Firefox’s crossroads: Cutting-edge or mainstream?

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.–John Lilly wants it both ways.

Working at Mozilla Corporation since 2005 and as chief executive since early 2008, he helped oversee a remarkable achievement. Mozilla has built the Firefox browser from a largely unsuccessful remnant of the Netscape era of the 1990s into the browser that nearly a quarter of people on the Web use. Now the challenges are different.

Mozilla Corp. CEO John Lilly

Mozilla Corp. CEO John Lilly

Stephen Shankland/CNET)

First, for new growth, Mozilla must make its open-source browser appeal to an even more mainstream crowd, one that’s more interested in working and playing online than in sticking it to Microsoft or being part of a cause. Second, it’s got to keep the loyalty of the technically savvy early adopters and Web developers that Google now has been courting with its Chrome browser.

“We have to do both,” Lilly said in an interview at Mozilla headquarters here. “We have to be a better browser for your standard everyday user of the Web who uses IE now, but I think we have to redouble our efforts to be good for Web developers.”

The world changed for Mozilla when Chrome burst onto the scene in 2008. Mozilla didn’t see itself as complacent, but Chrome was a wake-up call that “clarified some of our priorities,” Lilly said, including snappy performance.

“It made some things real crisp,” Lilly said.

Indeed, in the months after Chrome’s arrival, these priorities appeared in Mozilla’s Firefox planning: “Observable improvements in user-perceptible performance metrics such as start-up, time to open a new tab, and responsiveness when interacting with the user interface. Common user tasks should feel faster and more responsive.” And future versions of Firefox likely will look more like Chrome embracing some of its less obtrusive framing of Web content and applications.

‘Web-native’ Google
Mozilla’s biggest rivals before, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Apple’s Safari, came from companies firmly rooted in the era of desktop computers and operating systems. Not so Google, which not only has Web-based applications such as Google Docs and Gmail to support, but also a browser-based operating system called Chrome OS.

“Competing was hard but at some level simple. Google is much more Web-native,” Lilly said.

loadUniversalPlayer({playerType: ‘small’,lumiereQueryType: ‘id’,lumiereQueryValue: ’50078320′,useCurrentPageUrl: true,relatedVideo: false,preRollAd: true,hideLeftTab:true,wrapperFloat:’left’});

Google is an unusual rival. Even as Google and Mozilla vie for popularity, they’re tight allies in the “Open Web” movement to augment Web standards to today’s static pages into tomorrow’s applications. And Google almost singlehandedly funds Mozilla by sending back a portion of search-ad revenue that originates from Google searches within Firefox.

In 2007, the last year for which Mozilla has released figures, Google supplied 89 percent of Mozilla’s $75 million in revenue. Although the Mozilla-Google revenue-sharing deal is set to expire in 2011, realistically, it’s probably safe.

For one thing, Firefox sends a large amount of search traffic to Google–traffic it could easily send to another search engine with the flip of a default setting switch. Second, Google’s browser enemy is Internet Explorer, especially the slow and limited IE 6 that’s still in widespread use eight years after its release. If Google wanted to cripple Mozilla, the time to do it would have been 2008, when the search-ad deal was up for renewal, but Google renewed it.

New standards
One big part of Mozilla’s effort to remain in the vanguard is support for new Web standards.

Mozilla is among those trying to renovate Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) to make it a richer, more capable foundation for programming as well as display. And its significant if not dominant share of usage makes it a major force bringing those “Open Web” technologies to fruition.

“There are still a lot people who think the Web is done–there’s this big mission accomplished banner. It’s not true,” Lilly said. “There are many proprietary technologies, many walled gardens with respect to video and offline technology. There is still is a lot of the Open Web fight to fight,” Lilly said. “Getting to Firefox–a quarter of the Web–shows these technologies are real.”

One thorny one is Web-based video. Today most online video is sent using Adobe Systems’ Flash browser plug-in, which is free; video is encoded with the H.264 standard, which must be licensed. But fees could increase in 2011 with the possibility of new royalties for streaming H.264 video over the Internet.

Mozilla headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

Mozilla headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

Stephen Shankland/CNET)

Perhaps not coincidentally, Google announced plans to acquire On2 Technologies, which has other video encoding and decoding software–or codec–including a new version under development called VP8.

“If VP8 is an open codec and unencumbered (by patent licensing considerations), it’s something we’d implement. That changes the whole landscape,” Lilly said.

The first update in a decade to the HTML standard used to describe Web pages is under way, and one major feature is a video tag that builds video directly into the Web rather than relying on a plug-in such as Flash, Microsoft’s Silverlight, or Apple’s QuickTime. Though Mozilla, Google, Apple, and Opera all like the tag, they don’t see eye to eye about what format video should be encoded in, which complicates how well the technology works in practice.

Mozilla and Opera urge use of the Ogg Theora video format, which may be implemented in open-source software without licensing complications, and Firefox has had Ogg support since version 3.5 of the browser arrived earlier this year.

But Apple’s Safari has H.264 support built in. Google’s Chrome supports both standards, but YouTube supports only H.264. Microsoft hasn’t said what it plans to do. So for now, video plug-ins appear unthreatened.

Microsoft in the wings
At the other end of the competitive spectrum is the incumbent. Although Microsoft’s browser development crept nearly to a standstill after IE won the first browser wars of the 1990s, there’s evidence the sleeping giant is awakening.

IE 8, released earlier this year, attempts to conform to existing Web standards rather than setting its own. And though IE still doesn’t support many of the latest technologies to make the Web into an application foundation, Microsoft now is actively engaged in discussions over those technologies and their standardization. Finally, Microsoft is working on Web applications of its own in the form of an online version of Office 2010, giving the company a strong new incentive to improve its technology.

So far, though, Microsoft’s effect is more theoretical than actual.

“They’ve given notice they will engage. We haven’t seen them influence it a lot,” said Mike Shaver, Mozilla’s vice president of engineering. He’s eager about the possibility that Microsoft will embrace new Web standards. “They represent a large user base–some by choice, some not. Those technologies mean a lot more when they make it to more people.”

Something of a wild card factor in today’s browser wars is Apple, which has released a Windows version of its browser. The company rarely ventures out of its home turf of Mac OS X unless there’s a strong incentive–releasing iTunes for Windows to boost the iPod business, for example–but evidently deemed Safari for Windows a high enough priority to fund development and support efforts if not much in the way of marketing.

Going mobile
Apple, though, has a big head start when it comes to the new era of mobile browsing that’s just beginning to mature with high-powered devices such as the iPhone. Like it, Palm’s Pre handset and Google’s Android operating system for mobile phones use a browser based on the open-source WebKit project.

Firefox is moving more slowly into mobile, though. Its mobile browser project, called Fennec, is slated to emerge later this year under the Firefox brand name for Nokia’s Maemo mobile operating system, and Lilly has said Firefox will be available for Google’s Android operating system as well.

“I do more browsing than ever in mobile. The boundaries between desktop and mobile are going to blur,” Lilly said. “We will release (Fennec) as a product called Firefox later this year.”

Lilly likes to look at the bright side of this fluid landscape. “In most ways the world as a Web user is better than it’s ever been. There’s real choice, not just from Apple and Microsoft but from Google and Opera,” he said.

“We’re a unique organization. Compared to open-source projects, we look rather wealthy. Compared to the people we’re competing with–Apple, Microsoft, Google–$50 million, $60 million, $100 million in revenue that to them isn’t really meaningful,” Lilly said. “We’re competing in a low-expense, scrappy way.”

Originally posted at Deep Tech

Excerpted from:
Firefox’s crossroads: Cutting-edge or mainstream?

Firefox’s future features: 3.6, 3.7, and 4.0

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.–Some new fruits of Mozilla’s effort to speed Firefox development are about to arrive.

Mozilla plans to release the first beta version of 3.6 this weekend or early next week. But what exactly is coming in the new version and its successors?

Mike Shaver, Mozilla’s vice president of product development, and John Lilly, Mozilla’s chief executive, detailed some of the browser’s future in an interview at the corporation’s headquarters here. And the company has an aggressive schedule, with three releases due within about a year.

Mike Shaver, vice president of engineering at Mozilla

Mike Shaver, vice president of engineering at Mozilla

Stephen Shankland/CNET)

The present version of Firefox was to have been called 3.1, but with significant new features, it became Firefox 3.5–and arrived later than 3.1 had been planned. Version 3.6 is slated for release in final form this year, with 3.7 in the first half of next year and 4.0 about a year from now, Lilly said.

“We’re trying to shrink these development cycles down,” Shaver said.

Getting personal
One of the big changes with 3.6 is building in the Personas add-on that lets people customize the appearance of the browser. It’s about as cosmetic as a change can be, but reskinning software often is popular among users who want to personalize their computers.

Under the covers but more noticeable is prioritized networking that gives the active tab the lion’s share of network capacity to speed its loading. The goal is to speed up multipage restarts of the browser.

Tabs behavior will get a significant change that could throw some people off. New tabs generally will appear immediately to the right of the active tab when opened from a link, rather than at the far right of the tab strip.

Finally, Firefox 3.6 will support Open Web Font, a font format that supports compression and metadata to let the origins of a typeface be tracked down.

Support for new Windows 7 interface features, though, mostly will have to wait. “Aero Peek has landed in 3.6, but Jump Lists and download status in the Windows 7 task bar will have to wait for 3.7,” according to this week’s update. Aero Peek lets people see miniature versions of applications from the Windows task bar; Jump Lists spring up from applications on the task bar to let people take quick actions such as opening a recently used document or Web page.

A mock-up of Firefox 3.7 shows merged reload-stop button, the home tab, and the missing menu bar option.

A mock-up of Firefox 3.7 shows merged reload-stop button, the home tab, and the missing menu bar option.


Firefox 3.7
For 3.7, the big change will be under the covers: plug-ins such as Flash will be moved to computing processes that are separate from the main browser operation, protecting the latter from problems with the former.

“We’ve seen more crashing since 3.5 came out, especially in last month or so,” Lilly said, pointing to problems from Web-based malware attacks and from issues with Flash. The new design also should help split Firefox up into separate tasks that can take better advantage of all the computing threads offered by multicore processors.

Also coming in 3.7 will be new graphical animation work using Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), two Web standards. And pushing the direction in which Chrome and Safari have been so aggressive, there will be new JavaScript work.

With version 3.0, Mozilla introduced Firefox’s “awesomebar,” officially but infrequently called the Smart Location Bar, which can be used not only to type addresses but also to retrieve the URLs of previously visited sites. With 3.7, expect an upgrade that lets people switch among active tabs by typing in the bar.

Firefox 3.7 also will mark the arrival of some significant changes to the user interface, though final details remain under discussion. Among the likely changes: a combined stop and reload button, a home tab instead of a home button, and the ability to run with the menu bar hidden.

One superficial change Mozilla hopes will make Firefox look less “dated” is work to make the browser fit in better with Windows Vista and Windows 7. There will be some corresponding changes to Firefox’s Mac OS X interface, too.

This mock-up of Firefox 4.0 shows the 'tabs-on-top' option, the side-mounted menu buttons, combined address-search bar--all Google Chrome-like features.

This mock-up of Firefox 4.0 shows the 'tabs-on-top' option, the side-mounted menu buttons, combined address-search bar–all Google Chrome-like features.


Firefox 4.0
Bigger changes come with version 4.0. There each browser tab will get its own process. “In Firefox 4 we’ll have a more fully multiprocess architecture for stability and increasingly to take advantage of multiple cores,” Lilly said.

Another big change will be with add-ons. One of Firefox’s biggest assets is the rich array of these customization options–but a corresponding frustration is how those add-ons often break with each update to the browser.

loadUniversalPlayer({playerType: ‘small’,lumiereQueryType: ‘id’,lumiereQueryValue: ’50078320′,useCurrentPageUrl: true,relatedVideo: false,preRollAd: true,hideLeftTab:true,wrapperFloat:’left’});

Firefox 4 will introduce a new add-on framework under development today called Jetpack that, like Chrome’s, uses Web-based technologies for add-on construction. Today’s Firefox uses a foundation called XUL.

Among the other perks besides compatibility, as Mozilla sees it, Jetpack extensions are easier to write and share, and they can be updated as the browser runs without a restart. Still, it will mean a big discontinuity for programmers.

“We want for developers to want to get onto Jetpack and the Jetpack application programming interface,” Shaver said, and the current plan is to drop the older add-on technology with Firefox 4.

Finally, there will be more changes to the browser’s appearance. Some have called it a Chrome copy–features include a merged location bar and search bar, removing the status bar across the bottom, and adding an option to put the tabs at the very top of the browser, all features introduced with Chrome. Lilly, though, bridles at the Chrome-copy idea.

“We’re trying to get as much window space as possible for content,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a move toward Chrome. We’re trying to give space to the content.”

Originally posted at Deep Tech

Read more here:
Firefox’s future features: 3.6, 3.7, and 4.0

HP can’t save print. But big props for trying

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Hewlett-Packard is announcing two projects
at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco on Wednesday it hopes will give new life to print–books and magazines in particular. Additions to two projects, BookPrep and MagCloud, let content that’s been too expensive or difficult to print get out to readers more easily.

Andrew Bolwell, director of new business initiatives at HP, told me these products are based on an understand that the publishing industry is undergoing a fundamental shift, which he sees as the move away from printing things ahead of time, distributing them to locations in the hopes that people will buy them, and then disposing of the products that are unsold, into the more contemporary model of printing on demand. Each year in the U.S., Bolwell says, 2 billion magazines, 62 percent of all printed, end up unsold and in landfills.

Books are printed in advance in the same way, for the most part, and unsold copies are likewise destroyed. Furthermore, most of the books ever printed are unavailable to buy: Bolwell says only 4 percent of the 90 million books ever printed are available to purchase.


HP is set to rescue old books, making them fit to print again.

Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET)

HP’s BookPrep is built to address that. The service takes in scans of book pages, cleans them up automatically, and preps them for sale as print-on-demand editions.

The service, which has been in testing for about a year at a university library, is getting some high-profile partners, and a business model. The service now gets scanned books from Google and from the Internet Archive, and sells its books on Amazon.

The books are printed by various on-demand book printing houses. The covers are done on HP Indigo printers, but the book pages themselves are created on who-knows-what printer. Bolwell doesn’t care, as the revenue comes from the sale of the books via Amazon royalties. HP says it will share a portion of its revenues back to source of each book’s scan–in most cases, a library.

Unlike the Archive’s more disruptive Book Server project, which is about making current books available electronically online, BookPrep is about older, public-domain books. And the BookPrep service does not index the actual text in books–it leaves that to Google, Amazon, and the Internet Archive. All BookPrep does is take crufty scans of old books and make them presentable enough for print. It also can create nice covers for print editions.

So if you want a print edition of the 1887 White House Cook Book, this is how a surviving, aging copy of the book can appear new again.


The company also has a way for today's magazine publishers to print for less.

Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET)

The MagCloud business addresses magazine printing. It’s a custom magazine printing site, like Lulu but for glossy magazines, that’s been live since February. The service lets anyone create their own print publication, and customize single copies for users based on location or other factors. When a reader buys an issue, MagCloud prints their copy at a printer as close to their location as possible, to save shipping costs and time.

The new addition to the product is a link into Wikia blogs. Users can now print “magazines” of Wikia pages, and the service will format them so they look nice. It reminds me of Offbeat Guides to an extent.

MagCloud isn’t a complete magainze publishing system in the sense that it helps people create periodical publications. It doesn’t do subscription mangement nor does it automate print advertising. But it does look like a nice way to get a fancy-looking color magazine-like publication created and distributed easily.

MagCloud publications are printed on HP’s Indigo printers, but HP says it’s agnostic to printing engine.

Taping up old pages

Bolwell has a modern yet conflicted apprecation for print, which is not suprising for a guy who works at a one of the largest printer manufacturers. He belives that people will continue to love and want printed products, that, “especially for rich four-color content, the experience of the printed page is the preferred way of reading content.” However, he also believes that the process for creating a printed product must change: “It’s only a matter of time until the entire [magazine] industry moves to print on demand,” he adds.

Both BookPrep and MagCloud seem to be Band-Aids for patients that are likely terminal. The demand for printed books and magazines won’t vanish tomorrow. Nor will it for newspapers, but that’s an industry even Bolwell doesn’t think printing technology should try to fix. There’s clearly money left in printing things, esepcially if it can be done more efficiently. The question is to what level this industry, even streamlined, will decline, and how fast it will get there. I hope Bolwell has exit plans for this business, and I don’t mean selling it to Google.

Originally posted at Rafe’s Radar

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HP can’t save print. But big props for trying

GE shows off pocket-size ultrasound scanner

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Jeff Immelt holds the GE Vscan ultrasound scanner.

Rafe Needleman/CNET)

SAN FRANCISCO–In a wide-ranging interview at the Web 2.0 Summit, Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, announced a low-cost and very portable ultrasound scanner called the Vscan.

“It’s about the same size as a BlackBerry,” Immelt said, holding up a white device that appeared to fold in the middle like a flip-phone. The top of the device showed an ultrasound image (of a patient’s liver, we were told), while the bottom showed control keys.

“This is Moore’s law,” he said, saying that the device had the same power as a console ultrasound from two to three years ago that would cost $250,000.

The price of the device was not revealed, but Immelt asked the audience to imagine these devices going to Africa and helping health care providers there determine “if a baby is breech,” for example. “This could be the stethoscope of the 21st century,” he said.

Immelt also gave a demo of an enhanced online medical records system, in which patient data is combined with clinical outcome data and research to help caregivers apply effective and current treatments to patients. Medical records, he said, don’t win only because they give patients portable electronic files, but rather, “it’s about making better clinical decisions faster.”

On the topic that the Web 2.0 audience was expecting to learn more about, the potential sale of GE’s NBC Universal, Immelt said, “An IPO would be fine.” Also: “You’ve got to think a couple of years head in this space and think, there might be other partnerships. We’ve got all the options.”

See also: Comcast CEO: We are not a dead duck.

See also: Smallest ultrasound system for fast diagnoses .

More here:
GE shows off pocket-size ultrasound scanner

Not much to tweet about in Twitter CEO talk

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Evan Williams and John Battelle

Evan Williams (left) and John Battelle (right)

James Martin/CNET)

SAN FRANCISCO–In anticipation of an onstage interview with Twitter CEO Evan Williams at the Web 2.0 Summit on Tuesday afternoon, conference organizer and Federated Media CEO John Battelle told the audience to expect “a surprise” during the talk.

Turns out that “surprise” was actually a recently unearthed video clip of Williams in 1994, explaining the Internet on behalf of a company called Illumination Labs and sporting a haircut that looked like it belonged on the set of ’90s alterna-teen flick “Empire Records.” (No, we don’t have a snapshot of it yet.)

Williams didn’t really say a whole lot else about where Twitter’s going, beyond what the world already knows: it’s been growing fast. It turned down a buyout offer from Facebook. It just raised a ton of money. It still hasn’t disclosed a long-term revenue model.

Evan Williams

Evan Williams

James Martin/CNET)

“It’s not like we’re spending our days looking in the couch cushions for the elusive revenue model, but obviously we’ve done a lot of thinking about it,” Williams said, declining to comment on the potential of search deals with Google or Microsoft. “I can’t tell you exactly what the model is, but it’s pretty obvious to you that there may be some advertising that makes sense…there’s a lot of commercial activity on Twitter today, there’s a lot of brand marketers who use Twitter today, and it works. We think of Twitter (as) not a social network, it’s an information network…a substantial part of that is commercial and theoretically monetizable information.”

Williams, who previously founded Pyra Labs and sold its flagship Blogger product to Google, took over as CEO of Twitter from fellow co-founder Jack Dorsey last year. Dorsey, who remains Twitter chairman, is working on a new mobile commerce start-up called Square.

In his talk at Web 2.0 Summit, Williams mentioned new features like user-generated “lists,” currently in beta, and said that they may end up replacing the site’s current (and much-maligned) “suggested user” list altogether. (“It’s gone on too long, and I desperately want to kill it or evolve it.”) He also said that “some things we’re launching” may counteract recent slowdowns in Twitter’s U.S. Web-based traffic, which was growing exponentially not so long ago.

“We are seeing slowing of growth in some areas and accelerating growth in other areas. Twitter is very hard to measure, even for us,” Williams said. “The biggest two areas that we’re seeing growth is on mobile and internationally.” Last week, the company inked new mobile deals in India and Japan; currently, its five biggest markets are the U.S., the U.K., Japan, Brazil, and Indonesia, which has been “growing like crazy lately.”

So what does he think of the other players in the real-time Web? He’s not sure what to make of Google Wave (“I sure as hell don’t know what Google Wave is going to be. I haven’t wrapped my head around it yet”) but underscored that in Twitter’s early days he wasn’t sure what that would turn out to be either. And as for Facebook, he shrugged off speculation that the social-networking giant started aping Twitter when it was unable to actually buy it.

“I don’t know how Facebook’s feature prioritization works. I suspect that they came to a lot of the same conclusions we did,” Williams said. “In the global sense, I’m pretty sure the world is big enough for Facebook and Twitter, and fundamentally I think they’re good at different things. Facebook is phenomenal at communications among people who know each other.”

Facebook ultimately purchased a far smaller streaming-information start-up, FriendFeed, this summer.

“We had a few conversations with our friends in Palo Alto (Facebook) and ultimately I just didn’t see a reason to sell if that opportunity would have presented itself because it’s not the point,” he continued regarding the failed acquisition. “The point is really to see what we can build. We believe very strongly in that at Twitter, and enabling the open exchange of information is a good thing for the world.”

It’s his usual schpiel. Aside from the Nirvana-era haircut, there wasn’t a whole lot to tweet about here.

Originally posted at The Social

Not much to tweet about in Twitter CEO talk