Firefox penetration is 28%. So 28% of the visits to websites are made using a Firefox browser or one of its derivatives. And it's better than, say, in the US, where there are around 20%.2

There are many reasons for that. And actually, for every country, I think, there's a mix of reasons, and the top reason may change from country to country. So for example, I'll talk about Germany. In Germany, people are really into privacy and security and, well, we all know the track record of the dominant player in these two areas. And so they have always been reluctant in giving or using Microsoft software. And so when Firefox showed up, you know, well, a lot of people switched to Firefox instantly. And since then, they are kind of leading the pack. They are past 30%, probably closer to 35% with Firefox.

In Poland, things are different. They're also around 35%, but it's a totally different story. Computers arrived later in Poland, you know, because the wealth is not as important as in Germany or western Europe, and people don't have much of the habit of using Microsoft products. And basically they start the Internet, and for many of them it's the choice between IE and Firefox. And when you compare the two, you know, people choose Firefox by far. And so IE is in many cases considered as obsolete and, you know, old stuff, or you use it because you have to because you're in the office, but when you have a choice, you know, when you're -- the cool guys, all the cool kids use Firefox. And then, so it does play a big role in there.

And then it's different in the UK, different in France, in Italy, in Spain, all that. Depending on whether Open Source is strong in a country or not. There are many reasons, but they're all different.

[07:28]

Q: All right now, tell me a little bit about the Thunderbird project. It's just been spun off into a separate organization, Mozilla Messaging. What's that about?

Tristan Nitot: Well, it's actually -- it's spun off, but it's not really a separate entity yet. Basically, we are creating a new entity which is a 100% subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation. Just like Mozilla Corporation is. But now Mozilla Corporation is focusing on Firefox, and there will be Mozilla Messaging focusing on Thunderbird, and other products related to personal communication and messaging. So it's -- I mean, Thunderbird is definitely staying in the Mozilla project. We're not, you know, getting rid of it, as some people have said. We're definitely investing more in Thunderbird, and we want it to be part of the effort led by the Mozilla Foundation.

[08:21]

Q: All right. Let's talk about standards. I saw that you did a series of blog posts [French] with your personal, unofficial view concerning Firefox, standards, and the future of the web. In general, how important are standards to Firefox development at Mozilla?

Tristan Nitot: Well, I think that -- and once again, this is my personal view -- but I see Firefox as a tool to make the web a better place. I don't see Firefox as an end in itself. And what's important is that everybody can participate to the web, using the web in a secure way. Because if you're not safe, you know, using the web and the Internet in general, then you're not going to use it. It's going to limit its usage. It's going to limit its potential. So being safe and secure is very important for us. But also, we think that you need to have a choice as a user.

And choice is only possible if there is interoperability between a browser and another. That's all the beauty and the power of the web, is that you can visit a web page with any operating system, with any browser -- at least, if it follows the web standards -- and you don't care about what kind of operating system is running on the server. You don't care if the user, or the author of the web page was running a Mac or a Linux machine or a Windows machine. You don't really care. You know it's going to work, because of standards.

And so the potential of the web and the promise of the web is based on standards. And so we really love standards, and we implement them, but we also -- you know, sometimes we are unhappy with them, because we think they are not moving forward fast enough. But when we introduce innovation, we make sure there is a specification that is being discussed in various standards bodies and that other browser vendors such as Safari and Opera are following us, and if someday Microsoft wants to also do it, they will have a specification written somewhere so they know how to implement that feature in their product when they decide to upgrade it. So it is extremely important to have standards for the web to reach its full potential.

[11:13]

Q: Well, in talking about Opera, Håkon Wium Lie of Opera, CTO of Opera, he just published an editorial in The Register. I believe you had a chance to look at it. Do you agree with his position? Do you think it would make a difference if Microsoft did what he asks?

Tristan Nitot: Well, I think I agree and disagree with Håkon. I agree that the market is broken. And this is exactly why Mozilla exists today, is that the market is broken. I think if the market was not broken, there wouldn't be a monopoly, and there would be, I mean, a good way to make decent money in building a browser. But it's not the case today, right?

There are basically four browsers on the market today. There is IE, which is funded by Microsoft and the sales of Windows. So they are making money out of Windows and Office, and they are funding Internet Explorer development with it. Considering the speed of improvement in Internet Explorer, I think they are not making a lot of money, otherwise they would invest more. Yeah. [laughter]. Well, I was told they make a lot of money, but they don't invest more, a lot more, or at least enough, in my opinion, in Internet Explorer.

Then you have, what? You have Safari, which is also funded by Apple in that you pay because you buy a license of their operating system bundled with their hardware. Then you have Mozilla, which is led by a nonprofit organization, the Mozilla Foundation. And then you have Opera, and Opera doesn't make -- I don't know, I don't think they publish their numbers, but on the desktop, they don't make enough money to have a sustainable business. This really means the market is broken. I mean, it shouldn't be like that. But it happens it is like that.

And then this is where I start disagreeing with Håkon on the remedy to fix the market. Having the European Commission start getting involved in standards and all this, I don't think it's going to help. The way things are structured, the way standards bodies are structured, the way the European Commission is structured, I don't think it's going to fly. And I -- maybe the remedy is going to be worse than the problem that we're trying to fix. So that's, yeah, that's one part of my answer.

But yes. The market is broken, and we need to fix it. Now, maybe, you know, having Open Source and Free Software that respects the standards, that is really easy to use and that has a lot of success on the market, like Firefox, is helping in solving the problem, because when you do that, you're applying pressure on the main browser vendor in a way that forces them to release IE7 also on XP -- because I think it was not part of the initial plan.

If I was Microsoft like two years ago, what I would have done is say, "Oh, if you want to use a new version of the browser, if you want to use IE7 which is so cool -- it mostly has a new user interface, not so many features inside, but a new user interface, then you'll have to use Vista." And IE would become a selling point for Vista. But under pressure, I think thanks to Firefox, they have offered XP users to use IE7. But it was not their choice initially. So, and this is hopefully just the beginning. They are making promises with IE8, which is going to support standards -- let's wait and see what happens. Actually, at Mozilla, we don't wait. We build our software, right? [laughter] But we'll see what happens.

And we keep, you know, improving the browser, making it safer, more standards-compliant, but still keep innovative in order to apply pressure and see if things get better. And I think it is getting better. I mean, IE7, even though the progress it made in terms of standards support is minimal, it's still, it's progress, so it's positive. And so it's benefiting everyone to have Firefox. Even if you don't use Firefox, you're getting a better browser. It's coming from Microsoft, but still, it's a better browser. It's safer than before, and it's a little bit better in terms of standards. And I hope IE8 is going to be even better. I hope that Firefox 3 is going to be better than IE8 still.

[16:39]

Q: All right now, could you tell me a little bit about synergy with other Free Libre Open Source software projects? Miro is one example, the Google search bar, are there others?

Tristan Nitot: Yeah, there are actually -- we are reusing, you know, Open Source software and Free and Libre software in Firefox. For example, there is this BreakPad agent. BreakPad is a technology. It's Open Source, I think it's Apache or BSD license, so it's a very liberal, very open license. It's open even to the people that don't like the GPL, so everybody can use it, and you don't have to contribute back to the code.

And it's an interesting piece of software, even though I hope that people will use it less and less, because it's helping making a more stable version of software. When you crash, you know, it sends a report to the author of the code to say, you know, "Your piece of software just crashed on me, and here's how it crashed." And so we use it at Mozilla because we have 150 million active users, and, well, you know, software happens to crash. And so we know where are the most important problems we have in the software, and we fix them in priority.

We increase their priority with this, and so it gives us better visibility on what we have to fix first. And this is very useful to us, but it's very useful to other projects. And I just heard today Mike Schroepfer, our VP of Engineering, offering to people in the room, saying, "If you have an Open Source project, and you want to use BreakPad, then go ahead, use it, and we'll, because we have a huge server infrastructure, we will lend you a server so that you'll get, you know, reports working because we're basically adding a new server to our infrastructure just for you, so you can, you know, see what's crashing in your software product. So that's, you know, the kind of synergy we have.

We didn't write BreakPad ourselves; it's hosted in Google Code. It's the community around it that built it. We use it, we use the server side also, which is also Open Source. And if you don't want to run a server, we can do it for you if you want.

And we do support, for example, SQLite, because we're including SQLite in Firefox for this Awesome Bar feature, for example, storing the history -- we're storing it in a database, which is SQLite. We're contributing code, and patches, and QA to SQLite.

And there is something called LittleCMS which is a color mangement system for profile management for displaying the right colors on your monitor. We use their code, but we also made sure before including it we've been doing intrusion testing to make sure we were not going to insert new security issues within our product, and we reported bugs relating to this. And OpenBSD and OpenSSH, and there are many others like this. We use them, or we support them financially. I think we help as much as we can all the others around us in the Open Source and Free Libre software ecosystem -- because if they are stronger, we are stronger.

[20:47]

Q: All right. Now, I think it's safe to say that the extensions feature of Firefox is very popular with power users. How do you work with add-on developers? What convinces them or entices them to develop for Firefox?

Tristan Nitot: In many cases it's the old Open Source saying that goes, "You scratch your own itch". I do have an extension for my Firefox which was written for a friend -- and I think it's used by two people on this planet --and still, it's very useful to me, because it enables me to create a link for my blog in just a keystroke. You know, I see something which is interesting, I select a piece of text, hit Control-Shift-C instead of Control-C, and it copy/pastes in wiki syntax in the clipboard what I'll be pasting in my blog. And there are two people using it, you know, and it's very useful, and it's just one side of the spectrum. On the other side, well, such an extension -- and maybe we're going to get this, maybe people listening to this interview will say, Wow, that's so cool! I want it too!

[22:09]

Q: I need that! [laughter]

Tristan Nitot: I need it!

[22:11]

Q: Where is it? [laughter]

Tristan Nitot: And that's the kind of thing that happens, and extensions grow, like AdBlock Plus that blocks the advertising, which is our most downloaded extension. It really depends. You're fed up with this or that, and you want to fix it, or you need something specific, you want the weather forecast in your status bar, or you're a web developer and you use Firebug or webdeveloper toolbar -- these are tools, you know, that address your problems and your issues and things that you want to see changed in the product.

But what's cool is that you can do it yourself. You just write an extension, and it's easy to write an extension. I mean, a web developer that knows javascript and CSS and XML can write his first extension in probably half a day, you know, and you don't have to convince someone to have it included in the next version of Firefox, and you don't have to wait for the next release of Firefox to see it. You just use your current version of Firefox and plug your stuff in, and there you go -- you have a prototype.

And then it's the Open Source cycle. Oh, you show it to friends, and they like it, but they want this feature, and they take the source code, they improve it, and in the end, you have a product without even knowing it. And what we do at Mozilla is we host these extensions as a kind of a marketplace if you will, where people meet and gather and download and improve and chat over what could be made or improved in these extensions, and this is it.

[23:58]

Q: Now, tell me, is support for Microsoft Silverlight coming to Firefox anytime soon? Why or why not?

Tristan Nitot: [laughter] Oh, my God. Ah.... That's a good one. (laughter) It's very, very unlikely that Firefox will support Silverlight anytime soon. At least if I'm alive. [laughter]

[24:21]

Q: Well, that's very clear. [laughter]

Tristan Nitot: No, no. I'm not the one making the decision, but I think it's not going to happen, for many reasons. It is not a standard. It's a proprietary technology, which maybe is good. I mean, they have invested a lot of money in this, and when Microsoft wants something, it may be good. It may take them quite a while to do it well, but they would end up doing it well. So maybe Silverlight is good from a technical standpoint.

Now, is it good for the Web? I don't think so.

Let's take the example of Flash. Because, you know, we have history with Flash. I'll just give you an example. Flash is interesting because it's powerful. Today -- and I think it's a very impressive technology, which doesn't mean I like it, you know? Today, in many cases, you use Flash for viewing video. I mean, I use it myself, because I want to post videos on my blog, and the only thing I have to do this is Flash technology, and so I use Flash because I have to.

But for many years, videos could not be viewed in Linux, because Adobe who owns Flash was not interested, or didn't have time, or it was not a high enough priority to give a recent version of the Flash player running on Linux.

And if it was an Open Source technology, or if it was a standard, someone could write a version running on Linux. But it was not. And so, when I published videos or if anyone publishing video could not access this video if they were running Linux. And all they could do was complain and cry, which as you know doesn't work really well with software vendors, right?

[26:34]

Q: Not very well. [laughter]

Tristan Nitot: And so, well, it's not the kind of thing I want to see on the web. Although I, once again, this is my personal opinion, but I am sure many people within the Mozilla project have similar opinions, right? We want technologies that are innovative but that can be used by anyone, any browser, on any operating system. And proprietary technologies are just not like this, right?

Right now, because Microsoft really wants to see Silverlight everywhere, they're building versions for Firefox, they're building versions for the Mac, for Safari on the Mac, Firefox on the Mac, and Firefox on Windows, and IE on Windows, and blah-blah-blah. So today you can -- and they're also almost giving away tools for building Silverlight content. So you could say, "Well, you know, it's running everywhere. I could use it." But let's imagine being in five years from today. Are we sure that it will be a good version of Silverlight? Good, recent, fast, stable version of Silverlight for Firefox on Windows?

Well, maybe if Firefox has 50% market share. It will probably be a bit less stable, or it will use up more memory, and they'll blame the Firefox codebase and all that, but it may work.

Are we going to see a version of Silverlight running on Safari, on Firefox on the Mac? Not so sure. Is it going to run on Linux? Well, maybe, because there is the Mono project. But maybe Mono is going to be sued, or maybe the users that use Mono on a non-Novell distribution which is not covered by patents are going to get, you know, endangered. Or maybe they're just going to be threatened by this.

So you never know, and today, when you decide because it's convenient -- you decide to build content using Silverlight, you're actually not sure whether you're going to be able to access this content on any platform in a couple of years from now. And it is our duty to think before we build content using Silverlight and to balance the easiness of using it today and the ability to access it in five years from now. And I know it's easier just to think about the present, you know, but we have to think if you're making good content, it may be worthy of seeing it or accessing it in 5 years or for 50 years from now, because in 50 years it's going to be really hard to find a Windows machine with IE7.

[29:44]

Q: Well, in particular a secure one, perhaps. [laughter]

Tristan Nitot: Maybe, yes. [laughter]

[29:50]

Q: Now, I think you have some perspective to talk about five years or ten years, because it's been ten years now since Netscape liberated the source code.

Tristan Nitot: Right, yeah.

Q: I mean, I can't even imagine how much work on your part, on the work of others, has gone into transforming that code into the modern Firefox that we know today. For you, has all that work been worth it?

Tristan Nitot: Oh, definitely. Definitely. Yeah. It's .... I wouldn't say it's been ten easy years. I would probably say just the opposite, actually, but it was definitely fun and worthy. I mean, when I think just -- when was that? -- just four years ago we launched Mozilla Europe here at FOSDEM, we announced it to the world, and I was unemployed, and many others in the community were unemployed, were former Netscape employees and didn't have a job, or could find a job but really their heart was with Mozilla. And all of us were very concerned by a really weird situation.

We all know because we work on it, we use it every day, and it's our life, but the Internet and the web are extremely important. I mean, if we're listening to this interview now, it's made possible because of the web and the Internet, right? And let's for a second think what would be our life without the Internet. It would probably suck a lot. I mean, the Internet enables open source development, it enables communication around the globe, collaboration, and it enables Wikipedia, and it enables, you know, dating sites [laughter]. It's so many different things that have an impact on your life thanks to the Internet. And so we think the Internet is extremely important. And the web, being a big part of it, is very important.

And at the time, four years ago, what was it? There was no Firefox. So there was IE6. And all the content was made to be viewed in IE6, which, when you know about standards, is wicked. You know? [laughter] And the very scary part is that the people in charge of IE6 didn't care about it. Basically, the whole world was developing content and applications on a browser that was obsolete and that nobody was willing to improve. It was unsafe, it was -- you know, there was no popup blocking, there were security issues. Basically, the company in charge of the browser space was not interested in improving it. But everybody was creating content for an obsolete browser.

And myself, I felt really upset by this fact. And I just -- well, it's not I really decided, but when we at Netscape were laid off following the Microsoft-AOL agreement, you know, where Microsoft gave $750 million dollars to AOL3 -- we were left without a job. There was that Mozilla Suite codebase which was a great product at the time, but was not usable by ordinary people, and we saw that it was missing not so much to make it a good product. It was, you know, it was missing, well, polishing, and rethinking a few pieces of it, but basically the codebase was here. We were missing a few pieces, and we were missing users. And so, who could fix this? And there were not so many people who were able to fix this.

And so there were the people who were building the Mozilla Foundation, but in Europe there was basically us. You know, I looked to my friends and said, Who's going to do it, if it's not us? Who's got the vision, who's got the energy, who's got the knowledge, who's got the credibility to do it? Not so many people in Europe, you know, and that's probably *us*. And so if we don't do it, I'm not sure it's going to happen. Or maybe it's going to be just a US-only thing, with no users in Europe, with no localization available, so we're not going to be successful in Spain and Italy and Germany and France. So we've got to do it ourselves. And this is what we did. And now, look at this. It's getting close to 30%, and we're all super excited by the upcoming Firefox 3 release.

[35:09]

Q: Now if you are willing to speculate a while. What do you think about browsers five years from now, ten years from now? What about smartphones? What's coming next?

Tristan Nitot: I'm terrible at predictions. If you had asked me about Wikipedia five years ago, I would have said, "It's a great idea, but it's never going to work." And luckily, I was terribly wrong, because I'm a Wikipedia contributor and a big fan and a daily user. So I'm really bad at predictions. I think, anyway, I'll take the risk and wildly speculate -- but I'm very prudent at the same time. I think mobile is going to be big. I was discussing with Japanese colleagues recently, and what they told me really struck me. Basically, the PC market is going south. There are less and less people buying PCs. I mean, "What?" [laughter] It's so, I mean, that sounds so wrong or so amazing. Basically, the reason why is that everybody uses mobiles to access the Internet. And this is one of the reasons Mozilla is launching a mobile initiative with labs in Europe. Basically, we are building a team in Copenhagen, in Denmark, to work on this. So, we are working hard on memory usage and efficiency of the code. It shows today in Firefox 3, but it's going to show even more in a project called Mozilla 2, which is, we're reworking the code in a significant way to be able to run on smaller platforms. So that's the core part of it.

And then we have to think about the user interface and the user experience. Because browsing on a phone is, you know, it's very different from browsing on a desktop. How do you handle tabs? How do you handle Control-click or right-click to open things or middle click, if you will? How do you open links in a background tab? Is it useful? I think it is. I'm using an iPhone, and I think the iPhone has got a lot of things right, but it's not there yet. It's missing some things. In some cases, although it's very advanced, and more advanced than many other people in the market, it's frustrating to go to Google News and search for something which is of some interest to you, and you want to read, say, the top ten articles. On my desktop, I would use the middle-click on every link, and it would open in background tabs, and I would be able to browse these pages that load in the background and close those page that are not relevant and just focus on the 2-3 articles that give me the full picture of a story. I was trying to do this on my iPhone, and gosh, it's not made for this. So there is a lot of thinking that needs to be done on the user experience and the user interface on mobile phones.

And there is also a lot of things to be done in terms of changing the market. Because right now, I think the mobile market is kind of solidified, you know? There is a fight between device manufacturers, software vendors for the mobiles. The operators try not to -- well, they try to sell service rather than mobile broadband, right?

[39:26]

Q: Right.

Tristan Nitot: But in there, the user, the end user, doesn't have a voice. And these are big companies fighting over ownership of the user. The user himself doesn't have anything to say there. And this is changing, and I think having Linux on mobile phones and having the choice of the browser is going to change this, and completely remove the solidification of the market and make it more liquid where someone can pick -- a device manufacturer can pick an OS, pick a browser, pick a form factor, and pick an operator and altogether find something that really addresses the user which is not the case today, or not enough, in my opinion.

[40:23]

Q: OK, well I think that's all we have time for, Tristan. Thank you so much for meeting with us today.

Tristan Nitot: It was a pleasure. Thank you very much.


1 FOSDEM, Free and Open Source Software Developers European Meeting, website on streaming:

As a reminder: for those who won't be able to attend the event, a live stream of all talks held in the conference room "Janson" (that includes the Keynotes, the Programming Languages, the Build Systems and the Packaging tracks) will be provided in partnership with Linux Magazine.

The following link will take you to the schedule and streaming interface, where you can use several technologies to watch the videos (including opensource ones, with opensource codecs): http://streaming.linux-magazin.de/ en/program_fosdem.htm
(no registration nor fee required)

2 Firefox hits 500 million downloads mark

3 AOL kills Netscape


If you don't know how to listen to an Ogg file, note that you can get the Audacity player to play Ogg audio files here and it works on Windows and Macs too, as well as in GNU/Linux, and it's licensed under the GPL.

Update: Tristan has now blogged about the interview, and he includes a photo of Sean Daly.


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