FOSDEM '09 is a free and non-commercial event organized by the community, for the community. Its goal is to provide Free and Open Source developers a place to meet.


Interview: Mark Surman

Mark Surman will give a talk about freedom, openness and participation at FOSDEM 2009.

Could you briefly introduce yourself?

Hmmm. What to say? I've been playing around with the ideas of freedom and openness in a serious way for about 10 years. That's what makes me tick. First it was running a small open source content management system project (google: 'ActionApps'). Then it was promoting open, participatory technologies to non-profit organizations. And most recently I worked at Mark Shuttleworth's foundation applying open source thinking to the re-invention of education. Now I am at Mozilla as executive director. I just arrived in September.

Of course, that's the professional me. I recently did a blog post as part of the 7 Things meme running around Mozilla. That might give you a better idea of who I am.

What will your talk be about, exactly?

My plan is to talk about two very simple things -- the incredible success that free and open source software have had, and the fact that we're going to need to think much more broadly and creatively if we want to drive this success into the future, or even preserve the gains we've already made.

What do you hope to accomplish by giving this talk? What do you expect?

I want to celebrate a little. The people who come to FOSDEM really have changed the world, and in a big way. Just think about 2008. Linux landed on the desktops of millions of mainstream netbook users. Firefox passed the 200 million user mark. Free software started to create major cracks in the mobile platform space. The ideas and technologies that have grown from places like FOSDEM are are having a massive impact out there in the world. This is something to be proud about, even optimistic.

But I also want to get people asking: what do we need to do if we really want that freedom and openness to play a central role the societies we live in 50 years from now?

Personally, I believe we need be very broad and creative when asking this question, not just looking at software. Take mobile as one example: progress is being made on the software side, but hardware, spectrum, regulations and everything down to the contracts people sign when they get a phone number are incredibly closed. We need to be asking questions like: what action can we take to make this whole mobile ecosystem free and open? Of course, mobile is just one example. We need to ask questions like these in web services, online content and so on.

Many people don't know that the Mozilla project is more than creating an open source web browser: it really is about keeping the web open. Now that the Mozilla Firefox browser has been become so successful, will the Mozilla project focus on the more general aspects of the open web mission?

Yes, that's right. When Mozilla Foundation was set up, it defined its mission as 'guarding the open nature of the internet'. It says this right in the original incorporation charter. The Mozilla Manifesto goes even further, committing to promoting the continued innovation and opportunity on the internet commons, and calling others to do the same.

By taking 20% of the browser market, Firefox has made huge strides towards this mission, making user choice, standards and security mainstream. Mainstream not just for the people who use Firefox, but also other browswers as we've made these values things that the market has to pay attention to. This helps keep the internet open is some pretty tangible ways, and help deflect us from the closed world that was emerging with single vendor dominance.

Mozilla will certainly continue to use Firefox as a central tool to drive our open internet mission. This is critical. But we're also asking ourselves: what does it mean to be an organization that guards the open nature of the internet for the next 50 or 100 years? While we don't have the answer yet, this is clearly about more than just Firefox. It's also about more than just Mozilla. Much more.

What specific things will Mozilla do to spread their open web mission? Of course you can tap into the success of the Firefox browser, but how will you deal with the majority of the users who only use Firefox for pragmatic reasons and are thus not interested in the philosophy?

Well, the first answer is that Mozilla will continue to work on ways to make the open web a reality for people whether or not they care about the philosophy. If you look at Mozilla's 2010 goals, you'll see that we focus alot on things like creating a unified open web in mobile and promoting security and autonomy in online data. These are things that matter to every one of the billion people on the internet. We'll focus on making progress that helps all of these people, whether they know about the importance of the open web or not.

But, I also think there is a huge group of people who do care about the values of freedom and openness, although they may not say it that way. Just think of everyone creating a mash up on YouTube or maintaining an article on Wikipedia or even writing a blog. Tens of millions of people are doing things like this, and they can only really do these things because of the ideas and technologies that have come from the free and open source world. Personally, I think we need to be talking about the open internet more clearly and loudly to these people. What would happen if millions of people suddenly saw themselves as part of building a very special, important thing called the open web? I don't know the answer, but it would be something good, I suspect.

What do you want to accomplish in 2009 as executive director of the Mozilla Foundation?

Mozilla as a whole has some pretty ambitious goals the next year or two, which range from promoting the idea of participation on the internet to working with others to open up the mobile web. We'll also release new versions of Firefox (3.1) and Thunderbird (3.0).

The Foundation team itself is pretty small, and our goals are a little more modest. Certainly, we want to find ways to better support the whole of the Mozlla Project, which is more than just Firefox and more than just the formal organizations we've set up. We also want to experiment a like with new programs in areas like education that help us see promote our mission through activities beyond producing software.

As we do all this, we're also asking what it means to stand up for open web in 50 or 100 years. That's a conversation we want to be having constantly over the coming year.

As a Mozilla person and open web evangelist, how do you look at the recent attention for 'rich internet applications' built on Adobe Flex, Microsoft Silverlight and Sun JavaFX?

Mostly, I am not worried about these things. We already have a great tool for building rich internet applications: it's called the open web. Just look around at the most widely used applications on the internet. These applications are built using AJAX and other open technologies. I think the open web can keep things like Silverlight at bay.

That said, there is alot of critical work that needs to happen here. We need to talk more loudly about the open web as the right answer to creating rich internet applications. We need to push open video technologies like Theora into the web mainstream. And maybe we we even need create tools that make it easier to develop application oriented sites using open web technologies. Mozilla and others need to be pushing in these areas. In many cases, it's already happening (e.g. Theora in Firefox).

With more and more people accessing the internet on a mobile phone, what are Mozilla's plans on the mobile platform?

As mentioned above, one of our major goals for the next couple of years is to make sure that there is one unified mobile web. Practically, that means creating a world where people develop just for the web using open web technologies, and that what they develop works well on whatever device they are using.

Open source software and standards based mobile browsers that people actually want to use will be a big part of this. Lots of people are already trying to make sure these things emerge. Mozilla is stepping into do its part with a mobile version of Firefox currently codenamed Fennec. It's in alpha right now running on the Nokia N810 Linux platform. It should be out in beta in the next few months, and then also porting to other platforms.

But really making the mobile space open will take alot more than the right software. There is a hardware piece. A carrier piece. A regulator piece. My personal feeling is that Mozilla and others need to be looking hard at how to create a fully open mobile ecosystem. I don't know how you do this, but it feels pretty important.

Your cv mentions that your previous job was 'Open Philanthropy Fellow' at the Shuttleworth Foundation. What is open philantropy? And you're even member of a group called Open Everything. Can the open source philosophy really be generalized to other aspects in our society?

It's pretty clear to me that the ideas and practices behind open source can be useful in many other parts of society. Probably not all, but many. Things like Wikipedia and the huge collection of Creative Commons pictures on Flickr prove this. These are real and mainstream parts of society that are built on many of the same principles as free and open source software. We're now seeing this thing starting to happen with educational content, academic publishing, science and many other endeavours. These things are still in early days, but it's happening.

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This interview is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Belgium License.