Mozilla’s Mark Surman – moving to Berlin and taking on Apple and Android with Firefox OS

Mark Surman
Mark Surman

Mark Surman

Global non-profit web organisation Mozilla, best-known for its free Firefox browser, employs about 700 people around the world and recently signed a new $300 million per year deal with Google. That extra income will come in handy as the organisation prepares for a big push into mobile with Firefox OS and a new cross-platform app store later this year. Mozilla is also opening an office in new Berlin startup hub The Factory next year.

We caught up with Mozilla Foundation executive director Mark Surman and Mozilla’s Berlin-based European spokeswoman Barbara Hüppe at Campus Party Europe last week:

Why open an office in Berlin?

MS – We made a decision about a year ago to really expand our local presence in a lot of places. We have 700-750 people around the world. Traditionally we’d only had offices in Mountain View and in Toronto, just because those were the places where things happened to get going, places with a concentration of people.

So we have this idea, we’re building what we call “Moz Spaces” – any place we’ve got around 15 people is around when we’re starting to open these. But the idea is, it’s not just because we have a concentration of employees, it’s because we really want to connect to that community… So, it’s not so much “OK, we’ve building mobile in Berlin” and “we’re building desktop in Toronto”. It’s really just a place where people who are working for us can gather but also for the community to come together.

What’s next in Europe?

BH – Paris has a presence but we’re going bigger in Paris early next year. London, we actually just opened this spring. So it’s going London, Paris bigger, then Berlin.

The Factory 4Artist’s impression of Berlin’s the Factory – due for completion next year

MS – It’ll be mid-next year before we can actually move into the Factory. These are all areas that make sense for the community but the Factory is probably the best example of what we want in terms of being close to a lot of startups, being close to a lot of open source people. That’s exciting.

Is that kind of outreach important with the app store launch coming up? You want people engaging, developing…

MS – It’s always been important, right? Mozilla, when we started as a foundation to build Firefox, it was ten employees, right – ten employees who decided to take on Microsoft, so volunteers were kind of important. Still now, in 80 languages, it’s all volunteers who localise and translate it. So the app store is just one of the next things where we need that community engagement but it’s always been who we are.

The big news this year is the move towards mobile. Can you tell me a bit about that?

MS – We’ve got some people on Android, some people on iPhone… We’re kind of back in the situation we were in with the PC before the web. You’re on a Mac, you’re on a PC, we can’t talk to each other. What’s great about the web is we now have a single platform for all computing. Mobile has swung back in the other direction.

Mozilla Firefox OSWe want to make sure the web wins with mobile and becomes the main platform. So one of the things we’ll measure ourselves against is – is the web either a legitimate competitor, so not Mozilla but the web, to the iPhone and Android phone over the long-run. Or ideally is the web just going to beat them out? That’s the goal.

BH – We’re working with Telefónica… The plan is now to actually issue a phone based on Firefox OS in Brazil early next year. It’s going to be more affordable, cheaper than a smartphone but with basically the same functionality as a high-end smartphone.

What do Apple and Google think?

MS – I don’t know, that’s a good question… I think they would like their platforms to succeed but I think especially Google also has an interest in the web succeeding. So we’ll see how it plays out.

BH – We’ve got a lot of support from a lot of players… Sprint in the US, Deutsche Telekom, they’ve all publically supported the initiative.

MS – I think why you see the support from the telcos is that they realize everybody wins and certainly they win if we have a more standards-based system that is in common across all devices and across all manufactures.

So to compare back to web browser platforms – Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Firefox now just co-exist?

MS – Well yes, but the success story of Firefox isn’t just that half a billion people use a desktop browser. It’s that, by going out with a desktop browser that was basically a tool for advocating for web standards, we drew everyone including Microsoft back to a richer and better set of programming tools for making web pages.

BH – It makes innovation easier because back then – at some point, you had to develop webpages for Internet Explorer and then for everyone else.

MS – We’re kind of at the same point with mobile apps. A lot of them are actually HTML5 and you just get a wrapper to run in different systems so it’s actually not too far off, but we want to take even that layer away. Why a wrapper? Why not just build it on the platform everyone supports?

How’s Firefox, as the main source of revenue for the Mozilla Foundation, doing against, say, Google Chrome?

MS – I don’t think we measure it as a source of revenue against Chrome but certainly in the marketplace it’s still doing fine, it’s still a quarter of global desktop [web browser use].

Is that up or down on what it used to be?

MS – The number of people using it continues to grow, at the same speed as the internet, but we’ve kind of flattened out in terms of being around 25 per cent of the global market. It’s different in different countries. In Germany, it’s about 50 per cent.

Campus Party Europe tentsCampus Party Europe – geeks camp for the week (image credit: Tilman Vogler)

There are a lot of things going on, apart from the push to mobile – Mozilla’s work with journalists, Thimble, Webmaker… Which are you most passionate about, personally?

MS – We really need to take the ethos of the web as well as the technology of the web and fuse that into all parts of society. We’re just as concerned that journalists understand how the web works and even know how to code as we are that schoolkids do, or filmmakers, or artists…

One of the things I take as inspiration is I look at other movements that have been successful a lot. The Scouting movement is an interesting one. When they started out with this idea of wanting to make a connection to nature, camping was this arcane technical activity. The only people who actually camped were the military and you actually needed a lot of equipment, it was expensive. By the time the Scouts were done with it, by the middle of the 20th century, this was a mainstream amateur activity.

We want to see the same thing happen with coding and understanding the web. Working with journalists is part of that, working with schoolkids, I’m passionate about any of that piece. Making it something anyone can pick up and do for fun.


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