The Engadget Interview: Mozilla Firefox VP Johnathan Nightingale

Talk to those high up at Mozilla and they'll tell you that the platform war for third place is a waste of time; that Windows Phone and BlackBerry are as doomed as each other, because developers will never, ever be interested in the "five percent". That's not to say there isn't room for a rebellious alternative, but the way Mozilla sees it, such an option has already been available since the beginning. It's not another proprietary ecosystem, but something that spans all ecosystems: namely, the web itself, in all its open and hackable glory.

On the other hand, Johnathan Nightingale, VP of Firefox Engineering, acknowledges that most of his estimated 450 million users don't care a jot for this type of sermonizing. All they want is a good browser, which means Nightingale is in a constant "fight" with Chrome and IE over market share and new features. With Firefox OS barely off the ground (and full of uncertainty), and with no iOS relationship to speak of either, it falls to Firefox for Windows, Mac and Android to wage this war, and if you read on you'll discover why Nightingale thinks these browsers will win -- even when they may appear to be losing.

1. Firefox vs. Internet Explorer

Mozilla's original mission was to stop Microsoft and Internet Explorer having a monopoly over the web. Those days are over, so what's your mission now?

Our job is still to make the web a better place. Our strongest way of doing that is to build products people want to use, and then infuse those products with our values. It's that approach, rather than the moral compass of the project, that got us hundreds of millions of users. Now, it depends on whose numbers you take, but we have somewhere like 20 to 25 percent of the two billion people who use the internet, and it means that we can move the web where we think it needs to go.

It's only recently that Microsoft got fined again over browser choice. How much do you monitor what they do on browser choice, and what do you make of it?

It's an ongoing push. There will always be forces within a company like Microsoft that want to argue for more choice or for the opposite, for more silo-ing. But we believe that users should be making choices for themselves and should be aware of their options. The details will always be an imperfect imitation of the ideal, but any time the user gets a choice, that gets a thumbs up from us.

2. Firefox vs. Chrome

Would you agree that you're in the shadow of Google and Chrome now, rather than Microsoft?

That creates a picture of more threat than really exists. People take it for granted today that there are several viable browsers they can choose from. Now that Internet Explorer's share has fallen below 50 percent by most reckonings, it means that most web users have made a choice about their browser. That's a big deal. That's success for us.

"People sometimes think that Google calls the shots"

This was all unthinkable when we started out, and people said we were all variations of stupid for even trying to go up against someone that the US Department of Justice had just described as a "monopolist." But now people understand that Firefox is an open source browser built for them, with no other interests at play, and with security and privacy built-in. That position doesn't feel threatened to me. Having other excellent products in the market just makes us all better.

Why does Google continue to pay you so much money for directing traffic to their search engine, when they're usually people's default choice already? How long can that arrangement last?

They offer us a share of the revenues we help them to make. There are other establishment engines like Bing and Yahoo!, and I don't know how things will go. Our conversation with Google is that we like offering their search engine because it makes sense, but it's something we reevaluate regularly, and that we reevaluate globally.

People sometimes think that Google calls the shots because they're our biggest customer, but if there were any backrooms in Mozilla -- there aren't, but if there were I'd be in them -- and if anyone ever commanded us to "to do this thing you don't want to do, or else," then the '"or else" options look pretty good. There are other search engines we could send people to, but right now it works well for us and for the web, and almost certainly for Google.

3. Firefox vs. Skype

You're about to release a new version of Firefox with WebRTC -- which offers video chat and other forms of real-time communication directly over the web, regardless of whether you're using Firefox on the desktop or mobile. It also works with Chrome. But how will you make sure others support it?

There are plenty of providers of video chat right now, but they all do it in their own little walled garden. If you're an app developer and you wanted to build Skype integration into your app, that's just not a choice you have. In fact, even if you wanted to do something trivial, like you're a social network and you just want people to be able to take a new head-shot for their profile picture or something -- operating systems have been able to do that for a decade, but you can't do it over the web, which is stupid. WebRTC will make all that stuff really easy and we're going to try to use our scale to push it.

There's nothing about this we want to be proprietary. It'll be built into the fabric of the web, and eight million web devs will have access to it. Chrome will work with it and we hope Microsoft will eventually work with it too. I've heard people suggest they'll never adopt WebRTC because it'll get in the way of Skype. But from my experience it never works well for companies to go against what their customers want. Besides, I don't think the value of Skype is in its codec layer -- I hope they don't feel that way. People can compete and build on the value of their user experience or network or tie-ins to other services, rather than on the basis of locked-in technology.

4. Firefox vs. Software

Another feature coming soon is 3D gaming within Firefox. What makes your approach different to anyone else's?

Getting people to install software is difficult. If you can deliver software to run on the web, and run on all platforms at once, and push all updates implicitly, and not have to worry about copy protection because it's all hosted on a server, it's a much better model.

"we have a different plan that'll work better"

Games like Farmville have been on the web for ages, but big, immersive 3D games just aren't. Game companies always say that's two to three years out, because they're still using native code. They can see the value, but they can't get to there from here. It'd take them years to port existing technology to the web.

Google's has its own story around its Native Client, that you can run your native code on, but that's not really on the web -- that's another plug-in. So we told game companies that we have a different plan that'll work better. We have a tool that converts C++ to Javascript, and another tool to boost the performance of that. We also have WebGL to access local graphics hardware. Working with Epic, we managed to get their Unreal Engine 3 running on the web after just four days locked in a room. And now we're at a half native speed, which means you need powerful hardware to run the games at good frame rates, but it's what game developers have told us is the threshold at which they'll look at this seriously.

Will we be able to play these games on mobile Firefox too?

These changes are coming to Android as well. They won't be in the same release, because Android is ARM-based. so the optimizations are a little different and the graphics drivers are at a different state of maturity. But we don't anticipate any deep difficulty on mobile -- it should be in one of the upcoming releases. If we're still just talking about it in 2014, then you can tell me I've missed my mark.

Have you spoken to Steam about this?

We've spoken to lots of people. I have no Steam-related announcements to make today, but yeah -- Steam... you can really see it.

Could any software run on the browser this way?

The engineering lead who helped us with all this gaming stuff, just for giggles he built a RAW file viewer to demonstrate that our translation tools work for applications as well as games.

5. Firefox vs. Wankel engines

You're pushing the web as an alternative to an operating system -- that's what connects Firefox OS, WebRTC, browser gaming and everything else. But how can you be sure others will join in with this, and not just leave you playing with a bunch of tools that only Firefox uses?

The next two billion people who come online over the next five or six years won't look like the two billion who are already there. They won't be experiencing the web through a $700 iPhone. iOS isn't targeting the bottom end. Android is trying to push down that way, but it works on Dalvik, the Java-based implementation layer that has trouble -- so $150 Android phones don't feel good. And we have Gecko, our rendering engine, which gets rid of application wrappers and memory overhead and CPU overhead. Instead of taking something that was a web app already, wrap it in a bunch of Java so it can run in a Java-based OS that is just running the web again, we can just get rid of all that. It's just a simpler technology stack. It scales up if you have the hardware, and it scales down if you don't. And there's a judo move here if you watch for it.

"the web is winning"

We're coming into Android. We keep trying to come into iOS, but we're not allowed, so we keep trying to figure out how we could be. But the judo move is coming. It's not about Firefox market share -- that'll be great, we'll throw parties -- but we're only gonna know that we've won when Google lets people submit web apps to the Play Store natively. Maybe we'll tag them differently, or maybe it'll look like just another app, except without everyone having to go through this wrapping dance. And then Apple will do the same. Steve Jobs once said web apps are the future, but they forgot about that -- I'd forget about it too if I was making that much money from a native OS. But they'll quietly co-opt it. And at that point, the web is winning.

The web isn't like other tech. It's not like throwing a dart at a wall and deciding we'll support the web or we'll support Wankel rotary engines. It's different and special because it's so hackable. It resists gatekeepers. If Google and iOS co-opt that, and if we chip away a quarter of their market, let's say, then the whole ecosystem gets better -- not just the piece of it that Firefox runs.