Am I reading these trends right?

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Let’s see… in the last few weeks, we have seen:

Facebook shifting the definition of the Open Graph and moving the locus of control about sharing from an actual user-initiated action (“share!”) to the terms of service that users agree to at “app installation time”. This will likely lead users to overshare, and many more websites to require facebook accounts.

Amazon building a new way of using the web which many fear will be a data mining engine that “acts on your behalf” as you do anything on the web, not just with Amazon sites. Until now, only regulated ISPs or government agencies had that level of access to our online activities.

Microsoft preparing a version of Windows which will demote third-party browsers and bake in support for a single-vendor appstore.

Google aggressively promoting their mostly closed social network on all of its properties.

(All of whom are basically following Apple’s lead on how to verticalize the world).

The threat models are fascinating too. According to the blogosphere, Facebook is feeling threatened by users shifting to mobile (read: iPhone); Google’s threatened by Facebook; Apple needs to figure out social; Everyone’s going to get bit by patents, but they all have huge cash reserves to apply to that problem.

This industry is heading in a direction that is sure to be full of fireworks, but I’m having a hard time seeing how normal people end up winning at the end.

If these trends continue, in a few years at most we’ll basically choose one of 3 or 4 vertical stacks to work in. Rich people will be able to afford to play in all of them (an iOS macphone, an android tablet, a kindle Plasma, a facebook TV, etc.).

Consumption will go up, free access will be contingent on actual consumption. Kindle people will have a heck of a time communicating with Apple people. Facebookers will make fun of Googlers. App developers will slowly realize that they’re the outsourced R&D department for the big 5, and success will be defined as being acquired for a few bucks rather than creating jobs or making the world a better place.

Consumers are part of the problem too, of course — we like simple, shiny, integrated solutions. We want freedom from choice more than we actually value choice.

The next generation will likely think of our notions of privacy, autonomy, and various freedoms as quaint or foolish, much like we look on our parents’ notions of decorum and modesty. Either that, or they’ll unplug and start to riot, because of the co-occuring global economic climate which, to put it bluntly, will suck for people who don’t have stock in said 5 companies.

So, that’s a pretty bleak assessment, and it tends to depress me. What’s the silver lining? I don’t have a very rosy picture yet, although I’m trying! I have a few proto-thoughts:

First, those five companies, while very impressive and influential, represent a tiny fraction of the creative, intellectual and even financial resources of the world. Furthermore, those companies are all US-based, which simply isn’t a stable configuration. So while those companies are defining extremely aggressive winner-take-all strategies, and executing for the most part exceedingly well, we should realize that there are way more of “us” than “them”.

Second, these companies all have competitors, and I expect always will. Even if there were no other market forces at play, these five will keep beating each other up forever. Mergers of giants might even be a good thing, given that those tend to destroy focus and operational excellence.

Third, I think that there is a growing shared understanding of what’s wrong with these trends from a public policy point of view. The internet, the web, were not intended to facilitate these empires, and I expect that over time, as John Gilmore said, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” So somehow, we’ll figure out a way to take the bits of net life that truly matter, and extract those from the silos being built.

There are many projects in this general vein already under way, some with significant involvement from Mozilla. For example, we’re pushing hard on federating identity on the web, and teaching the web about apps and vice versa. I’m hopeful that we’ll also find ways to recognize friends and partners along the way. I’ve got a list in my head, but it’s probably worth building it out. If you have pointers to projects that touch on these issues, let me know in comments.

Welcoming a new Thunderbird Leader

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Last week, we released the latest version of Thunderbird! This release marks the first of our releases from within our new combined team which I mentioned in the past. Get it & enjoy it — I’ll draw your eye in particular to the new integrated add-on manager and my personal can’t-live-without add-on, the Conversations add-on which has matured a lot since I last mentioned it.

This month also marks the introduction of a critical new addition to the Thunderbird team: I introduced JB Piacentino to the Mozilla weekly call and Thunderbird teams a couple of weeks ago, but this seems like a fine time to introduce him to the broader community. JB is now the new Managing Director for Thunderbird. I’m confident that he’s going to provide what Thunderbird has been needing for a while now — someone who can have a broad enough perspective on Thunderbird to understand its breadth and full potential impact, but with a focused enough mandate that Thunderbird will get the attention it deserves.

JB has an ideal background to complement the rest of the Thunderbird team’s skills — in particular, he has a combination of entrepreneurial expertise and a passion for product marketing which will serve Thunderbird well. And while he’s new to the Mozilla community, he’s been an avid follower and supporter of Mozilla for a long time.

I’m also excited about the fact that JB is based in Paris, France. Thunderbird has a significant concentration of users in Europe, and moving the center of gravity of the project closer to our users will likely have a broad set of benefits.

I’m visiting JB and the Mozilla Paris office this week in fact, and we’d like to welcome anyone who happens to be in the area to come to a Q&A we’ll be having at the Mozilla office tomorrow evening:

28 Boulevard Poissonnière
75009 Paris
at 7pm (19:00)

I encourage people to get in touch with JB, and share your thoughts about Thunderbird.

The Future of Messaging

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The web has incredible potential to improve our lives even more than it already has.  I believe that nowhere else is this more true than in the space of personal communications.

Mitchell Baker, Chair of the Mozilla Foundation, today announced that Mozilla will be increasing our focus on messaging and communications on the web.  As part of this, here are some of the steps that we are taking.

We’re going to be consolidating the teams working on messaging on the Web and related topics like identity and contacts, by integrating the Mozilla Messaging team with Mozilla Labs.

People who have followed Mozilla Messaging are already aware of our first investments in this arena, such as the popular F1 add-on for Firefox, and the experimental Raindrop project.  The expanded Mozilla Labs team has more plans for both research and product initiatives in the field of online communications and social interactions on the Web, which we look forward to sharing.

Thunderbird users will likely be curious to know what this change means for them.  The short answer is almost nothing will change.  We’ll move pages around websites, but that will be the extent of the impact on Thunderbird users.  In particular, the Thunderbird team will remain a tight-knit self-contained product team with full responsibility for the stewardship, development and support of Thunderbird.  I’m continually proud of the Thunderbird team, as they continue to produce high quality releases on the platform that Firefox is continually improving, while supporting exciting developments like Blake Winton’s GetAnAccount, Jonathan Protzenko’s radical Conversations view add-on or Mike Conley’s Unity integration work to name a few.

I’ll still be managing the Thunderbird team, as well as lead our innovation efforts at the intersection of the Web and messaging.

When I told the team about this change, there was universal nodding — this is an obvious move for Mozilla.  I’ve had the chance to work with many people in all parts of Mozilla over the last few years, and I’ve never met a more competent or kinder group of passionate professionals, and I’ve never been more excited and optimistic about the chances of having impact, both personally and as a part of the fascinating group that is Mozilla.

Jonas Sicking, a superlative Mozilla developer, recently tweeted:

one of the most awesome things about the web is how it enables new ways of communication. What can we do to improve that even more?

That is a nice summary of our focus in the next phase.

Sometimes an add-on is transformative…

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In my years of using Thunderbird, there have been a few notable transition points in my personal experience with it. One that I remember well is when we optimized deletion to be asynchronous, which completely got rid of the delay in deleting messages. Another that I’m happy to be able to share now is Jonathan Protzenko’s Conversations add-on, now available through this Labs blog post. It’s remarkable how well Jonathan was able to take an early mockup from a couple of years ago and carry it through to a very, very useful and pleasant and quite full-featured conversation view. Try it out, if you’re like me you won’t want to go back.

On a technical note, it’s nice to see how the various bits of the refactorings and new technology pieces we’ve been building into Thunderbird can be used to build compelling new UIs.

Congrats Jonathan!

Social perspectives: Valuable and Important

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I like this TechCrunch post by Naval Ravikant and Adam Rifkin, because it makes it clear that there is not one “social graph” that any one player can “capture”. Instead, there are many perspectives on social ties, and each application (facebook, twitter, email, linkedin, flickr, etc.) reflects different perspectives on those graphs. I suspect the successful social apps are those who have defined perspectives that map well to implicit human relationship types, and then figured out monetization models that don’t get too much in the way. The evidence suggests that the social perspectives offered by Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin to name a few all provide a good combination of user and investor value.

As Ravikant and Rifkin argue, some perspectives have a lot of commercial value, and others much less, either because they’re not interesting to people (most brand-based social networks I hope will fall in this category), or because they represent relationships which aren’t easily monetizable.

Human relationships are much richer and more colorful than (‘friends’, ‘interests’ and ‘colleagues’), however. And some of the social ties that aren’t valuable to investors are however very important to people. Figuring out how the web can support these other perspectives is, I suspect one of the big challenges of the next few years, and I expect the answer will come from sociologists, psychologists and designers working in concert with technologists.

What other perspectives on the social graph should there be on the net, and how can we make it possible for the web to reflect the breadth and variety of human relationships that truly exist?

Crowdsourcing thoughts

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On Wednesday, I’m attending Remixology 2, an event put together by Fresh Media, on the topic of crowdsourcing.  In particular, I’ll somehow be the representative of the entire open web perspective on crowdsourcing (!), Alfred Hermida will be talking about the journalist’s perspective, and Leigh Christie will be there representing artists.  I’m hoping that the audience doesn’t expect any one of us to speak authoritatively on any topic, and that we can instead have a conversation.  Since talking to Hanna Cho about the event, I’ve had a couple of thoughts on the topic that I’m hoping I’ll be able to fit into that conversation.

Crowdsourcing, like most buzzwords, is loaded with too many meanings, and I rarely use it.  I’m more interested in figuring out how to leverage the internet to enable collaboration on a grand scale.  Everyone has experience with 1-1 collaboration, whether through email, shared writings spaces, voice calls, etc.  The internet has provided the technologies to make such collaboration radically cheaper and faster than before, and the biggest challenge it has brought have been widely discussed: we’re always connected, for better or worse; we’re always interrupted; the world is smaller; nobody knows you’re a dog.  All of which is old hat to anyone who’se spent any time online in the last couple of decades.

The advent of mass instant collaboration and mass participation is made possible by the same technologies, but I think we’re still in the earliest stages of figuring out both how to do it well, and what the societal impact will be.  I’m hoping we can talk about that a bit.

It’s easier than ever to spread a meme, and to recruit a population the size of a small army who are all interested or even passionate about your meme.  With ubiquitous communication systems (phones, laptops, cheap broadband, internet cafes, etc), social “viral” media  (twitter, facebook, chain letters, etc.), rich media production models (video on phones and youtube), it seems that viral messages spread like wildfire (of course there’s a massive selection bias: deliberately starting a wildfire is incredibly hard in practice).  Let’s grant that getting the word out is easy.  Depending on the topic, one can get the attention of a cohort of like-minded folks fairly easy (that’s 500 soldiers, if the roman army is a guide).  If any one of them has an hour or two to contribute, pretty soon we’re talking a person-year or more of effort, which can be a potent resource if focused!

The cost of building and running web sites has also plumetted, and the number of people capable of doing so is skyrocketing, which makes it easy (in theory) for anyone to create a place for these people to gather, discuss, coordinate, work, agitate, whatever.  Some will build dedicated websites, others will use shared tools like Facebook groups, mailing lists, etc.  In most countries, such gatherings are undetected, let alone regulated.  We now have mechanisms for coordination of group action.  The potential is seemingly unbounded.

Many online activities are virtually free.  Interestingly, even when there are real (or forecasted) costs to a project, the last few years have seen the maturation of many interesting micropayment systems.  The trendiest is Kickstarter, which somehow gathered the mindshare in the “let’s get together and fund X” world, and its most famous success is Diaspora, who raised $200k, which was 20 times what they asked for, just because they said they’d take on Facebook.  So even in the treacherous arena of cash, there are now funding models which seem to work (at least for small-scale efforts).  Thus, to the sheer hours of invested time, we can now add a few thousand dollars.

So now we have a few hundred people, excited about some idea.  There’s a website, and even a modest bank balance. To use the techy jargon, we’ve got scalable models for meme propagation, recruitment, coordination & communication, advocacy, marketing & PR, and funraising.  Awesome.

Now it’s time to actually do stuff.  In particular, it’s time to plan, schedule, prioritize, make decisions, commit some code, commit to something.  In my experience, that’s the part that we still don’t know how to scale.  Everyone in the army of volunteers has ideas about what should be done (but only a small percentage will actually have relevant skills or experience).  Everyone will have opinions about what words should be used, but only a small number will actually really listen to the other’s opinions.  If we’re not careful, we now have a large group of people who think share a goal, but who are not organized.  And that can be really hard to deal with, especially given that we’ve made it really easy for them to shout at each other.

Which leads to my main point, which is that the next challenge for mass collaboration and coordination over the internet isn’t going to be technological, but human.  Specifically, what will differentiate important projects from the rest are the people who can help groups of people achieve common goals.  That’s not a new task, but the cybernetic setting will require to adapt old skills and create new cultural norms.  Three skills at least are needed to facilitate that kind of coordination:

The first is some form of leadership.  Quite often, the initiator of the meme didn’t really intend to start a micro-movement.  She just tweeted something, or uploaded a ranty video, or wrote a scathing blog post.  And all of a sudden she is the center of attention from a bunch of strangers who “agree” and want to “do something about it”.  In that kind of situation, converting emotional energy into effective action will (I claim) depend on the emergence of a leader of some kind.  Which doesn’t mean a spokesperson, or a dictator (benevolent or not).  It just means someone who, using whatever means are appropriate for that group, can get the group focused, moving in a roughly consistent direction towards some vague approximation of a common goal.  Different groups of people will respond to different types of leadership, but I’m pretty sure all large groups need at least one individual they can anchor to.

The second is organizing.  The style of organization needed will vary wildly depending on the group, from simply taking notes to gardening a wiki to tweeting a lot, nagging, proofreading, testing.  But there is a yin to the leadership yang, and the people who are good at getting people excited are rarely the same who can remind them to uphold their commitments.

The third is what my friend David Eaves refers to as negotiation, or the process of seeking common interests among a set of potential collaborators, and building commitments and mutual trust along the way.  This skill is rarely explicitly discussed in many organizations, because most organizations have built-in power structures which have well understood tie-breakers (“the senior person decides”, “the client decides”) as well as clear consequences to disagreement (“you’re fired/demoted/etc.”, “this contract isn’t renewed”, “you’re not invited next time”, etc.).  Neither of these are as clear in a setting where peering and fraternity are assumed over hierarchy and management.  If I show up at your virtual event expecting to be treated like a peer, but it so happens that I misunderstood what your goal was, the odds are pretty good that one of us will frustrate or disappoint the other.  If we both care about our own visions, the odds of a flame war are high.  To avoid that, we need to clarify the goals up front and review them often.  We need to really explore everyone’s interests and both detect overlap and explore differences.  And we need to keep in mind everyone’s BATNA.  It’s work, but it’s the only way to actually draw from everyone’s strengths.  I think the open source / open web world is still a beginner in this arena, but I’m glad that we’re working on those muscles.

Of course, the technologist and UX thinker in me is keen to figure out whether we can design systems that help with these all-to-human (and all-too-fragile) tasks, build digital prostheses of a sort.  You can see baby steps emerging among the more “social” web apps of the day: the indicators of mood on support forums like getsatisfaction.com for example, let people emote quietly, and provide non-verbal cues to emotional state, which are all to often lost in textual communications.  Building interfaces that surface the people behind the comments leads, I think, to more humane conversations (one of Facebook’s brilliant early moves was to encourage/require “real names, real photos”).  There are also simple tricks: at Mozilla, we’ve also found that if one detects conflict, it’s usually a good idea to try and resolve it using private voice calls rather than prolonged, public, painful email discussions.

I’m sure that by Wednesday I’ll have other thoughts in my head which will push these out of the way, but I’m curious to see whether these thoughts resonate with people in other disciplines, or whether different cultures lead to radically different world views.

Outlook PST importer anyone?

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This week, Microsoft published an open source (Apache 2) SDK to read PST files. From what I heard, it works with Unicode PST files as generated by Outlook 2003 or later.

It’s a healthy move on Microsoft’s part, as it releases their users from feeling like their data is locked in to their relationship with Outlook. I hope the code is easy to use, etc.

I’d naturally be very interested to hear of anyone experimenting with using this code in an add-on to make the process of importing all one’s data from Outlook into Thunderbird. If you know of such an effort, let me know!

Thunderbird in 2010

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2010 will be a big year for Thunderbird. Last year, we launched Thunderbird 3, which is a huge milestone for us. In this post, I’d like to give people a heads-up as to what the coming year will look like. I’ll focus on three topics: our plans for innovation through add-ons, Thunderbird 3.1, and our first steps towards making Thunderbird self-sustaining.

Innovation through Add-ons

We believe that Thunderbird is a much better development platform than ever. This means that building innovative experiences on top of Thunderbird is easier than ever. We’ll be building on that platform ourselves and helping others innovate as well. In particular, we’re going to be using add-ons in a few ways:

  • If we have an idea for a change to an existing Thunderbird feature, we’d like to roll it out first as an add-on, so that we can get feedback on early versions of the idea without having to incur all of the up-front costs of landing that change into the “trunk” builds. This should allow us to validate (or reject) ideas much faster. A great example of how this can work is the Personas feature, which matured as an add-on, and is now a standard (and awesome) feature of Firefox 3.6.
  • We sometimes think of features that “would be cool” (see e.g. conversation arcs, tagsoup), but don’t necessarily make sense to integrate into the core product. Making an add-on here makes sense because it lets us share those ideas with others who think they’re worthwhile. Sometimes “cool ideas” become “big ideas” over time (google calendar add-on.

Having core engineers develop add-ons is also one of the best ways to ensure that the add-on platform is as good as possible.

Thunderbird 3.1

In parallel with some exciting innovations in add-ons, we’ll be pursuing more gradual change strategies within Thunderbird 3 itself.

Thunderbird 3.0 is getting security & bugfix releases (3.0.1 is out, 3.0.2 is coming soon).

Thunderbird 3.1 is also underway. We’ve already released the first alpha, and a first beta is getting defined. It will be focused on a couple of areas:

  • Making the upgrade from Thunderbird 2 as painless as possible: Some of the features that we introduced in 3.0 were confusing to Thunderbird 2 users, and some of the defaults which we think made sense to new users were quite surprising to long-term Thunderbird users. We’re reviewing the upgrade process and making sure that users get to opt-in to the more radical changes. We realize it can be quite unpleasant to have your software change unexpectedly.
  • Improving some of the new features in Thunderbird 3: The feedback for the new features has been both positive and constructive — look for refinements on the concepts introduced in Thunderbird 3.

Ensuring Economic Sustainability

Thunderbird deserves to be self-sustaining. Paying one’s way is a great validation of any effort, and it’s in the interest of Thunderbird users everywhere that we figure out a way to get there. As promised when we formed Mozilla Messaging, we’re starting to explore ways to make Thunderbird self-sustaining while at the same time promoting the Mozilla mission (as articulated by the Mozilla Manifesto). We’re specifically looking to identify business models that create economic value by improving the user experience of Thunderbird users. This is nothing new for Mozilla. The foundations of an open source codebase, the ability for users to opt-out of commercial relationships, and an architecture that allows plugging in alternative providers for whatever service or product we end up partnering with are non-negotiable requirements. With that as a foundation, we’re looking for ways to make the online life of our users better, and within those ways, identifying those which can help ensure Thunderbird’s long life.

This will happen through a set of public opt-in experiments. For each business model that we try, we’ll build a prototype, announce it, get data to evaluate it, solicit feedback from users, and evaluate whether it’s worth continuing. Anecdotal data suggests that plenty of Thunderbird users are happy to be offered commercial services which provide them value and help Mozilla too.

In addition, I’ll be actively soliciting input and help from what I’d like to call “business contributors”. Just like we encourage programmers and others to contributing to Mozilla through patches and other internet-mediated activities, I’m going to setup ways to “open source” the business model and business development activities. I’ve found in conversations with my peers that almost every business leader who’s aware of what we do would like to contribute, but we haven’t made it easy. Identifying and facilitating such contributions is one of my personal goals for the year.

To start, here are two possible ways for business folks to contribute:

  • I’ll be in the Bay Area next week for a panel at MAAWG in San Francisco and other meetings, and will be organizing a dinner/drinks event for people who want to chat about Mozilla Messaging business models. Contact me by email if you’re interested (dascher at mozillamessaging.com).
  • We’re hiring a business development lead to help drive this effort. If you know someone who you think understands business development and would be a great fit for Mozilla, point them to the job description.

I’m looking forward to the conversations!

Ikea Canada: WTF?

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A few months ago, we needed more desks for our office, so I figured I’d order them from the Ikea website. Easy to do, except that the Ikea.ca store doesn’t work with US credit cards, and our corporate card is a US card. So I bite my tongue about the craziness of e-commerce in Canada, knowing it’s not just an Ikea problem, and I use my personal card, and will deal with expensing it internally. Annoying, but oh well.

Then I’m blown away because delivery takes eons, because the desks have to come from the “online distribution center” in Quebec (“it’s Canada, so it’s got to be close, right?”), and not from either of the two warehouses within 20 miles of the delivery address (who do have the items in stock!). But I’m busy, so I live w/ the delay. Environmentally criminal, but oh well.

This month, we need more desks, and I’ve learned my lesson, so I know to take time out of my weekend to go to Ikea, order the desks and chairs. After about 45 minutes in the store, it looks like we’ll have delivery on Tuesday morning. A few high-end desks and what seems like their most expensive chairs, but I have a soft spot for Ikea, and their furniture is working out fine for us.

Turns out the chairs aren’t in stock, so they have to be scheduled for delivery a few weeks out and delivery has to be charged separately. Annoying, and a bit more expensive, but oh well.

Monday, they call and say that we hadn’t talked about delivery times (we had), and we reschedule it for the same day/time. Seems disorganized, but oh well.

Tuesday, they come and call my cell to let us know they’re downstairs, but I’m on the phone on an important call, and I thought it was someone else, so I figure I’ll get the message when I’m done with my call. By the time I get off the phone, I’m told they went on with their route, and I need to reschedule another delivery, which will cost me $75. Frustrating, but I blame it on the olympics and how it’s messing with deliveries everywhere, and blame myself for not taking the call, but oh well.

I call back to reschedule, and I’m told that I need to go back to the store to reschedule, because I need to pay for another delivery. WTF? After a bit of back and forth with the CSR, I ask to talk to a manager, and I’m told to do that I need to go to the store. WTF? I then ask about canceling the order, and I’m told that, you guessed it, I need to go back to the store.

Oh, if I want to lodge a complaint, I can do it on their website. I’ll definitely be sending them a link to this page.

I guess I know what I’m doing this weekend. What I’m not sure of is where I’ll get the next batch of furniture from. What a totally horrible customer experience, just because they don’t have a system for paying over the phone (or, hey, the internet?!?!) for silly delivery fees.

Looking for an awesome test engineer

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I don’t yet have a full job description handy, but figured I could start with a draft:

Mozilla Messaging is looking someone who can help us drive forward Thunderbird’s test automation framework, tooling, coverage, and community. We’re looking for someone who combines the usual skills we need:

  • Strong domain expertise: in this case test automation of a multi-platform desktop application
  • Big-picture thinking: you’d be the first paid test engineer working on a huge codebase with lots of developers and millions of users, so the hard thing won’t be to find things to do, rather figuring out what’s the right thing to work on
  • Ability to lead and build a community of peers and contributors
  • Ability to prioritize and drive your own work, and happy to collaborate with a wide variety of contributors

Our current test infrastructure relies primarily on MozMill, and most tests are written in Python or JavaScript, so solid understanding of those technologies is obviously useful.

This is a unique opportunity for someone who takes testing, engineering, and community seriously, and who wants to have a huge impact on software that is used daily by millions of people.

Relocation not necessary.

Pass the word!

(resume submissions to jobs at mozillamessaging.com)