Open Innovation, Mozilla’s Way

A keynote speech by a prominent expert usually kicks off a conference. In Teladata’s recent Technology Convergence Conference on collaboration between IT and facilities departments, Pascal Finette’s interesting speech was very unusual. He talked about a new way of running a business with open innovation—that is, with everything open.

Pascal Finette of Mozilla

I never read Mozilla’s mission statement before, so I visited their home page to do so. It says:

Mozilla is a proudly non-profit organization dedicated to keeping the power of the Web in people’s hands. We’re a global community of users, contributors, and developers, working to innovate on your behalf. When you use Firefox, you become a part of that community, helping us build a brighter future for the Web.

A good video (a little over three minutes) describing it is here.

Throughout his talk, Pascal used a Star Wars metaphor of the fight between the evil Empire, which wants to monopolize the market and maintain the status quo, and the Rebels, who want to bring innovation to the status quo. He started by saying that openness is happening everywhere, including in the taking down of the wall in Berlin and in the Arab Spring. Also, new industries emerged in snowboarding, mountain bikes, and hospital instruments because ordinary people started the initial idea and other ordinary people signed on to join them. Other examples include a cloud backup company, Facebook’s Open Compute project, and Openstack.

 
 
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Pascal also said many smart people work for other people. So how can you pick their brains and get their collaboration? How can we combine their brain power and knowledge without hiring them? Knowledge is sticky. What that means is that knowledge is hard to distribute. We need to combine the knowledge scattered among many smart people to form a big brain to solve new problems. To create innovation, we need to create a lot of ideas first and funnel them down to a small number of ideas that could actually make it. The biggest innovation problem is the many barriers that prevent the initial idea from forming. In the following picture, Pascal showed four quadrants to indicate where community and collaboration from the mass is situated.

Then, he used a web browser as an example to show how open innovation has progressed. He described the web browser war as fought in three time periods (Act 1 to Act 3; remember his Star Wars metaphor). Act 1 includes the birth of the web browser and the emergence of a dominant company, namely Microsoft. In 1994 Netscape released the first Netscape Navigator. In 1998, a full-fledged browser war began. Microsoft gave out its browser for free by bundling it with the Windows OS. Netscape countered by making its browser code open-sourced. Later that year, AOL bought Netscape. By 2001 Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 6.0 had a market share of 98%. Microsoft felt that the browser war was won and allocated only two people to support it. In Act 2, in 2004 about 20 people got together and released Firefox 1.0. They did not have expertise in marketing or money. The community rallied behind them to provide money and even marketing ideas, including ad graphics. With community support, they could put a two-page ad in the New York Times.

The launch campaign was a big success. In version 2.0, they even used a farmland design to draw attention (see below).

Then, comes Act 3, today. The community is still very active in supporting Firefox, writing roughly 40% of its code. Its Italian community projected an image on top of the Coliseum in Rome to draw attention to the browser. (It drew frowns from the Italian police.) Its market share is about 25%.

Speaking of the international community, the original English version is now available in 84 languages, even in an obscure Spanish dialect that it is the only web browser to support. I use both English and Japanese versions of Firefox daily.

Back in 1994, I was with a company in Silicon Valley that was a subsidiary of a Japanese company, and I was told to engage in a license agreement with Spyglass, which had exclusive rights to the original code that was developed at the University of Illinois at Urban-Champaign. I was also involved in a negotiation with Netscape and met with its two founders. I just want to mention that I have been using Firefox since its inception. I use Internet Explorer when absolutely necessary, though.

Pascal also told us the five things you must do to achieve success in open innovation. I’ve added my notes (ZK).

Here’s what to do:

  1. Make your products superior. t. (ZK: Only great ideas excite people to come work with you. Products that are not superior do not deserve other people’s time, including your own.)
  2. Push most decision-making to the edges. (ZK: VISA is a federation of many banks and other financial organizations. They are a combination of chaos and organization. Each Firefox module is assigned to a team leader, who is not necessarily hired at Mozilla. Only the most qualified people make decisions, regardless of their affiliation. This is scary.)
  3. Communication is a key. (ZK: Internally communicated information is not visible to the community. Mozilla team meetings are open to anyone who wants to participate.)
  4. Make it easy. (ZK: They make it easy to help them. If someone has only five minutes to help you, get his help. If it is two hours, accommodate their constraints and get the help.)
  5. Communities are not markets, but members are citizens. (ZK: The community consists of citizens like you, and you need to acknowledge that each citizen has the same right as you and keep in mind to work with the community rather than exploit it.)

I can relate to these points well because I got involved with MySQL and Jboss, which are known as business open-source companies. Granted that not all companies can adopt this idea, the trend seems to be moving from closed intellectual property (IP)to shared open ideas. What’s next? How do you differentiate? It appears to be in the services around the products and ideas. Hardware got very cheap because it became a commodity, while most software is still closed and expensive. With the opening of source code and other trends to make everything open, such as cloud computing and the consumerization of IT, the ICT world is changing rapidly.

Zen Kishimoto

About Zen Kishimoto

Seasoned research and technology executive with various functional expertise, including roles in analyst, writer, CTO, VP Engineering, general management, sales, and marketing in diverse high-tech and cleantech industry segments, including software, mobile embedded systems, Web technologies, and networking. Current focus and expertise are in the area of the IT application to energy, such as smart grid, green IT, building/data center energy efficiency, and cloud computing.

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