Mozilla's Secret Browser

Disclaimers and Me

A disclaimer: I used to work for Mozilla, but I don’t anymore. It’s been about a year and a half. I still maintain a couple of Python projects under the greater Mozilla FLOSS aegis. But otherwise, I’m just an enthusiastic Firefox user these days.

Obviously I speak only for myself. Normally, I wouldn’t even bother with a disclaimer: that’s how weird this whole thing feels.

I’m not very involved in the day-to-day community anymore. The first I heard about “#fx10” was a blog post that hit Hacker News. That’s not weird, though. It’s been a while. I’m used to not hearing about things until they’re released now.

However, I’m still friends with a lot of people at Mozilla, in the company, even on the Dev Tools team, and at the foundation. I hope that you all trust that if I’m mad at all, I’m caremad.

Innovate in Public

Innovating is hard. Innovating in public is even harder.

A big growing pain at Mozilla soon after I started was balancing being open with getting work finished. It took a while to figure out how to do both. Honestly, it took a while for the old guard to learn to trust the new people in the rapidly growing company and then to let things happen without needing to have input.

It’s not perfect, but Mozilla has gotten a lot better. The Rust team is very good at doing work in the open and still moving the project forward. So is Firefox, with the train schedule releases that Rust copied. The Dev Tools has made incredible progress in the built-in dev tools and in add-ons outside the regular release cycle, all of it on GitHub.

So while it’s not, and never will be, a solved problem, there’s no one that does a better job of innovating in public than Mozilla.

Surprise and Engagement

"Surprise is the opposite of engagement."

— Chris Lonnen (@Lonnen) November 4, 2014

Sometimes it’s unpleasant—I remember, but can’t find, a phrase that I think was from Mitchell Baker: “painfully open.” Part of Mozilla’s DNA is to be open. And sometimes that will hurt. Sometimes people will comment on things before we’re ready and sometimes the press will get it and some things that other companies can do won’t be options for us.

But that’s OK. It’s OK because being radically, painfully open isn’t a weakness or a handicap. Not for an organization that’s built around a mission of openness. And it’s OK because it’s what we want the web to be.

Waking up to a blog post by Mozilla about a project with no name, no code, no links, no bugs, no more information, and a “sneak peek” video was very strange.

I went to the wiki. I went to GitHub, and to Mercurial. It didn’t help that I didn’t know what to look for. But I did know more places to check than most folks probably would, and I couldn’t find anything.

It was strange because open is usually a point of pride. Open when it hurts, open when it’s not convenient, open when it means sacrificing, for example, a particular marketing angle.

And it was disconcerting because I don’t think Mozilla is going to win by taking tactics from very different companies. If Mozilla is going to market instead of engage, it’s going up against competitors that make individual ad buys larger than Mozilla’s annual budget. There will certainly be some wins along the way, but long-term it seems like a losing strategy.

Secrecy, Obscurity, and Obfuscation

It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard

Not everything needs to be blared from the rooftops at all times. It’s just impractical for every project to be on everyone’s radar. That doesn’t mean it’s secret. But just because code exists somewhere and is under an open source license doesn’t mean it’s open, either.

From Mozilla, I’ve come to expect that if it can be open, it will be, and it can be found if you care to go looking, even if it’s not exactly on the home page.

By the letter of open source, it does appear that there are source distributions you can find if you know the right person and are willing to bring a flashlight and fight off the leopard. I couldn’t find anything like a plan or roadmap or discussion group. I didn’t have the right keywords to search. That is not in the spirit of open source or the openness embodied by Mozilla.

Everything is Complex

Seeing the words "sneak peak" from @Mozilla is very weird to me. Not exactly "painfully open"

— James Socol (@jamessocol) November 3, 2014

Some folks jumped to defend… I’m not exactly sure what. I didn’t mean to criticize the work that the people on the Dev Tools team have done on this.

In fact, I can’t criticize their work, because all I saw were some previously-embargoed screenshots. I’d love to criticize the actual product—what I’ve seen over the past year from that team has been fantastic so I’m excited to see what they’ve made all put together. But what I have is some concerning marketing.

More than a few people specifically defending the marketing. Responses ranged from obscurity-is-fine to surprises-are-fun to it’s-only-a-few-more-days the bizarre idea that “doing things in [secret] doesn’t conflict much at all” with being open.

Obscurity is fine. Obfuscation is not. What’s the name of the project so I can search on the wiki?

Big-surprise marketing is, yes, something you sacrifice by working in the open, but it’s a good trade-off.

A “sneak peek” of something—especially with no code or downloads—means you’ve kept it secret.

Doing things in secret is literally the opposite of being open.

The thing that concerns me the most is the defense of secrecy. A single project done in secrecy should be uncomfortable. It’s a mistake or a compromise. Missions and manifestos can be stalwart and true but we’re humans and hardly so perfect. But when Mozillians start defending secrecy as a good or “fun” or first option, instead of as a last resort, that moves this from a weird one-off to a portent.

I was far, far less worried before a number of Mozillians jumped to defend not the work or the product, but the tactic of secrecy.

One of the greatest things about Mozilla is that people care deeply about the organization and the work they do. People feel more invested in—and more eager to defend—the project than they would somewhere else. I hope that this was just a one-off, weird decision and a bunch of invested people. I hope that I’m wrong and there’s nothing to be concerned about. I probably am.

I needed to say something because I care, too.

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