Today just two marketplaces dominate the development and delivery of ubiquitous applications. However, free software community Mozilla is still fighting for a new digital world.

[Digiworld Summit] “The Ultimate Digital Mall is the Web”

Interview with Tristan Nitot, founder and Principal Evangelist of Mozilla Europe, following a round-table discussion on Digital Malls at the 2013 DigiWorld Summit in the French city of Montpellier on 19-21 November, in which he took part. 

L’Atelier: You explained to us your concept that “the web is an open space where everyone can participate and make his/her own valuable contribution and add unique diversity.” Isn’t that idea directly negated by the current mobile marketplace environment?

Tristant Nitot: Well there’s undeniably a good side to the system of dominant marketplaces. Monetisation is an important factor. I think it’s healthier to have a system that results in cash transfers rather than one that trades personal data. In addition, this responds to the current expectations of mobile consumers – though of course fashions can change very quickly. Mozilla also has a marketplace, which could no doubt be improved, but it follows a very different paradigm than the leaders. In addition to the system of categorisation and ranking, you can search from the homepage screen, depending on your interests, and take a look at the most relevant applications. Rather than rummage through the shelves, you can look through and use apps without downloading anything first. If I had to draw a parallel, it’s a bit like the arrival of Google on the search engine scene. Before Google, the dominant model was Yahoo’s, which was based on a tree structure that you had to go down to find the link you needed. Then Google came up with just a search bar and two buttons…

How can a player such as Mozilla emerge on to the mobile scene?

Well, rather like the situation with operating systems, there’s no room for three players. Today there are two major players and everyone else is fighting for third place. But the fact is that no-one wants to be third; everyone’s looking for a way to get into second place.  When you’re a developer, doing the programming once is difficult, having to do it a second time is very annoying, and doing it a third time is out of the question! Even Apple stopped programming Safari for Windows even though Microsoft has an 85% market share of operating systems. It’s exactly the same for mobile. First and foremost you have to build a viable ecosystem. We’re a non-profit organisation, so our philosophy focuses on building the best possible Internet – and that includes mobile Internet.  So we have different aims from a profit-seeking company. We’re not worried about the existence of the Apple and Google marketplaces. We’re just pushing for apps to be available for other models too. Meanwhile, Firefox has developed a system that enables users to download HTML 5 apps on to Android devices. By opening the door to the number 1 player, we’re assuming that everybody will come.

So what’s the link with ‘digital malls’, which was the topic of the round table you took part in?

Digital malls will be the places where users consume content, consume products. The disadvantage is that what we have here is a sort of ‘proprietary platform’.  Somebody has a space, manages it, and can prevent too many competitors from getting in… However, the ultimate digital mall is the web. The web is the street where you can enjoy most freedom. This is based on the fact that there’s no need to negotiate with an owner, and you can’t say no to competition. Moreover, the web is linked to innovation. You start out with an idea and at the end of the process a technological innovation emerges. It’s now extremely rare for major firms to come up with a lot of real innovation the way Dropbox, Evernote and Twitter managed to. But although there are a lot of ‘dead bodies’ along the way, it’s also true that many more valuable advances are being created. However, this innovative and dynamic ecosystem pre-supposes that there are no barriers to entry.

During the round-table debate you talked about building a digital world to hand on to our children. How do you see this world?

Well, it would be a world full of opportunity for all those who want to create something. It would also be a user-controlled space. When I say control, I’m talking about personalisation and contextualisation, but on the user’s initiative. My worst nightmare would be to see the emergence of TV 2.0, where we would be passive consumers and also under surveillance. The question of data privacy is crucial here. In order to deal with that the web must become the one and only platform. In this world, Mozilla would of course not be the only organisation providing apps. Everybody would be able to do so. Mobile would be able to respond to any and every type of need, coming from anyone and on any type of device.

In order to foster proper control of data, should best practice be regulated, or at least encouraged?

You can legislate for certain aspects, such as the neutrality of the net. This is in fact the essential basis for the web and that must continue.  But legislating on precise aspects is both difficult and dangerous. In any case technology is faster and more flexible than the legislative route, and moreover too rigid a framework would be a hindrance to innovation. Turning the web into a real platform is a first step but that won’t be enough. There are many other things that still need to be invented. Even advertising sector people admit that there’s real resistance to tracking among the public.  So we’ll have to go on innovating and conceive of ways to enable users to take back control.

By Pierre-Marie Mateo