Celebrating the 21 years of Mozilla, and articulating a design strategy for the Book of Mozilla

Marcio S Galli
7 min readApr 4, 2019

I opened my Facebook wall and saw the following note from Asa Dotzler:

I open my Facebook wall and saw this note a few days after Mozilla is 21 years old.

This essay, that became an ideation exercise for a book, was initiated to be a reply to Asa’s post, I wanted to bring back the following moment:

These were the times of Netscape, the Silicon Valley company that carried the popular Netscape Communicator product and caused a major disruption to the world allowing millions of users to experience the Internet. At the same period, Microsoft released its Internet Explorer browser and bundled it inside Windows, for free, pushing Netscape to lose money with the browser and related technologies.

One way to escape the struggling situation was designed by the “Mozilla people” inside Netscape. They came up with a solution, to release the source code of the browser, the Mozilla code, that went live in 1998 (see Jamie Zawinsky walking to a release party on 3/31/1998.) These days, and the release effort, is beautifully archived by Project Code Rush [2013] that documented “the last minute rush to make the Mozilla source code ready for release by the deadline of March 31 1998, and the impact on the engineers’ lives and families as they attempt to save the company from ruin.

Moving up to the company hierarchy, Jim Barksdale, the then CEO of Netscape, articulated a great (management and risk oriented) vision for the release of the source. The notes within brackets are my own additions:

“Well, it’s certainly my hope that the enormous amount of new people [to Mozilla] that no one company could afford [free work or perhaps free innovation] to have working on any product, now contributing to the Netscape Navigator Communicator [then product driver] will make a significant difference in the improvement of the product. How that works against any competitor, remains to be seen.” Jim Barksdale @ Code Rush 2013 29min55sec

How that works against any competitor, remains to be seen…

2 decades later, 2019, Mozilla aged and reached 21 years. So I guess it is safe to assert that the project, and the source, survived the competition — an interview with Jim Barksdale is a must here. So now, with more maturity, Mozilla have a broader and stronger mission.

Moving forward, to Many Voices Many Mozillas

This essay is a tiny dot in a huge matrix because Mozilla is certainly one of the projects that have too many materials online. Perhaps an attempt to document its history needs to be also an open source project? One thing we now, that Mozilla project have good amount of inspiration to a documenter to organize data about its history.

In this sense, it can be tempting to look for a holistic line, a wish to connect the dots. But Mozilla was not crafted with that longer arc or the complexities of its modern mission in first place. Was it bold and strong? certainly, as depicted in Project Code Rush. But this is the story of a project that had phases, moments, with different people and lots of behind the scenes (inner and outer) forces driving it.

Can an arc be made? Can dots be connected in this story? I think so. I would bet that at the heart of it lives innovation and technology. Beyond a hypothetical technology and innovation core, certainly openness is a circle around, another value layer. But other circles were crafted too, around it. I understand I sort of flipped perhaps things around, putting things like today’s core values more to the outside, but I think perhaps done this way can yield value that is aligned with a broader historical perspective.

Thus, around core elements such as innovation, technology, and openness, are layers of forces contributing to the various moments that Mozilla survived. Perhaps just one image of concentric circles cannot be done. These other forces, or factors, vital elements that created channels of communication to the world, allowed Mozilla to be seen by the world and also to read the world as Mozilla travelled through space and time. Thus, if you shift through moments you will get different outer circles of forces around its core.

Another thing to work, to look, is the subject of merit — because Mozilla drivers always attempted to exercise the idea of meritocracy. Documenting meritocracy in Mozilla is perhaps a very challenging thing also due to the various moments, or phases, and forces that made Mozilla legs step in certain paths under pressure (due to competition, partners, mission, etc). In this context, a good frame of work would be the approach documented by the book Starfish and the Spider that mozilla is a hybrid organisation.

Towards the end, I would attempt to focus in the future but carry the message using the present future: To assert that the merit of Mozilla goes for the most up to date driver, or drivers of the project at any point in time, the ones responsible for not screwing up things — a big challenge that requires bold vision, core values but also hands or sensors in the world. Thus a Yin/Yang framework could be applicable to split and join the drivers and the community (or the many communities) and articulate them as Mozilla’s great regulating force.

Elements in this design

Starfish and the Spider — by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. This may help with 1–2 pages because of the framework. This book was suggested to me by Chris Hoffman — Chris will appear soon in this design because he is a key element in the history of Mozilla too.

Only the Paranoid Survive — by Andrew S Grove, that can help with a framework and central idea that certain difficult decisions have to be made, or when you need to do things to leave things behind. Some elements of this idea are confirmed by Ben Horowitz when he approaches the subject of Leadership and Courage:

Open source interviews and books to check — check interviews and vision documentation from Jamie and early open source leadership efforts, that can be used in the first chapters.

Founders at Work — vs stories from inside about the stripped down precursor of Firefox — the book Founders at Work have a piece with Blake Ross, related to Firefox. I also recall that Chris Hoffman, or someone else, told me the story that Blake was doing actually doing a front-end work of removing parts of the UI — not that at the exact moment when AOL released its constraints (ui demands) — making a striped down with a “litmus test“ or heuristics governing his action? such as “would my grandma understand this piece? if not, remove it”.

Mitchell and Mozilla — an inflection point in the history of Mozilla — when AOL let Mozilla go, with 2 million dollars (check this), Mitchell appeared more to the public in her help to the project that was now free of AOL forces. Once hearing Asa I saw his sadness that she was laid off from AOL in 2001. One would need to interview Asa to understand who and what were the real inflection points and connecting dots to get Mitchell in the spot but certain a legal aspect have a role in here. We should account that Mitchell, according to Wikipedia, was one of the first employees at Netscape working directly for Jim Barksdale, “In November 1994, Baker was hired as one of the first employees of the legal department of Netscape Communications Corporation.” She also wrote the Netscape Public License and the Mozilla Public License. So the story of Mitchell certainly traces back to the release of the source from a legal aspect, initially — according to Wikipedia she was “Chief Lizard Wrangler of mozilla.org” and after she was laid off she continued as a volunteer. Mozilla (I mean, Mitchell) was instrumental in creating the Mozilla Foundation:

Chris Hoffman — I personally think that Chris views on the project are vital to any one attempting to articulate the reality of Mozilla because of this long term contribution since the days of Netscape and up to the maturity of the project. It’s like Chris would be a great board member to a book construction with key insights about the nuances of communities. Chris made a big effort to get inside communities and to read what was going on; I would also attempt to get a view from Chris about the problems with communities around the world things relating to “lost in translation” to other nuances between community x corporation dynamics.

Asa Dotzler — Asa was the first hired “community evangelist” that was brought to AOL to help with Quality in connection with the community. Asa understood from the inside, being he an originator of ideas, the role of the community in the process to ensure quality. I would argue that Mozilla without Asa would not exist as we know it. Asa in a living inspiration to the community and could be validating source for checks of others interviews and a source himself for many moments of the history. https://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asa_Dotzler.

There is a lot to be done but the above can lead to the rest, so. If you ever take a project like this, good luck — whoever you are.


  • Some inspiration related to about:mozilla, The Book of Mozilla — there is a nice dedication style of note in the wikipedia The Book of Mozilla page, “Mozilla: In Memoriam Dedicated to the tireless developers who have come and gone. To those who have put their heart and soul into Mozilla products. To those who have seen their good intentions and hard work squandered. To those who really cared about the user, and cared about usability. To those who truly understood us and desired freedom, but were unheard. To those who knew that change is inevitable, but loss of vision is not. To those who were forced to give up the good fight. Thank you. Pale Moon would not have been possible without you.”


The Documentary Network Published on Aug 12, 2013. Project Code Rush — The Beginnings of Netscape / Mozilla Documentary. Published at https://youtu.be/4Q7FTjhvZ7Y