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Interview with Mitchell Baker: Part 3

Interview with Mitchell Baker: Part 3
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First Published: Mon, Nov 17 2008. 10 47 AM IST

Updated: Mon, Nov 17 2008. 10 47 AM IST
Kamla: This is Kamla Bhatt. We bring you part 3 and our concluding episode of our conversation with Mitchell Baker, Chairperson of Mozilla Foundation and Mozilla Corporation. In this final episode she talks about localization efforts that Mozilla has undertaken in India, and what is it that surprises, delights and concerns her about the future of the Internet. Here is Mitchell Baker.
Mitchell: We have such communities in India and we’ve been spending more time with those communities and learning more about India, and trying to figure out what other locales are there, what’s the most important thing, the various different languages in India, is its localization not related to language so much but other aspects of being in India. What other ways can we make it so that people can participate. So the reason that the localizers are good example of what’s important in Firefox is we’re trying to build communities of people who demand the ability to build the Internet we want. It is great to be a consumer and it is great when things appear for free; browsers appear for free and websites appear for free.
And that’s great. Being able to consume that is such a wonderful thing. When it is free that is wonderful. But but it only goes so far. But if all we are are consumers then, if something doesn’t work for us, we’re just stuck.
And if something doesn’t work because it is tuned for one Business Company or one goal and we’re stuck with it, that’s a terrible place to be. So we’re trying to build not only Firefox but Mozilla as a set of people who understand that if you want the internet to work in a way that’s good for you or your country or your people, who speak your native language or the other things that you care about, getting involved is the way to do it.
And then we provide the ways to get involved. So, that is what the localizers are.
Kamla: What do you provide for them to get involved?
Mitchell: We provide both the standard open source participation to build the product. So if the product doesn’t work in your language or doesn’t have features that you need then there is the classic open source: get involved. We provide whether it’s localization or marketing or support. We provide a range of different ways to both build the Firefox, to spread it and to become important in the direction of its development. And through that, to influence things like how is data handled, how is storage of my information handled, all the range of things, how are pop ups handled, how are ads handled, how much spyware shows up on my machine. Well most of us are never going to find security vulnerabilities. But, there are a set of people who can and they do. Probably many of us, if you looked at all your acquaintances, you would come cross one of two people who’d have those skills.
So you have, if you can do that and if you want to see less spyware on your machine, you can come in Mozilla and make it happen. So we provide the tools and the infrastructure and the resource and a community of people who want to help and information on products that make that happen. Then we have been working very hard to try to branch out from just data or how could I control it or I can make it easy to access or I can make hard. If you can make that functionality easy and put it in front of people and let people choose then at least you will get a set of what people actually want as information for policy and you’ll have people who have experience and who can themselves provide more input into policy.
So for example, maybe I want my contact information to be in one place and when I go to social networking sites, I make it available if I want to. Now maybe I don’t. I mean, for some people its great, everything you want is there- if that’s what you want, if that’s the site you are going to live in and the site takes care of it all, it’s all free then great. But I’m kind of more fragmented in my life, I don’t like being everything in one place so I struggle a lot and I don’t like filling out the same profile information over and over again. I won’t do it. So maybe there’s more people like me. And I want that information in place where I can enter once and then send it where I want it.
So, I don’t know how many people there are like me but probably we’ll find out. We’ll do some experiments in our lab settings so we can see what people like. And that way, we make data, which is very abstract and also very scary. We make it real to people and we give people more control. It is a hard area to address and it is a hard area to do experiments in because the privacy concerns are so real and so frightening. One of the things that I find when I talk about data even though what I am saying is individual influence in management and control of our data- nevertheless the initial reaction of many people is: fear.
I think that what I’m talking about is what people are afraid of and I’m trying to say these are ways we might be able to address our fear and have the great capabilities that Web offers with more comfort; I think that that is what I’m saying but people are often afraid that just the fact that Mozilla is talking about data is itself scary. And so, it’s a tricky setting.
Kamla: Let’s look back, ten years-twelve years ago, the valley was a different place. What comes to mind when you’re sitting here in Mountain View, Google is right next door and not to far away was your old Netscape headquarters. What has been the pace of innovation? What are the changes that have come in the online world that kind of surprise you sometimes, delight you maybe and sometimes maybe leave you very concerned?
Mitchell: Oh well, the concern I think, is very obvious. The concern here is that there is an increasing amount of information about each of us. Or, actually identities increasingly live in a digital format and the mechanisms for understanding them and controlling them are far behind our collection and our analytical mechanism. So that’s an obvious concern. In terms of pace of innovation, one of the folks, another of the folks who’s been here since the Netscape era was commenting – in the mid-1990s when the browser was new, the pace of innovation was phenomenal. And stuff came out all the time; 1995, 1996, 1997- the pace of front-end innovation was staggering! And then we have this cycle that I described earlier, the 2000s where it was very slow, on the front end, on the consumer side front end and now we can see that we’re coming back to another period of frenzied activity on the front end experience of the internet. We see it in browsers; we see it in the dramatically increasing speed of Java Script and the capabilities and so I think we’re in for another phase, just explosive, innovation and change. So that’s exciting.
You know there’s some competitive pressure now; we have made the browser relevant again and so there is competition and so that’s pressure for us but that’s good and it’s also extremely exciting. So I think we’re just in a wave of things that we can’t imagine and again in two or three years, we’ll look back and say- oh man! Look how much things have changed.
And I think the thing that delights me is that we are starting to see the possibility of simplicity again. And so in our own labs areas in particular, we have a labs project called ubiquity and it’s all about how to take the massive capabilities of the web that exists now and make them simple. Something like the URL bar in a browser, when you type in www dot whatever-how to make that really simple. And maybe I just type in “find” and find easily what I want or maybe pick your favourite map or organization and there it is. Map this and send it to someone with a few words like- I would like to be able to do. We are doing that now, we are seeing it. It’s not ready for our polished consumer release but the experiments are there and so suddenly you can see how all that power that’s been so interesting but so awkward and complex; you need people who love computers to really get the full power out of it. It is just on the verge of starting to seem simple and exciting and elegant and wow! How good is that?
Kamla: How techie are you?
Mitchell: Oh I’m at both extremes. I am not a programmer. Given my choice I would not be sitting in front of a computer monitor. So that means I’m not very techie.
But on the other hand, you could probably hear that the capabilities of the system, of the Internet, of the network are phenomenally exciting to me. I had malaria once and so am afraid, it is in the blood. I have been bitten, I have the internet bug; it is in my blood because that is what it reminds me more than anything else is when I had malaria. So in that sense very techie and I would say that my sense of how the Internet developments could relate to individual people is very real. I am not sure if “techie” is the right word for it. But it is something related to all of this.
Kamla: My final question- what goals do you think you still have to accomplish both for yourself and for Mozilla?
Mitchell: For Mozilla the articulation about the importance of participation that we talked about today; this is new. We have been successful in explaining why this arcane piece of software like the browser matters and then demonstrating it and getting it into the hands of people. So first grade battle, we have done pretty well at. The next ones are, it is not just a browser --if I can’t get involved, if I’m willing to make that effort and the energy but I still can’t involved and I can’t fix the things about my life that don’t work but I can’t get involved with the browser, I can’t get involved with the internet, I can’t see it, I can’t understand it. If all I can do is consume it, better or worse – that is a failure of the internet. That is a great challenge for Mozilla to explain that and to continue to demonstrate and put tools in the hands of people. It is just like the internet were all out of the United States and there was no way that content would ever break free of being US-centric and the only video you ever saw came out of US movie studios you know, produced in one culture-that would be a failure! And in the same way, the inability to access it to make it real- for me it would be a failure. And I think that is a pretty good-sized challenge and that encompasses data as well as other technologies.
And personally, I think the Mozilla challenge is racked up, pretty personally actually. You know there are many things I’d like to do with my life, many ways I’d like to contribute. I think, if I had to pick one, Mozilla is the biggest, most effective one right now. So that is where I focus, that is where I am focusing.
Kamla: And why did you pick Mozilla, long back ago?
Mitchell: Well, I think even then I had the Internet bug. It wasn’t quite as strong as it is today because the possibilities were further in the future. It was at the dark time when I picked Mozilla. Partly because it is all about how people work together and that is a very fascinating question. Some people work together because there were drawn like I am, by the internet bug, some are drawn because they have economic interests, some have just the passion for the technology and we have good technology, some are commercial organization, some are volunteers, some are Mozilla employees. There is a bunch of different strands or puzzle pieces that all have to fit together well enough to be effective and I am always drawn to that and reasonably effective at that. So, that was the second reason.
And the third reason is: it is pretty new! There are no clear models, we are always looking at partial models and putting something together and I am drawn to that. I like to wake up and not have a template for what I am going to do.
Kamla: Mitchell, thank you so much for this conversation.
Mitchell: Likewise. It is a pleasure!
Kamla: You were listening to Mitchell Baker, Chairperson of Mozilla Foundation and Mozilla Corporation. This is Kamla Bhatt. This interview was brought to you in association with Live Mint Radio. And as always, thank you for tuning in.
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First Published: Mon, Nov 17 2008. 10 47 AM IST