Last week, the Policy, Legal and Business Development teams had a 2-day get-together, and one thing I came to understand much more clearly is something I think that many Mozillians need to take to heart: success is not inevitable.
For the first few years of Mozilla’s life, we didn’t have much success. Then, a combination of good code, good grassroots marketing, sleeping or absent competitors and favourable market conditions saw Firefox take off and reach a desktop market share north of 25%. That was five years ago, and we’ve been trying to hold on to it since. We haven’t entirely succeeded, but it might be easy to imagine that Firefox on the desktop will be around and relevant forever.
But working really hard, and knowing that what you are doing is the right thing for the world, are not enough by themselves to guarantee that you succeed. There’s no law of the universe which says that Google have to keep giving us a search deal on better (or even the same) terms, particularly if our market share falls. That may happen, or it may not. And there’s no law which says that Firefox OS has to be a success. If what we build isn’t the right thing, carriers will stop stocking and promoting Firefox OS phones, and the world will be left with a choice of Apple, Google or Microsoft.
Mozilla’s way of working has always been to get market share by making great products, and use that to make our voice heard. We aren’t an advocacy-only organization.
Back when we did Firefox, our future, and our ability to get that market share, was in our own hands. If we wrote great software, users could download and install it themselves, and that was it. No-one was stopping consumers from installing any software they wanted. No-one was stopping OEMs from shipping copies of Firefox with their machines. We didn’t have to worry about proprietary hardware. There were no web features which couldn’t be implemented in open source code.
In the new world, our future and our ability to gain market share are not entirely in our own hands. We need partnerships to reach consumers. Business partnerships involve giving someone something they want in return for something you want, and they mean that usually you don’t get everything you want, but have to compromise. The need to partner and the need to compromise are relatively new and difficult things for Mozilla. Such agreements often come with obligations – which, in its most general form, is the loss of the ability to choose exactly what we are going to do because we are constrained by our promises. As an organization, particularly as an engineering organization, we don’t like that.
But operators are only going to carry and promote Firefox OS phones if they think it’s in their best interests to do so. And consumers are only going to buy them if they think they are better for what they want to do than the alternatives. “Why this rather than Android?” is a question to which we need a good answer.
If we want Firefox OS to be a success, we need partners, and we need to provide what those partners want, while holding on to our principles. What they want may well not be “software for us”, or even “software for people we know”. And that means we need to listen to the people within Mozilla who talk to them and report back to us. That’s the Business Development team – who currently have a pretty low community profile. Perhaps that needs to change.
Success is not inevitable – but it is still possible, if we carry on producing software that succeeds in the market. But how we find out what that means has changed, and we as Mozilla need to make sure we adapt to that, and listen in the right places.