Mozilla looks beyond developers for inspiration

opinion piece - McAllister is a technology writer, editor and illustrator I think we have McAllister's mug shot on file - we used to run a regular column by him

The best technology products are often the product of a singular vision. Look at Apple. Look at Nintendo. These companies' enduring successes owe their existence to the presence of a strong guiding hand: someone whose exacting standards ensure that the project never strays too far from its core goals and principles. In film, they sometimes call these people "auteurs". Coppola, Kubrick, Polanski, Spielberg — you know these names by the quality of their output. They're not just personalities; they are brands. And while the names Jobs and Miyamoto may not be as widely recognised, the spirit of the auteur has had a profound impact on the technology industry, too. Any tech company would love to have the next iPod or the next Wii. These are groundbreaking products that have gone on to dominate their markets. So how does it happen? How are technology visionaries discovered, and more importantly, how can companies empower them so that their ideas give birth to the next breakthrough products? Mozilla Labs' Concept Series aims to find out. The Concept Series is a unique programme that invites people from around the world to contribute ideas, mockups and prototypes for the next generation of the Mozilla web browser, regardless of their skills or backgrounds. This is an exciting development for two reasons. For starters, it's one of the first concerted efforts to bring non-programmers into the fold of open source software development. While the open source movement has produced a staggering amount of code, designers and user experience experts have been neglected for too long, and it shows. The more free software is developed with the consumer in mind, the better. Second, this experiment gives the open source community an opportunity to prove that you don't need to be an Apple, a Nintendo or a Microsoft to deliver eye-opening products. Open source projects can do more than just clone existing software. When guided by a strong vision, they can also be a driving force for change. Proprietary software companies — Microsoft in particular — love to tell us that this is hogwash, that open source is good at imitation but lousy at innovation. Just look at the Linux kernel, they'll say. Linus Torvalds didn't really invent an operating system; he just wrote his own version of Unix, which was already decades old. I think that attitude sells Linus short, but it's easy to come up with a counter-example. The Mozilla Firefox web browser is not only one of the most widely used open source applications, but it also consistently outpaces Microsoft's Internet Explorer when it comes to features and support for the latest web standards. Mind you, Firefox can trace its direct lineage all the way back to Mosaic, the original graphical web browser developed by Marc Andreessen and his team at the National Centre for Supercomputing Applications. Launch any modern web browser, in fact, and what you get looks an awful lot like NCSA Mosaic; the basic UI hasn't changed all that much. And that's precisely the point of the Mozilla Concept Series. Mozilla Labs wants to find its own software auteurs — people with unique visions, maybe even from outside the software development field — who can shake up the world of web browsers and spearhead a new direction. The initial concepts in the series are compelling. Adaptive Path's Jesse James Garrett — the man who brought us the term "AJAX" — offers Aurora, a browser concept that emphasises collaboration and contextual awareness. Wei Zhu presents a new approach to bookmarking. And Aza Raskin proposes new ways to fit web browsers onto the small screens of mobile devices. These ideas are an auspicious start. But then, you know what ideas are like. Anyone can mock up a few diagrams and concept videos. The hard part will be translating these rough ideas into working prototypes, then actual products. To achieve this, Mozilla Labs will need something entirely new, and perhaps even more exciting. It will need a software project governance model that not only invites input from non-developers, but formally includes them as core participants in the application design process. They will be senior participants, in fact — because, since programming ability is not a prerequisite for user interface design, programmers will inevitably be asked to implement features dreamed up by non-programmers. How will that sit with the open source community? Will open source developers, accustomed as they are to a coder-centric meritocracy, be willing to adapt to a model in which a non-technical "auteur" calls the shots? Can a community-driven software development process really be guided by the vision of one person? In short, will Mozilla Labs really be able to empower non-programmers to effect change in its software, or is this all just big talk? It's worth finding out, because poor user experience is a problem that is by no means limited to open source software. A lot of companies could do a better job of incorporating input from designers and other non-technical stakeholders into their software development processes, too. Mozilla Labs has taken an important step. I'm very interested to see what, if anything, comes next.

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