Open Buddha

Open Source Buddhism, Technology, and Geekery
Bay Area, California

Public Good and Mozilla

This is a bit of a meandering post in that I touch on the very distant (in one sense) and the very immediate in my work as QA at Mozilla. Please forgive me…

At the end of July, Mitchell Baker presented on “The Internet, Mozilla, and the Public Benefit” at  The Internet as a Public Good Symposium at Harvard. The list of sessions is available and slides or documents from the presentations there are available as well.

I find thinking about the public good and the Internet to be interesting. One of the primary things that drew me to Mozilla after working in the larger corporate world and at a tech startup is that the overall focus for Mozilla is a lot larger than filling the pockets of the key shareholders and executives or in making it to an initial public offering in order to cash in. The Mozilla Manifesto addresses this in a very public way. The key principles that are expounded there are:

  1. The Internet is an integral part of modern life–a key component in education, communication, collaboration, business, entertainment and society as a whole.
  2. The Internet is a global public resource that must remain open and accessible.
  3. The Internet should enrich the lives of individual human beings.
  4. Individuals' security on the Internet is fundamental and cannot be treated as optional.
  5. Individuals must have the ability to shape their own experiences on the Internet.
  6. The effectiveness of the Internet as a public resource depends upon interoperability (protocols, data formats, content), innovation and decentralized participation worldwide.
  7. Free and open source software promotes the development of the Internet as a public resource.
  8. Transparent community-based processes promote participation, accountability, and trust.
  9. Commercial involvement in the development of the Internet brings many benefits; a balance between commercial goals and public benefit is critical.
  10. Magnifying the public benefit aspects of the Internet is an important goal, worthy of time, attention and commitment.

Now I know some people have been beating on the foundation on and off about how these are interpreted but I think these principles stand pretty well for the thrust of Mozilla and its projects. They are especially telling when you compare them with the official or unofficial principles behind many large companies in the tech world that focus on the Internet. Many of those companies seem to be much more interested in principles like:

  1. Maximize profits (before all else).
  2. Keep any customer in our walled garden and only our walled garden, no matter what.
  3. Gather as much revenue as possible from any customer without causing them to leave.
  4. Make short term profits and, at most, plan for the next five years.
  5. Crush our competitors and make their customers ours.

Before someone flames me, for-profit corporations are, by definition, run for profit and to enrich the value of the corporation for the share holders. I’m at peace with that and I do think a lot of good and innovation can and does come out of those sorts of environments. They aren’t simply out to treat customers as a field of wheat to be reaped at harvest time. That being said, there has to be a space, be it in discussions, working groups, and projects, where the focus isn’t simply about enhancing shareholder value and corporate growth.

Open Source is a big part of creating such a space (and I do recognize that many corporations contribute to and use open source tools and projects). We need to be able to look up and create a world where we are not simply driven by the value of the dollar. I know that a lot of people who have been on the net for the last 20 years really miss the “old days” where things seemed much more driven by cooperation and possibilities and less by revenue streams. I’ve been on the Internet since around 1989 and it was a very different world then (and, also, a lot less interesting one in many ways). Both value sets needs to co-exist but I do fundamentally believe that public good and openness are going to come out of groups and projects that are not focused on their bottom line and a profit motive. It is those groups that are going to think about the longterm implications of the net and what it offers or helps create and do so in a way that is focused more on how to then monetize it. I do think that this hyperfocus on wealth and monetization, especially in the short term, runs the risk of creating an online world that none of us really want and would not ask for if we sat back and thought about it.

Bringing this back to the symposium above, I encourage people to go look at the presentation slides from them. I do wish that audio or video from the symposium was available to us to really flesh out the presentations there.

Taking a look at Mitchell’s presentation slides, she reiterates the principles from the Mozilla Manifesto above but also makes the point that “Decentralized Participation” is a “Fundamental Requirement.” Projects like Firefox only succeed inasmuch as they create and foster community around them. It is from this community that much of the hard work is contributed and real value created. This value isn’t measured simply in terms of dollars but in the success of the project and its ability to deliver something useful back to the community. It is the community side of things that I see a lot of in my day to day work.

The biggest challenge that I see working on QA within Mozilla is how to get people to participate in the less “sexy” parts of the Firefox project. There are a lot more people contributing code than there are involved in other aspects of the project. The fact that people contribute code is good but releasing a really solid browser requires a lot more work. The second key way that many people participate is by running the nightly builds. This is now most of the ad-hoc QA on Firefox occurs.

I’d like  to find more ways of growing the QA community but I’m not sure of the best way to do this. We recently created http://quality.mozilla.org as an effort to help focus things but there is a lot more that could be done. Creating the QA Extension to make it easy to run test cases is another move in the direction because you can use it to run a few of our manual tests and log the results. If everyone who downloads a build ran a few tests, just two or three, every day, we would have massive coverage on builds and quality would go up quite a bit. The extension is still in Beta but we do expect to be using this heavily in the future and promoting it quite a bit when it is complete.

If you have suggestions on how to improve the QA community and to convince people to participate in increasing the quality of builds and in running tests, I’d love to hear them, either here or on the QMO website itself.

I’ll bring this lazy walk through my mind to a close now. :-)