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Interview: Looking to the future after 10 years of Firefox

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Interview: Looking to the future after 10 years of Firefox

Introduction and Firefox today

As you might have noticed, this week saw the tenth anniversary of the Firefox web browser. Given that, we spoke to Johnathan Nightingale, VP Firefox, to discover more about what's new in Firefox as of this week, and his thoughts on what the web and the browsers of the future will look like.

TechRadar Pro: What's new in Firefox?

Johnathan Nightingale: Let me start by saying that the consistent theme you are seeing from Mozilla is that we're trying to solve actual problems for you and offer you choices that are meaningful, that matter to you and that you understand in terms of value. This started with launching Firefox 10 years ago and continues today.

We always look for the simplest thing you can tell us about your online preferences. Then we think about how we can present that back to you in a meaningful way so you can start to see how your information flows on the web. We then think about presenting that back to the industry in a way that allows us to advocate for the change we feel needs to happen. We did that with Do Not Track and now every browser supports it. We did it with WebGL and now every browser supports it.

You continue to see that work with the Forget button, which is one of the new things in the special anniversary edition of Firefox released this week. Forget is based on a really simple idea. If you fall down a link path and realise that you are not where you wanted to be, or click on a link or are on a research mission that you should have done in Private Browsing mode but forgot to, now you can just erase that. With Forget, there is a way to undo that action after the fact.

Firefox works to remember things to help you, but it also helps you forget things when that is the right choice. We've made that into a really simple transaction so you can ask Firefox to forget the last five minutes, the last two hours or the last 24 hours. In one click you can delete your recent history, cookies, close all tabs and windows and open a new window to start again.

We also included DuckDuckGo as one of our search options because search without tracking is an interesting proposition. It feels like a choice we wanted to make available to our users. We understand that even users who don't spend their lives in the technology space still worry about how their information is being tracked and traded, and do not like it being done without their consent.

We're also introducing the Privacy Coach, a new kind of add-on for Firefox for Android, which puts key privacy features within easy reach on one dedicated home screen page. You can add it to your Firefox today to have information at your fingertips about the privacy features that Firefox has to offer, including Do Not Track, Private Browsing, Guest Browsing, Cookie Blocking and Clear History. You'll see easy-to-digest explanations about these features to help you figure out what settings are right for you.

And we're excited to launch Firefox Developer Edition built from the ground up for developers and those who have a curiosity about how the web is made. Now they have a place they can call home instead of having to force a consumer-oriented browser into their particular workflow.

We are also working on a privacy initiative to partner with others to improve privacy protection options and tools online. We will conduct research, experiment with and create advances in privacy technology for the web.

TRP: What is your favourite Firefox moment from the last 10 years?

JN: Right now. Firefox initiated choice, innovation and opportunity online. We've come a long way and we created this vibrant competition for the web where our users have totally co-opted our platform around standardisation and openness, and we believe that openness and interoperability are essential.

Today is exciting because we are talking about technological innovation everywhere in Mozilla – new features for users focused on privacy, partnerships with other organisations who are all working to make the web a better place, all our developer tools in one bespoke browser.

Every release since Firefox 1 shipped a decade ago is something that we are immensely proud of. Each release represents the huge amount of work we have put together in order to try to make the web better. The effects of that work shine particularly brightly this week.

While it is great to be able to stand where we are and look back over the last 10 years to see how far we have come, what is more inspiring is the energy we have to fight today's fights and do the things we know we have yet to do. There hasn't been a better time.

Developer Edition and privacy

TechRadar Pro: How and why did you create Firefox Developer Edition?

Johnathan Nightingale: Mozilla exists because we see the power of the web. We really believe in it. Our mission is to take care of the web and our users.

The web itself is open and interoperable and that is great, but it can be messy. There are numerous proprietary development platforms that often don't mesh with each other, meaning developers end up switching between different tools, platforms and browsers which can slow them down and make them less productive.

If they do end up using one over the other they can be left high and dry if an app store then tells them their app is not good enough to be submitted. Proprietary development platforms make it easy to build apps for certain stores and that is obviously attractive, but developers want to build beautiful things that everyone can use, on any platform.

Firefox Developer Edition is the first browser out there designed specifically for developers. It's a stable Firefox browser that consolidates all the developer tools you're used to and some new features that simplify the process of building for the web.

Firefox Developer Edition is for designers and developers who want to build compelling web content and apps. For developers creating web apps, there's no need to download additional plugins or applications to debug mobile devices.

TRP: Why is privacy important to you?

JN: Data flows are inscrutable. Some companies take advantage of the fact that you don't understand what's going on. You have a right to be able to change that, you should demand better of us and everyone else in terms of giving you the tools to better mediate and understand that.

This isn't the same as not looking under the bonnet of your car because you're not a car person and you don't want to know what's under the hood even though you have a car and that knowledge might help you.

You can't avoid caring about privacy. We try to help you be that person by giving you ways to see who knows what about you and how you are being tracked online. It is a difficult thing to get to grips with and it shouldn't be as hard as it is, but at the same time, you can't leave it up to your tech-savvy friends to advise you. It's your life and you should be the custodian of it online – just as much as you are in the physical world.

There are lots of interactions in your offline life where you are perfectly capable of giving consent despite the fact that there are complicated forces at work. When you walk down the cereal aisle, you are faced with marketing that is trying very hard to get your attention, but no-one disputes the fact that you get to choose what you're buying. When you're online, you don't get to choose who gets to see the last 10 things you buy. That's weird and broken and we should fix it.

Looking ahead

TechRadar Pro: What will the web look like in ten years' time?

Johnathan Nightingale: There are four dominant trends that I see happening over the next ten years…

1. The rest of the world will come online: half of the world's population has come online and those who have yet to do so are coming online quickly. That pace is just going to accelerate. Initiatives like our own Firefox OS and others make it easier and easier to reach the web without having to buy a £600 smartphone. Ten years ago, the web was a product of affluence. In ten years' time we will be thinking about a web that is truly global in ways that were not possible ten years ago when Firefox started out.

That shift is going to be massive and transformative. Those who are coming online now will have different needs to those who are already here. That will create pressure for software to change and opportunity for new products and features to emerge that serve those new needs. We're excited to see it – it is a big part of why we are investing in Firefox on all platforms; we believe deeply in the value of having everyone connected to web.

2. More of life will happen online: When Firefox started, I had two connections to the web – one at work and one at home. Now I have dozens of things that are connected to the internet – phones and tablets with Wi-Fi, my Kindle has 3G, I have multiple computers and I'm just getting started. I don't have an internet-connected thermostat or fridge or vacuum cleaner but some people do already.

In ten years, everything is going to be connected and people will ask 'how do we organise our digital lives, how do we situate ourselves in the middle of this web of things and control it and understand it?' For Mozilla, it is a very real imperative to build tools and make it easier to manage our users' digital lives.

3. Data will get more complex: As these layers of connectivity emerge and more devices are connected, the way data is managed will get more complex. There will continue to be tension around whether that data is something that we can control or something we are victims of.

This is another place that we have an opinion. At Mozilla we think that you should be in control and we're going to keep building tools that make those data flows more visible, that give you the ability to turn them off or add a notion of consent and indicate what you are not OK with. We're going to continue with our policy advocacy and continue to build technological proof that it is possible to make things in a way that respects the humans they serve.

4. The web as we understand it might go away: I don't mean that in the sense that cars will be replaced with better cars or fridges with better fridges. I mean that there are corporate interests in making sure that everything about how you get online and all of the apps you use to do so are controlled by gatekeepers. They have colourful logos and lovely design conferences but their business model, make no mistake, is to mediate between you and everyone.

These gatekeepers are going to try and create the most attractive, integrated stack of products that they can because that is how they make money. I don't fault them for making money but I don't want my life controlled by a company's profit model. I may be accused of catastrophising but I don't think that's a naïve way of describing it. It really is a threat.

People talk about apps versus the web, but the issue at hand is so much more than a sterile technological debate about whose stack will do a better job. The future isn't about apps versus the browser. It is so much more than that. It's a question of whether we will save the web as we know it, this global marketplace of ideas, where if you have a cool idea and if it is provocative you can change the world. This is going to keep being a problem unless users win.

TRP: What will the browser of the future look like?

JN: People have taken for granted a basic browser that can render the web faithfully and interoperate with other browsers and give them the things they are trying to get to – and that is good news. That's a big step.

When we launched Firefox 10 years ago, there was no guarantee that we would be where we are today.

Now, everyone is exploring the app space, but I want us to evolve the conversation in a different way. I think there is a real need for browsers to provide users with a deeper level of support. Think of it as a piece of software that is working for you, instead of just being a window onto the web content that is out there.

So, there's room for the browser to grow into more of a helper or trusted friend on the web that gives you choices in a way you can understand, and that anticipates what you might need while still doing all of that with the same rock solid performance you're used to.

There are many differences between browsing the web in 2014 and in 2004. This is obviously a big deal and that is how apps have entered into the conversation, but the bigger deal is the interconnectivity of devices and making sure that you can have a consistent web experience as you move between work and home or between a desktop machine and a smartphone.

TRP: What makes Firefox different to other browsers today?

JN: By every objective measure I can come up with – and I appreciate that I am not objective – I believe that Firefox is the best browser today. It is fast, beautifully designed and highly customisable.

Users are responding well to the changes we make on Firefox on desktop and we are also seeing massive increases in adoption of Firefox for Android. We are past 80 million downloads on Android.

Firefox is now the fastest on every benchmark, but I actually look for more from the products I love than their benchmark scores. Some other browser could come along with a surprising JavaScript speed or they could copy our design and be just as customisable, but none of them will ever be able to imitate us on our independence. We are running an independent game here and we are firing on all cylinders. People care that we have a mission, we have values – and no other browser can compete on that score.

If you look at our competitors, they are Google, Apple and Microsoft. These are all giant organisations with business models that are about driving you into their platform and keeping you there. Instead, what we are trying to steer you towards is the web – a grand, interoperable, globally accessible gatekeeper-free printing press of the modern age.

Future features

TechRadar Pro: Will you release a 64-bit version of Firefox on Windows?

Johnathan Nightingale: We've been working on 64-bit builds and at Mozilla we put everything we do through very robust quality testing, which includes automated testing as well as human QA testing.

While 64-bit Firefox on Windows seems like a relatively small thing to some people we want to make sure that everything works perfectly. We have a high quality bar and focus a lot on things like performance and stability; things our users have told us are important. We're not going to push out to a new platform without being really very confident that we're delivering something that is worthy of the Firefox name.

64-bit Firefox on Windows has moved out of the initial calibration and qualification phase, and since Monday you will see it in our Nightly release channel. We expect that to run through the trains probably on Firefox 36 unless we find any problems.

Released versions of Firefox are already fully 64-bit on Mac OS X and Linux. 64-bit Firefox on Windows is coming quickly.

TRP: What features would you like to see next from Firefox?

JN: Firefox is at its best when it is helping me out. A decade ago this meant giving me tabbed browsing so I didn't have hundreds of windows open at once because that was hard to manage. Other browsers used the tab concept too, but Firefox really popularised that idea and brought it to the mainstream. In the process, my life online got easier because I had a new tool.

10 years ago, Firefox helped me by blocking pop-up ads. This was controversial because as a browser, there's an argument to say that we should be objective and shouldn't mess with what a web page is trying to do. I disagree with that, I think we should have an opinion. Back then, our opinion was that pop-up ads were a nuisance so we shipped a blocker to take away that pain.

Let's look at solving the problems that I'm having today.

Today, it's about having too many machines. I would love to see features on Firefox to make it easier for me to move between my devices and give me the ability to synchronise them all and live on several at once. I would like to be able to start doing something on my desktop, and pick it back up later on my phone or tablet exactly where I left off.

Today, there are a lot of people following me around and I don't understand that. I don't know how many people there are, I don't know what they are doing with my information and I don't know how to control it.

I have privacy concerns that are about the web at large and also about my devices. I want to be able to give my phone to a friend when we are in a restaurant so they can quickly look something up without them being able to sift through my personal data. How do I do that? I want to be able to share my laptop with a roommate in college but still have secrets. How do I do that?

I'm curious to see more of that.

Getting personal about Firefox

TechRadar Pro: How many devices do you have Firefox installed on?

Johnathan Nightingale: I have my work laptop, my home PC and I've always got some phones and tablets on the go; I am relatively digital. But I've actually installed Firefox on hundreds of devices.

Even before I started working for Mozilla, I was a big fan of Firefox and what it represents so I was one of those people who go into a computer store and install Firefox on all the laptops on display. I don't know if that's welcome or not but I do it! We hear from our fans all the time that they do it too because they want people to have a choice, they believe in what we are doing and they understand it.

TRP: Why is customisation important to you?

JN: Firefox is fast and safe and fun. It is all of those things out-of-the-box. You don't need to do a thing to it. But when we talk to our users, they tell us that our individuality and our independence is something they value. We value our users' individuality in return.

So, customisation is important because we want to make it as easy as possible for you to get your browser working the way you want. It's about giving you the ability to express that choice, whether you want to customise by applying a theme or deeply changing the functionality of your browser by applying a number of add-ons or configuring your preferences.

You spend more time in your browser than any other piece of software or any other interface in your life. So to us, it makes sense that yes, you should be able to grab that and move it around.

Earlier this year we released a version of Firefox that made customisation even easier because we wanted to invite more people to do it. The customise button is the only part of the menu that you can't cut out of your browser! We believe that it should always be possible to alter your browser. That is a central value of ours.

TRP: How have you customised your Firefox?

JN: My browser is where I live – and it shows! I thoroughly customised it with add-ons and my own personal preferences and I also change it up a fair bit depending on what I am working on.

When I am engaged in a planning process, I'll reconfigure things and find an add-on that puts my tabs on the side so I can manage them more easily, or I'll move to multiple windows and start using tab spaces. When I am ready to work on something else, I will reconfigure it again.

I'm one of those people who hoard tabs – I have hundreds of tabs, so every once in a while, I'll reorganise those.

TRP: What is your favourite Firefox add-on?

JN: I'm really excited about things that give people extra visibility into their web experience. People are smart and they want to understand the way the internet works and the fact is, it's complicated.

Our job is to make that easier for you to understand and control, which is why I use add-ons like Lightbeam, which we built at Mozilla. It shows you how the websites you visit track you and interact with your data, and it sheds some light on which third-party sites can access your data based on the first website you visited.

We are not the only ones who are exploring how to make the state of the web more visible to you and I get really excited by that. There are other add-ons including Privacy Badger and Ghostery that are working on relaying the same set of concepts.

These are also the add-ons I recommend anytime someone asks me about online data and online privacy. It is always interesting to see people's reactions when they run with one of those add-ons for a while – they start to get a clearer sense of how they are being tracked. It causes new questions to come up and invariably makes people feel different about some of the sites they visit and the tools those sites use to keep track of them.

TRP: When you are not working, do you use Firefox for web gaming?

JN: Yes. I've been using the web for gaming in different ways over the years. The games I am playing this year are better than the games I was playing a couple of years ago and the games I will play next year are going to be incredible.

What I'm excited about is what has become possible when it comes to gaming on the web. Games used to be seen as one of the last bastions of downloaded software – a game would only work if you install it on your machine or console and run it locally. In October, Mozilla released a package of eight web games with Humble Bundle. What you see there is the ability to play big, rich, interactive, plugin-free games on the web, without downloading or installing anything.

This is becoming more possible because of the work we are doing to make JavaScript perform really well and to make it really easy for game developers to port their existing code over to JavaScript and the web. That work ties to what we're doing in the graphics acceleration space with WebGL, which makes it possible to make beautiful things online.

We unlocked the web so game developers could take advantage of it in the same way most other kinds of apps have for the last 10 years. Because of this, we are seeing major game engines look more closely at the web as a platform for gaming.

The web is an exciting place for game developers to be, because on the web, distribution is trivial and you don't have to convince people to install things. Game developers are starting to realise that the time has come for them to say: 'I want this game to be available on the PC, on Xbox and the web'.

TRP: How important has the work of the volunteer community been over the past 10 years?

JN: Our global community of volunteers is very much the lifeblood of a lot of our engineering work. Approximately 500 people worked on Firefox 33, and more than half of those contributors were volunteers.

On top of that, Firefox is available in 90 languages thanks to the work of hundreds of localisation volunteers. It is a humbling and incredibly powerful experience to be in a room of people who are not paid, who spend their time looking at everything we have built in Firefox, taking all of the text that goes along with that, looking at all of the assumptions about how you write numbers and how you express different concepts, making it work in their own language and delivering that. Our community of volunteers is the heart of what we do.

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