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Mitchell Baker: 17 years' ahead - the future of Mozilla, 2032…

“The internet is not just for when we’re spending money,” says Mitchell Baker, Executive Chairman of the Mozilla Foundation. “We’re parents, we have societies, and there are things that we care about that aren’t involved in spending money. As a human being I’m more than a wallet.”

Baker, who has been with Mozilla since 1999 – it launched in 1998 – has seen the organisation develop from an idealistic movement, which few people believed in, through to the creation of internet browser Firefox which is used by 21% of web users.  

Yet Baker is keen to stress that Mozilla’s values are broader than Firefox and the global consumer internet. “Firefox is such a big lever,” she says “consumer products give you a reach and so many people are aware of Firefox as a product but it’s not so clear that it is there to solve a non-profit mission about building the internet,” at least in part, as a public resource to complement economic drivers.

As she explains “The network – the internet – is so fundamental that if the only impetus to build it is when I am a wallet spending money then it is going to make life poorer not richer, narrower not broader. There are a lot of things that are important to a human being’s dignity or life that are not directly tied to whether I’m paying you at the moment.”

“Some part of our technology needs to reflect that. And some part of the rational on how it is designed, why it is created and what it does to reflect all those other aspects of life too. And it turns out if you do that you also create a more level playing field for economic activity.”

So, how does she see Mozilla developing over the next 16 or 17 years?

“There are three aspects to that,” she says. She lists these as: the consumer product, the community and the scope and reach of ideas.

“Products are hardest to predict 16 or 17 years down the line,” she says. Products are “explorations into where and how Mozilla can provide a level playing field for business, a safe and secure environment for people and the kind of public infrastructure we’re looking for.” And these, of course, iterate with adoption.

In terms of the scope of ideas she believes the things Mozilla cares about are only becoming more relevant. “Openness and sharing and collaboration are moving into the mainstream,” she says. “And that does not mean that everything will be attached to the name Mozilla any more than it should be. But that trend line is way up right now. And I see that continuing over the 16/17 year period.”

Then there is the community aspect. This comprises of both the consumers who use the Firefox product and the smaller community of “people who are aware of Mozilla’s goals and in some way feel connected to them”. This includes the active techies and the high volume of people, from over 60 countries, who donate small amounts of money to the foundation each year.

“And many of our users say: ‘I don’t really understand why I trust Firefox but I do feel that way’. And so hopefully if we do a good job and describe why Mozilla is more than Firefox and what we are then the community will say – ‘oh that represents part of the world I want to see’.”

On top of this, of course, everything has become more complicated as we’re consuming more content on mobile devices. “This is fully integrated – you can’t view source code anymore,” she says.

So, what is the biggest single threat to openness?

“I think the single greatest threat is that – quote ‘openness’ – is not always concrete for people,” says Baker. “It is a somewhat abstract idea.”

“You’ll know it when it is gone.”

“And part of it is that ‘openness’ is used in so many different ways,” in fact it is overused. “That is a success condition,” she says “the idea that something that is open has a very positive connotation ­– that is a good thing.”

The internet is a very technical system and most people don’t understand how it works. And, of course, openness is not high on most people’s priority list. This makes one of Mozilla’s core challenges “to iterate and build products that make openness valuable to people”.

But despite all the challenges up ahead, what is she most proud of in her time at Mozilla?

“We have a big mission, a pretty idealist mission and it brings out the best in people,” she concludes. “It encourages people to live on the better side of human nature.”

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