Is a full-fledged, add-on-powered mobile browser something you want for your phone? Jay Sullivan, Mozilla’s Vice President for mobile, works every day to make it happen. Read what Sullivan has to say about Fennec, iPhones, Android, and all things mobile.
Sullivan leads the team at Firefox maker Mozilla creating a mobile version of Firefox, dubbed Fennec, which would be available as both a pre-installed browser on cooperating phone makers’ models and as a free download for as many phones as possible. We’ve taken screenshot tours of the first alpha, and newer betas and alphas are available for download for touchscreen Windows Mobile phones, Nokia tablets, and for desktop testing.
Sullivan talked with us by phone just under two weeks ago about where Fennec is at the moment, what platforms we might see it on, and what it could mean for the future of web development.
Lifehacker: How do you organise your day? How would you pie chart your day in terms of what you do, what you spend your time on?
Jay Sullivan: Interesting question [laughs] . The thing that’s interesting about Mozilla is, it’s a project developed by a big open-source community, which is a little different. I’ve worked at big companies, start-ups, a wide range of companies. What’s interesting about Mozilla that makes my day different is the distributed nature of the team, with people all over the world working on the project. Since that spans time zones, I tend to be up and on the PC, checking to see what people in Europe and on the East coast have been doing. It makes it kind of a longer day than when everybody’s sitting around a table.
A typical day for me, as someone trying to lead in an open-source environment, it’s really about laying out themes and visions and letting people shape it in their own way. So it’s very much the opposite of command and control. What we try and do is lay down a vision for where something can go, and then let people’s creativity flourish in its own way across the organisation.
Lifehacker: So, there’s not really a nine to five for you? If someone in Sweden wants to talk, you’ll have to figure it into your 7pm slot?
Jay Sullivan: That’s right. It’s partially about Mozilla, but in the world we work in today, as everything becomes more global, I think that’s part of the reality of how we work. What I try to do is be more ahead of the curve and not reactive. It can be easy to sit and email all day and react to things, but what I find, the sweet spot for me is sometimes just getting away from the computer and just thinking. So sometimes I try to plan ahead about what could happen, and set other people up to be successful. In an organisation like this or any company, you want to be prepared in your interactions with team members, so you can say, “Here’s what I’m thinking at a high level,” and having them prepared to work toward that.
… The way our culture works, and with the ubiquity, oddly enough, of data access on mobile phones, it’s easy to be reacting all day. I think you need to carve out think time, where you decide where you want to go with your product or project, then be prepared to explain that to people.
Lifehacker: One of the interesting Fennec features seen so far is synchronising activity on the desktop with the mobile browser, from Firefox to Fennec, and maybe using Weave for that process. Can you give us an idea of how Fennec and Firefox might co-exist for users?
Jay Sullivan: Let me back up and explain why we think that’s important.
“What if we took Firefox usage data and synchronised it, so when you use Fennec, it’s like magic?” One of the driving ideas behind Fennec is, despite some of the improvements, it’s still really hard to type, and to navigate the web. … We worked from the idea that it’s very hard to type passwords, especially if you have good passwords with letters, numbers, symbols. We said, hey, if typing is hard, what can we do about it that’s different from other people?
All these folks are using Firefox on the PC, we have over 3 million users, and they’ve built up a whole history about their online life, all the URLs they’ve visited, the frequency and recency of them. We’ve been able to roll all that up, and that’s what makes the smart URL bar, or AwesomeBar, in Firefox work. We said, what if we took that data and synchronised it on the fly, so that when you use Fennec, it’s kind of like magic? So you’ve got this mobile browser, you type a couple characters, and then, boom—the site you want to go to is first in the list, so you hit enter.
There’s this other use case that I’m calling Get Up and Go. All your tabs that are on your desktop—let’s say you’re looking at a map, and your flight confirmation, but now you’re heading to the airport. You just get up from your PC, pull out your phone, and all those tabs that were active will be available to select with one click on Fennec. We look at what people are doing back and forth between their PC and mobile phone, and try to build a product that takes advantage of that, that makes them satisfied when they try to use their phone for data access and can leverage their desktop [history] .
Lifehacker: What differences are notable between Firefox’s development and Fennec’s?
Where it’s new and a little different is, we’re interacting more with OEMs [Original Equipment Manufacturers] , people who make the devices. They’re traditionally a little more secretive and closed … It’s new ground to bridge open source development with OEM cooperation. Also, just having a second product, that’s super strategic to the company and community, and get that off the ground from scratch. That’s been interesting, how do we increase our bandwidth, whether it’s build and release teams, or QA, or localisation … it comes back to a scaling of the whole Mozilla organisation to incorporate mobile.
Lifehacker: You mention working with device manufacturers. What kind of conversations are those? Brainstorming, what works on a mobile device, what doesn’t? Future devices?
Lifehacker: One OEM I have to mention is Apple. Right now, mobile Safari is, if not the mobile browser share leader, at least the thought leader right now, and an attention grabber. At the moment, I can’t imagine a mobile Firefox would get through the App Store. Have there been any discussions on that?
Lifehacker: So is that just a walk-away issue at the moment?
Jay Sullivan: The way I think about it is, Safari on the iPhone is fine. Our goal is to support choice and innovation, and help people try and use the web. People who have an iPhone are having a pretty good web experience. We looked at it and said, most of the smartphones out there are running Symbian, or Windows Mobile, or one of a bunch of other platforms for us to build on. So if the iPhone situation is what it is, how can we help these other people? And on these other platforms, there actually is a big gap between market share penetration and data usage. I think it’s partially because the browsers on those platforms, like Symbian or Windows Mobile, aren’t that great. We can go after that problem, since it’s open, and that’s been our approach. Let’s go after users who seem to be struggling with the web and help them.
Lifehacker: … On Android, Google has announced developer access to a lower-level portion of Android, with an actual SDK [technically an “NDK,” Native Development Kit] . Is that something that Fennec’s developers have started looking into?
Jay Sullivan: We are looking at that at that to see if it supports enough of the capability. We’re a quite robust application, we’re not writing a calculator or a game. We need to see if the capabilities are there to bring Firefox. We’ll probably know more in a couple of months, the feasibility of doing that and if the end result would be able to appear in an app store … It’s probably technically possible, so we have to see if all the pieces are there. There’s a lot of interest there, we get asked a lot, so we’re going to see what we can do.
Lifehacker: Memory use is a pretty important issue on mobile platforms, because on most handsets, there’s not a lot of it. How do you design a third-party browser that’s really efficient with memory?
An example of that is, say you browse multiple tabs. On the desktop, people have many, many tabs open. On Fennec, you still want to have several tabs open, but you want it to feel transparent to the user. Say you start to run into a potential memory limit. We have a concept called memory pressure, so if [Fennec]sees that memory usage is getting high, we’re able to throw out some of the stuff in the cache, and maybe save a bitmap of that tab, but throw out some of the data that’s been least recently accessed. Hopefully, we’ve created a situation where the user doesn’t feel that’s happening in the background, but you’re able to manage multiple tabs. We’ve been building that into Fennec from day one, so I think we manage memory relatively well.
Lifehacker: Firefox now has north of 27 percent of the web’s browser share, but at first, there was an adoption issue of getting people to use something that’s not “standard.” First getting people to download something that’s not Internet Explorer, and then actually having them install it. Do you think on mobile phones there’s more or less of a tendency for people to seek out something new, rather than rely on whatever their phone came with?
Jay Sullivan: I think from a user experience point of view, it can be a few clicks harder to actually go ahead and do that [on a phone] . On the PC, we’re at the point where you can try out new software essentially on an impulse. You click the big green download button, you click through some wizard, and now you can try this new thing out.
Lifehacker: And on a desktop connection, you’re usually getting that Firefox installer before you can read a paragraph. On a phone, depending on your service, it might be a bit longer.
Lifehacker: Where are you now in terms of Fennec development? What happens next, and where do you need to get to before we start seeing new versions and wider releases on different platforms?
Jay Sullivan: On Nokia’s Maemo platform, which powers their tablets, we’ve done two beta releases, so we’ll do at least one more beta. If things go well, or as planned, we should be shipping a general availability of that for this year, and same for Windows Mobile. On Windows Mobile, we’ll do another alpha release, and then we should get into beta. You can expect to see us shipping for Maemo in the next couple months, with Windows Mobile soon after that. We’re also working on Symbian for the moment. As I said before, that’s one of those platforms with huge market share, but not big browser share. So we’re working on that as well, and that should come out next year. And we’re evaluating Android, and we’ll see if Apple changes their mind, maybe we’ll take another look at that.
Lifehacker: What kind of tools, software or otherwise, do you use to organise your day?
Jay Sullivan: Mozilla lives in the bug database. Everything’s a bug, from “The software does this, it should do this” to “The software’s released, let’s have a party!” That’s a bug. Everything happens in the bug database at Mozilla. [Otherwise] , it’s the usual stuff. The only unusual part is IRC—everyone’s in these big chat spaces all day, working in real time.
Jay Sullivan: There is one other topic I did want to touch on with you, because we really get to it … We talked about what Fennec means for users, but not what Fennec means for developers.
The vision is that the web is the application development platform. It’s going to take time, and you’re not going to develop fast-twitch games on this thing today, it’ll take some time, but I think directionally, an important part of what we’re doing is setting the web up to be a great mobile application development environment. The other developer piece … is implementing browser add-ons. Fennec will be the first browser on a mobile device with support for true add-ons. We probably have 30 add-ons already, and we haven’t even made much noise about it yet. I think add-ons are going to be really important, and we want to make it as easy as possible for developers to bring them in.