Mozilla Labs UX chief: What's next for Mozilla, Firefox and the Web

At the Future of Web Apps 2009 conference, I speak to Mozilla UX chief, Aza Raskin, on the future of the web and what's next for Mozilla and Firefox, in a rare, open and honest discussion. Interview

Shortly after having a door slam in my face and it nearly breaking my nose, I sat down with Aza Raskin, the head of user experiences at Mozilla Labs to discuss not only where Mozilla is heading in the near future but also what he sees in the next-generation World Wide Web.

This interview was done over a cup of coffee in a bustling room. Everything said here is from Raskin himself, with notes taken by myself and paraphrased to make it readable.

The views from the UX guy

As the head of user experiences at Mozilla Labs, he looks at future-proofing Mozilla as an organisation, and as a result focuses mainly on the web. He assists and helps out on other non-Firefox projects but does spend the largest portion of his time on the browser. Even though he and his team are separate from the Firefox development team, he has a large sway of input. On the other hand, some bits he suggests go in and some do not.

Firefox 3.6 will be the next release of Mozilla's open-source browser and will be designed specifically with Windows users in mind. The new user interface will incorporate many of the technologies that Vista and Windows 7 have such as the Aero theme; more so with Windows 7, though, as multi-touch features will be included in the browser's functionality.

The future of the web is difficult to guess or estimate in any capacity. Nevertheless, everyone desires an open web. Microsoft, Apple, and Google with their respective browsers are all aiming for the majority share of the market. Raskin assures me that this is not Mozilla's aim. As a not-for-profit organisation, they benefit from having a wide range of users but for the most part the userbase is the size it is through personal, hands-on experience and "Word of Mouth 2.0". The aim is not to get 100% of the marketshare, but enough to get the shift and the space to create.

Something Raskin mentioned in the "open web" were things such as Flash and Silverlight - technologies which are plug-ins but don't allow you to view the source. In his opinion, it is important that everything you see, view and use should provide the code alongside it. Having non-view source so you don't know what is going on is not an "open web". There will of course be exceptions to this, but I'm sure you understand what he means.

I asked why Firefox 3.5 had slowed down, become more sluggish and more lethargic in quality and usage from personal experience.

Because Raskin struck me as an unflinchingly honest and supremely intelligent man who understands full well is responsbility to the end-user, I believed him whole-heartedly when he said it was predominantly Adobe Flash that slowed things down. More often than not, web sites hold Flash advertising which is why when you open a selection of ten random tabs, the collective memory going towards running these advertisements cause Firefox's memory footprint to rocket. I believed himl it made perfect sense.

He told me that Firefox 3.5 was introduced to make things better. With different technologies incorporating a more user-centric set of experiences such GeoLocation, Private Browsing and SeaMonkey, these were base-level features to make the end-user more client (rather than cloud) based and provide an overall enhanced experience; not only on their own volition but to keep up with other competing browsers.

Google and Microsoft have huge research departments with thousands of people working towards making their browsers accessible but also house the potential for a wealth of features for future releases. Mozilla has "tens" of people, but as Firefox is open source, anyone from academics, students, universities, developers and ordinary consumers make the research process so much more democratic. This is what drove him to work on Mozilla Ubiquity.

Along with this and their "personas", the customisable themes which you can see in the first image above, the browser should be yours and not be the company developing the browser to determine what it should look like. People love personalisation through their sites, bookmarks and add-ons, which is another reason  why Firefox has done so well.

The future of Firefox -->

The future of Firefox

He told me that the memory management in Firefox 3.7, after the next release, will be better than it has ever been, by taking out the "Flash process" (or any add-on or plug-in which churns up memory) and putting it into a separate process to deal with.

Firefox 4.0 will be in a whole new league of its own. Around four years ago when Internet Explorer 6 was the dominant browser (and before the entire EU ruckus properly kicked off), the online experience was rather stale. The IE team were being laid off and the remaining team was stagnating. The web is the most important part of our computing experiences and everyone else were jumping into the browser space. It got a little crowded, so Raskin looked at this closely to decide what would shift the bar, and what could they develop to come next.

There are two major things he came up with:

  1. Because of the way the web works nowadays, the ability to create your own website - albeit through Facebook or via an identity like Twitter - is absolutely brilliant. Anyone can participate, and this has changed many jobs and role descriptions, including journalism.
  2. By taking that knowledge of making "pure" websites using a little knowledge of HTML and JavaScript, you should now be able to put those together and create a new extension in Firefox. This is another reason why Ubiquity took a turn for the better.

The extensions and add-ins, the customisability and the visual changes you can make to Firefox, comprise one of its biggest successes. Since then, other browsers have opened up to provide additional tools; some commercially available and set at a price which then goes to help further development.

Firefox 4.0 will be in and around towards the end of next year, it is thought, but as with development timelines, this can change on a semi-regular basis. One of the "killer features" associated with this next release is JetPack, an API which allows you to write add-ons using the technologies and languages that you already know; linking in very nicely with his second aforementioned point.

There was a lot more discussed, including malware and security, along with the next-generation desktop simply being a web browser.

Security and prevention -->

Security and prevention

As with all software nowadays, the temptation to exploit a popular software like Firefox has already started. He tells me that JetPack will be adding a state-of-the-art "something" which will add to all kinds of other security technologies to create a system where future add-ons are safe.

He describes today's browser as your "broker of trust" by giving you advice and information on security issues. Whether an SSL certificate has a domain name mismatch or whether the site is a suspected phishing hole, your browser tells you. In the one and only direct quote I shall use, this cracked me up shortly before I had someone from the Foreign Office scream down the phone at me. He repeated for clarification:

"The browser becomes your insanely smart butler."

He sees the web browser translating these things for you as a browser should do. Just as you would take a drive in the car, the driver cannot do much except stick along the paths that are there already. But the shell of the car should protect you from the bumps and scrapes that you will inevitably suffer from time to time.

Mozilla are very privacy-centric, especially for those in the European Union. They will be bringing out Firefox Mobile this quarter, which will extend the desktop browsing experience to mobile users; Nokia owners especially, he said. There will be synchronisation features, so your open tabs, passwords and history will be able to be synched from your desktop to your mobile - allowing you to leave your browser open and to walk out of the office and have it there waiting for you on your phone.

The encryption used to enable this to happen will be using public keys so Mozilla will have absolutely no access to the data in the cloud. He said that it will be "so encrypted" that should the police be in touch, they would hand it over as the law abiding citizens they are, but even they would not be able to decrypt it.

Social browsing and final thoughts -->

Social browsing?

He was adamant in the fact that security is the defining factor for the future of the web. The security we experience now is relatively low-level and "bog standard" in accordance with the similar features across all browsers. Most of it is in the user experience; guiding the user to perform an action the browser deems as unsafe.

One of his biggest considerations as he explained was the bridging between the web (browser) and the desktop. We see things in add-ons and ActiveX controls, Flash and suchlike, but there isn't a layer which enables the web to really jump between the desktop and vice-versa.

In his vision,  the browser will be given automatic access to cameras via USB and to hard drives to upload and download content, to and from online backup spaces or to Flickr for pictures. He continued on to describe a social future of the web involving interactions between two or more other users when advising on security issues. The older generation for the most part do not fully understand the web or technology, so it is outsourced to the next generation.

So instead of dealing with technical or security problems, he wants them to be broken down into social problems. If there is a security warning on a person's browser, a connection can be made through a social network to determine a close friend with technical skill, to then accept or deny the security warning by proxy. That can then be used to build a reputation but also go on to spread to others in further and outward facing social networks. These issues could be solved, he went on, through an ad-hoc social network of people you trust to turn technical issues into social issues.

He noted that we spend more time in the browser than we do in our cars. The potential for desktop applications via cloud applications will be something browsers not only need, but have to accommodate for the web to progress forwards.

Closing thoughts

At this point I was blown away with his vision; not to mention, an American wearing a tweed flat-cap hat and pulling it off quite nicely, might I add. After what I can only describe as the interview of a career lifetime, I was truly honoured to speak to him. I can only hope I did the conversation justice in this article.

What do you see in the future of web browsing? Is this the vision you hope to see or would like to see? Leave a comment; by all means leave an essay should you require it.