Mozilla's dev team shares Firefox secrets

For continued success and attracting the best contributors, Mozilla will have to stay not-for-profit.

If you're thinking about open sourcing a project in the near future, Mozilla Corp. might be the perfect blueprint to follow.

At last week's Mesh 2008 conference in Toronto, several key figures behind the success of Mozilla's Firefox Web browser listed inclusively and transparency as two of the top cornerstones of any community-built project. Mike Shaver, chief technology evangelist and founding member at Mozilla, said that because the Web is intended for everybody, the level same openness should be shared with Firefox's open source contributors.

"How do you have control when you don't have authority, and cohesion when you don't have the paychecks?" Shaver asked. "It's starts with having visibility throughout the breadth of your organization."

And that visibility, he said, should extend to the open source contributors. According to Shaver, the ability for users to see bug comments, the history of the code and the rationale behind the decisions that were made is a huge part of the process. Having this transparency not only helps new employees and contributors stay up to speed, but it also helps foster pride among the community.

"Having a blame log -- and I say that in a positive way -- where you can see who added a particular line of code is important," John Resig, a JavaScript evangelist at Mozilla, said. "It's not a financial thing for most users; it's purely an emotional thing. Giving them the tools to create interesting and innovative technology allows them to see things that the browser vendors may not have been able to think about."

Mozilla's ability to instill pride in its community of developers is also evident in the hundreds of localized and translated versions it releases throughout the world. Michal Berman, who's responsible for localization of over 44 foreign language versions of Firefox, said that each of its global volunteer developers and translators help determine how updates are driven, launched and released for the browser. The result, she said, makes for a more tightly knit global community.

"They feel a tremendous sense of pride because they are bringing the Web to their home countries, localized to them and with search engines relevant to their markets" Berman said.

Despite all this collaboration though, the best open source projects, according to Resig, are run by benevolent dictators that are able to determine the overall direction of the project.

"Somebody still needs to be there to say, 'yes, we're going in this direction,'" he said.

But project leaders need to be wary that this control doesn't extend itself to the open source licence. Particularly for a project still in its infancy, Shaver advised developers to implement the most liberal open source licence possible.

"You need to maintain the center of the project by doing the right thing rather than strict licence terms," he said. "Liberal licences with not many restrictions work best. And if a project is in its very early stages and largely incomplete, you need to make sure people know about it going in." Resig agreed, saying that being as highly collaborative with your contributors as you can, will ultimately lead to the best results.

"The concept of sharing has to be baked into the licence," he said. "You have to attract people to your community and work hard at it. If you're lazy and don't care what goes into the code, you're going to attract those type of people."

At the centre of Mozilla's is its desire to remain a nonprofit organization. And Shaver said that in order for the project to continue having success and attracting the best contributors, the project will have to stay not-for-profit.

"People need to be confident in what we're doing at the project," he said. "That's why there's nobody at Mozilla whose job is to ensure we make enough money."

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Rafael Ruffolo

ComputerWorld Canada

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