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Interview: Gary Kovacs

Slo-tech: Can you please introduce yourself?

Gary Kovacs: Yes. I’m Gary Kovacs, CEO of Mozilla.

Gary Kovacs

Slo-tech: How do you feel after these two months of being CEO of Mozilla?

Gary Kovacs: It’s actually been three and a half weeks and I feel great. It is as I expected it to be: there’s a passionate group of community contributors worldwide that have made the project what it is today – very smart and dedicated people. I’m very humbled by it but also very excited to be a part of it.

Slo-tech: Can we go directly to the point? What do you think are your long term goals now when in the beginning it was to stir the market, to break the monopoly and so on? Now you have more than half of market share in some markets and quite sizable market share everywhere else so what’s the goal now?

Gary Kovacs: Well, there are two fundamental changes that are happening and they’re not changes that would dramatically change what we do, but they will evolve what we do. And the two changes are: we as society around the world are both doing something different on the Internet than we were five years ago and we’re doing it in different places. The Internet has moved from simply the PC to many more places in our world and we at Mozilla need to move there too. That is taking Firefox and the success we’ve had with the browser on PCs, and moving it to new computing and internet devices, whether those are tablets, mobile devices or the other types of things that are going to be coming over the next three to five years, and we have to get ready for that. What we do on the Internet is changing as well. It used to be that we would look for information. We are now connecting with our friends and communities, we are sharing social experiences and we are running applications. For our mission to be able to promote an open and innovative Web, we have a lot of work to do as the Internet grows in things that we’re doing – things such as privacy, things such as identity, the way we enable applications to be open to choice and the way we enable applications to not be completely covered by just one or two companies; that true innovation on the Internet can also be applied to these applications. Those are the two directions for our goals – so simply, over the next one to two years we want to move into those areas as thoughtfully as we did when we moved into the browser many years ago.

Slo-tech: What’s the short-term plan in this area? What’s next?

Gary Kovacs: Without question, the most important thing is Firefox 4 coming out with all the success we know it will. It has to continue to live up to the promise that people have expected of Mozilla. It has to be fast, it has to load quickly, it has to be very capable, it has to enable all the add-ons, and all the other types of things that people have come to expect. And it has to be delivered in all of the languages around the world that we’ve had in the past. So, that’s what is next for us and that’s the most important thing in the first quarter of 2011.

Slo-tech: What do you think is going to happen with browsers next? Is the border between the browser and other stuff in operating systems going to go away or just fade? Do you think it’s possible to survive with just a browser independently based on some operating system?

Gary Kovacs: That’s a really good question and that is what we have to focus on most. The role of the browser will continue in its current form. People will enter the Internet through a browser for many years to come so we have to continue that. But the role of the browser will change and we have to change as well. So, the line between a browser and a web application or a browser and a social application is really changing. And so you will also see Mozilla change and our browser will start to evolve. But I fundamentally think that we’re moving into a role where the Web is the platform. And whether you enter the Web from a browser or from an application or some other means, and whether you do it on a desktop or on a mobile device or some other device – all of that is the Web and our mission is defined as the Web and the Web as a platform. So, you’ll start to see innovation from us in all of the things that are needed to make that platform part of our lives.

Slo-tech: You mentioned mobile, embedded and touch platforms. How far along are you with getting into that market? It’s mostly WebKit at the moment.

Gary Kovacs: We’re pretty far along. We have a great product that’s going to be delivered – the beta is out on Android today. It will be delivered around the same time if not right at the same time that Firefox 4 is delivered on the desktop and on mobile platforms. It looks good; it’s just a start, though.

Tristan Nitot: Actually, what you will see is that Firefox 4 on mobile uses exactly the same engine as Firefox 4 on the desktop. So, when it comes to developer oriented features like HTML5 support and CSS3 and everything, it’s actually a very powerful engine. You really have an amazing platform which is mobile and which is the open Web, but it’s in the palm of your hand. Compared to other mobile browsers that are very limited, Firefox is just as powerful as the desktop browser. It’s very innovative, very leading-edge with HTML5 and CSS3 and everything: video, canvas, 3D etc. We already have WebGL – are you familiar with WebGL? We run WebGL on the mobile: It's hardware accelerated 3D on your mobile based on web technology. It's just plain crazy.

Slo-tech: Do you think that's the future at the moment? HTML5 plus the new canvas, video etc.

Tristan Nitot: Completely. The Web as a platform is getting significantly better with HTML5 and all the APIs and CSS3. It really is suddenly increasing and you will get this with Firefox 4 on mobile as well.

Gary Kovacs: I think Tristan raises some really good points. There's a set of technology reasons that we believe is better. There's a set of personal reasons as well. Back to the topic, we believe the Internet will be in many places in your life. We also believe, as a result of that, that the browsers should behave the same in many places in your life. So, it should sync your bookmarks and your preferences and your identity. We won't get all of that in the first stage, but when we evolve the browser on the mobile and the browser on the desktop, they will evolve consistently so if you do one thing on the desktop it will carry over onto what you do on mobile instead of having two separate experiences, depending on where you interact with the Internet. And I want to repeat a little bit of what Tristan said about HTML5 and the openness; the opportunity it represents for people to create with open tools and formats – that's the future and we believe very strongly in it, and that's the push that we're making. And you'll see some of those in the first version that's released in the first quarter of 2011, but we'll push much more into those.

Slo-tech: After that's done, what's keeping Flash and Silverlight from dying? Why don't you get all these features implemented into a browser?

Gary Kovacs: Well, the Web evolves and there are technologies that are needed at various points in time to evolve. Three years ago, there wasn't any very capable video tag; in fact, there wasn't any video tag at all so it was hard to play video. Today there are open alternatives to video and they are going to continue to evolve – as one example. There will be others that will come up over the next three to five years. I think a lot of the technologies that have helped us get to where we are today with the Internet have been great. As those become standards, we need to embrace the standard and then push innovation into other areas. So, whether or not any specific format or technology goes away, I don't know. But where there are open alternatives to that, I think it's really important that we push those open alternatives.

Slo-tech: You still haven't implemented H.264 video codec – even now, when they're giving it for free, as a Trojan horse for a couple of years?

Gary Kovacs: I think you mentioned something very important. We have to be extremely cautious. The Internet in the past has been text-based data and it has moved very quickly into multimedia experiences. And the multimedia experiences can't come with a set of costs, which are prohibitive to the creativity that we want the Internet to be. So, we fundamentally look at whether there’s the consortium behind H.264 or any other format. If they are the sole gatekeeper, that is going to come with a tariff, that is going to prohibit the sort of innovation and we can't go there. We have to be very careful. But there's a pragmatic side to it when there will be some technologies with no alternatives that may be needed. As a community, we need to be mindful and thoughtful. There will be some such technologies that we'll have to take, but we have to push for some open alternatives and I think in the example that you’ve made with the video tag and so forth, there are open alternatives emerging. The battle is not over, but we've clearly taken a stand – which was a necessary thing to do, for the reasons that I've mentioned.

Tristan Nitot: I’d like to say two things, just to emphasize what you’ve said. The first one is: we need to remember the Web was successful because it was based on open standards. There was no one who could control it. If you could learn from viewing the source and you could apply your knowledge using just a text editor, you were able to build a website. And this has been an amazingly great empowering tool for people worldwide. You could be hidden somewhere in Ljubljana; you didn't have to go to MIT to produce a website. You just viewed the source, you had the page and nobody asked you for money to put up that page. This is all the beauty of the Web and this was enabled because there were open standards. We want to keep doing this with video because video is kind of a next frontier for the Web. The second thing I wanted to say is: In the past we had issues similar to video codecs, namely the GIF format where people started using it because they felt it was free, but it was actually patent protected and then we got into trouble: some people were sued, other people had to remove their pictures from their websites etc. We don't want to make that same mistake all over again, right? I think the GIF nightmare should be a good reminder not to make that same stupid mistake again with video.

Slo-tech: Now, when HTML5 is mostly a done deal, but with a lot of minor stuff to be decided yet, what's the next thing that's going to happen with the Web? What’s the visionary view?

Gary Kovacs: The Web has gone multimedia and it has gone very social. I don't think we as people understand yet how our privacy should be controlled. I don't think we understand yet where our exposure should be. I think there are a number of companies and initiatives that are using the Web to gather a lot of data about people and we're not in control of what they do with that data – but this is our life, this is my life it's out there, so I want to have control of that. I think we'll continue to see a lot of social interactions, whether that's crowd sourcing or friend sourcing or using the Web to bring people together for various things, but the way that we use the Web will change dramatically based on this need for social interaction and social context on a lot of the applications. We see that as a big area of evolution for the Internet, we have a role to play there – it's not exactly clear what that role should be yet. We're experimenting with a lot of things, we have some things in our labs that we're trying out and it's all public for everybody to see. So, that's on privacy. Also, identity. The fact that I'm going to go to 10 different or 50 different sites and I have to have an identity interaction with each of these sites – we think that is inefficient and we think that has the same risks that I just talked about with privacy. So, what is that common identity layer, how can I manage that identity, how can that layer be used to interact with any website? I think those two examples apply in the area of expression as well. We talked about video, we talked about images etc. All of that has to be enabled through the Internet in ways that are open and I'm in control of; I'm not subject to any one party in a tariff so all of that needs to happen as the Internet evolves. And the line between browsers and web applications has really blurred. Web applications, whether those are add-ons or whether those are going to be applications in the future, are going to play inside the browser, they're going to play on mobile devices and there's lots of innovation that has to happen around how an application is developed, how it’s deployed in a standards-based way, because applications that are locked into one vendor’s proprietary stack don’t enable the innovation that we’ve talked about before. What’s the common way to do that based on some of the standards in HTML5 that now make it possible to develop a web application and deploy it anywhere there’s an HTML5-compliant browser? Lots of that still has to happen so we see those applications as the future of the Internet and certainly as the future of what we’re doing at Mozilla.

Slo-tech: You’re slowly moving into the app store business as well. What’s your take on that at the moment and how do you see yourself in app store business with an open platform?

Gary Kovacs: Well, the app store business is purely an exploration. I don’t think Mozilla is going to move into being an app store like you would expect from some other people. With what our community and our users are telling us, open web applications certainly have to come with a couple of things. They have to be discoverable: I have to have some place where I can find an application that I’m interested in; they can’t just sit out there somewhere. We certainly are looking at what our role in that should be; we don’t want to go into the business of building an app store and selling applications and taking a share of that revenue. But we do want to help the community to be able to deliver their applications to users. So, what should our role in that be? And this is where our experiments are being. Some of the other things are in tooling, how do we create and build the standards-compliant way of creating for the Web. I think you’ll see us move into those areas, but they won’t be with the goal of competing with App Store from Apple for example. They will be to enable the growth of standards-based applications for all of the Web.

Slo-tech: How do you currently see your competition in the field of the browsers, let’s say, Chrome, Opera, other WebKit based browsers or, let’s say, Internet Explorer 9?

Gary Kovacs: In one sense we’re very pleased that all of these browsers are starting to adopt HTML5 and open standards. That is a big departure from three years ago so that’s success. In another way we realize that the battle for the browser has heated up again. And I think that two to three years ago people didn’t call it the battle for the browser. Today the browser is a battle so we recognize our mission isn’t to own the entire browser market, our mission is to make sure that the Internet evolves in an open way. Part of this competition is good, but part of it is forcing us at Mozilla to move faster, to be more innovative, to push more of the open standards into more parts of the Internet. So, competition is good, I think. When Firefox 4 comes out, you’ll see the success the community has really enabled continue to grow. It’ll be fast, it’ll be open, I think there’ll be some very new and innovative features and I think you’ll start to see the same growth in Firefox that we’ve had start to come back. And we’ll continue to innovate from there.

Slo-tech: What are you doing with your, let’s use the bad word, dependence on Google at the moment?

Gary Kovacs: It’s very common today to have a partner that you partner very closely with and share a lot of alignment with and the same partner that you’re competitive with. That’s the standard today throughout the Internet. So, we’re very happy with our partnership with Google: it continues to be successful and we don’t see that changing at all for the foreseeable future. So, the fact that we’re coming out with the browser is understandable. I think they’ve done some very good things, we will continue to do some good things as well, but we’ll continue to have a very friendly and successful relationship with Google.

Slo-tech: You came here for the Balkan community meeting. What was your impression of it?

Gary Kovacs: It was fantastic. The strength of Mozilla (and this sort of talks a little bit about your competition question) isn’t the Mozilla as a company; it’s Mozilla as a community. And the enthusiasm, the excitement, the passion that the community puts towards the mission and the actual project and the products is what makes us great. And I saw all of that in a last day and a half and today I know that the community has been working through some goals and priority exercises and that demonstrates the passion. So, they’re helpful from a technology point of view – the localization, the testing, filing bugs and that’s been wonderful, and now they’re starting to become helpful as to where should we evolve, how should we evolve add-ons, how should we look at mobile, what should we do with some of the new products. So, I’m very encouraged and excited and it was very exciting for me to get to the Balkans to see it. It’s a younger community, it’s newer than some of the others, but they’re still as passionate and they want to grow and want to make a difference, and hopefully they continue to find Mozilla as an opportunity to do that.

Slo-tech: Do you know already why you have such a market share? Have you figured it out in the last few years?

Tristan Nitot: I don’t have a definitive answer to this, but my gut feeling is that commercial companies were interested in big markets and therefore they’ve focused on France, Germany, the UK – but at Mozilla, we have a totally different approach: we empower people. If you’re from Slovenia and you want to have a browser in your native language, a commercial company would say, “Yeah, two million people, who cares.”

Slo-tech: They did it, we have a localized version.

Tristan Nitot: Yes, but when?

Slo-tech: With the Windows. We got it since ever.

Tristan Nitot: Yes, but it was kind of late, compared to –

Slo-tech: Yes, three to four months. We had Slovenian Windows before Mozilla even existed.

Tristan Nitot: No, I’m not talking about Slovenia in particular but other countries in the Balkans and Eastern Europe in general, where there weren’t any big markets and I think Slovenia has a special status compared to the others. But let’s not talk about Balkans; let’s take an example of the Basque language. There will probably never be a Basque version of Windows in Internet Explorer because they don’t care, but if Basque people care about it, they are enabled to take their destiny in their own hands and do the localization themselves, and they do it! And maybe it doesn’t make a lot of sense from the financial standpoint – Microsoft wouldn’t give a lot of money, providing a Basque version – but it is important for the local people, for their culture and language, so they do it.

Gary Kovacs: I asked this question last night – it’s a good question, I actually don’t know the answer. I asked a few people and I had a range of answers, but one of the most common was this: they believe in the mission, the actual not-for-profit, open Internet, they want to contribute etc. So, let me ask you, does that make sense?

Slo-tech: But you have the market share between 50 and 60% and you can’t have that many people who care.

Gary Kovacs: Sure. But, you know, we can’t forget the fact that it’s a good product (laugh) It’s a great product, and it works. It presented people an alternative at the time when they needed an alternative. And I think the message that I got last night was: the community feels like they contributed to that project and even though the community is not 60% or 50% of two million people, they are catalysts. They go out and they make a difference and they work with their friends who work with their friends and the work spreads. This viral kind of thing and having a good product and it has the right foundation for the mission – that’s probably what did it. But it’s hard to tell.

Slo-tech: Anything else I should have asked and I forgot?

Gary Kovacs: No, I think you did it very comprehensively and covered it. I want to thank everybody for hosting us the last couple of days, I think it was really something and I look forward to coming back.

Slo-tech: Thank you.

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