User sovereignty vs user experience

Tristan Nitot

No, this is not yet another post about video codecs and H.264. OK, in fact it is, but with a different angle. I won’t get into codec issue as many Mozillians have already done it. If there was only one post to read, that would be Brendan Eich’s, Mobile, and the Open Web.

As the goal on this blog is to discuss Mozilla’s mission, I’ll refer to Mitchell Baker latest post, where she has articulated the relationship between using patent-encumbered standards and user experience.

There always have been a tension between user experience and openness in the IT industry. Some companies make user experience as their sole priority. Some system favor extreme openness and consider that an average user experience is the price to pay to have ultimate flexibility. While opposed, both systems can be successful, as Apple and GNU/Linux have shown us. On one end of the spectrum, you buy hardware and the vendor decides what application you are allowed to run on it. On the other end of the spectrum, you’re free to tinker as much as you want, you can run the same operating system from an embedded system to a server farm, but it’s not always a “plug and play” experience.

Mozilla is trying a third approach. As Mitchell says, Mozilla wants to build “products that people love”. Firefox 1.0 was successful because people loved it. This is something that none of us Mozillians have forgotten.

At the same time, we want to build products that build openness and user sovereignty into the Web. This is one of the reasons why so many people around the world contribute their time and energy as volunteers to the Mozilla project. This is why Mozilla initially chose the side of the open WebM codec, as opposed to the patent-encumbered codec H.264. But for all the reasons explained by Brendan, (mostly because for now video on Mobile is H.264 only) Mozilla is now considering supporting H.264.

I could just stop here and oppose user sovereignty to user experience. I could pretend we would have to pick a side, be pure or be pragmatic. Be on the side of software freedom or on the side of user experience. White versus black.

But life is more complicated than this.

If Mozilla makes products that people love, then we gain influence. We can lead the market and make it head into direction that serve our mission. A good example is what we have done in favor of privacy with Do Not Track, which is being adopted by other browser vendors. When it comes to video, we still want open video codecs to succeed in the upcoming battle around WebRTC (to simplify, WebRTC is about enabling video chat in the browser).

On the other hand, if we become religious about things where it damages our user experience, we’ll quickly lose users now that there is competition in the browser space, which means losing influence on the market, which is not going to serve our mission on the longer term.

In short, despite the fact that “purity” is intellectually satisfying, Mozilla needs to be pragmatic to serve its mission on the long term.

As Brendan wrote about video codecs, “we’ve lost a battle, but not the war”. I’d argue that in order to win the war, we’ll need to pick our battles.