How different would the net be without Firefox?

David Flanagan, latest making claim I’ve read many times:

Without Mozilla, there would have been no Firefox, and the internet would be very different today.

Mitchell Baker in only a few more words included a combined mechanism and outcome:

We moved the desktop and browsing environments to a much more open place, with far more options and control available to individuals.

Baker further explained Mozilla aims to make an analogous difference in the computing environment of today and the future:

Today we live in a different online era. This era combines desktop, mobile devices, cloud services, big data and a social layer. It is feature-rich, highly centralized, and focused on a few giant organizations that exert control over almost all aspects of the experience. Today’s computing environment is deeply in need of an open, exciting alternative that shows what the Open Web brings to this setting — something built on parts including Firefox OS, WebGL, asm.js, and the many other innovations being developed at Mozilla. It is comparable to the desktop computing environment we set out to revolutionize when we started Mozilla.

Mozilla needs to bring a similar scope of change to the new computing era. Once again, Mozilla needs to break down the walled gardens of online life and bring openness and opportunity to all. Once again, we have the chance to build products and communities in a way that no one else will.

(Baker’s post announced Brendan Eich as CEO, Flanagan lays out some information following Eich’s resignation. That crisis presumably changed nothing about evaluations of Mozilla’s previous impact, nor its plans for analogous future impact. The crisis just provided an opportunity for many to repeat such evaluations and plans. This post is my idiosyncratic exploitation of the opportunity.)

Those are important claims and plans, and I tend to strongly agree with them. My logic, in brief:

  • there’s a lot of scope for the net (and society at large) to be substantially more or less “open” than it is or might be due to relatively small knowledge policy and knowledge economy changes;
  • there’s a lot of scope for commons-based projects to push the knowledge economy (and largely as an effect, knowledge policy) in the direction of “open”;
  • due to network effects and economies of scale, huge commons-based projects are needed to realize this potential for pushing society in an “open” direction;
  • Mozilla is one of a small number of such huge commons-based projects, and its main products have and will be in positions with lots of leverage.

Independent of my logic (which of course I doubt and welcome criticism of) for agreeing with them, I think claims about Mozilla’s past and potential future impact are important enough to be criticized and refined rather than suffering the unremitting bludgeoning of obscurity or triviality.

How could one begin to evaluate how much and what sort of difference Mozilla, primarily through Firefox, has made? Some things to look at:

  • other free/open source software browser projects;
  • competition among proprietary browsers;
  • differences between Firefox and proprietary browsers in developing and implementing web standards;
  • all aspects of Mozilla performance vs. comparable (Mozilla is different in many respects, but surely amenable to many tools of organizational evaluation and comparison) organizations;
  • 2nd order effects of a superior (for a period, and competitive otherwise) free/open source browser, e.g., viability of free desktop (though never achieving significant market share, must be responsible for huge increases in consumer surplus due through constraint on proprietary pricing and behavior) and inspiration for other open source projects, demonstration of feasibility of commons-based competition in mass market.

It’s possible that such questions are inadequate for characterizing the impact of Mozilla, but surely they would help inform such characterization. If those are the wrong questions, or the wrong sort of questions, what are the right ones? Has anyone, in any field, taken evaluation of Mozilla’s differential impact beyond the Baker quote above? I’d love to read about how the net would have been different without Firefox, and how we might expect the success or failure of new Mozilla initiatives to produce different worlds.

These kinds of questions are also important (or at a minimum, interesting to me) for other commons-based initiatives, e.g., Wikimedia and Creative Commons.

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