No time to discuss this as a committee

To begin with, I do not hold all the facts and I do like (or do I have to used the present-past-potential-future tense already?) the product. But there have been so many what the fuck moments it sadly is time for another Dear Developer epistle.

The topic? Mozilla OS. Which judging by today’s post to the localization list by George Roter is now officially floating belly up and face down in digital muck. Oh sure, there are exciting opportunities with the Internet of Things (which has a lengthy Wikipedia article that truly fails to inspire) and Connected Devices (I have yet to meet a Mozillian who can actually tell me what that practically means for end-users).

I guess it at least has an element of closure because back in December, well, we were all completely in the dark, apart from a steady stream of well-meant fluffwords.


So what happened? Well, looking at it from the bottom-up view of a localizer, Mozilla has proven once again that it has a genuinely amazing and skilful pool of workers but management that makes a revolutionary student committee look efficient. So at some point the idea of Mozilla OS was born – all the good things about Mozilla but as an OS. Ok, sounds fair, and I was right in there from the start with localizations. Two reasons, no, make that three, one of which was selfish, the other practical and the third altruistic:

  1. We wanted mobile devices in our language (that was the selfish bit)
  2. Participating early means you reach the maintenance level of translation early, which is a lot easier when there are fewer words to begin with (the practical reason). Plus less of a chance localization turns into an afterthought. Or so I thought…
  3. We wanted to help create a better product that would reach more people (the altruistic reason but more on that later)

Regarding 1 and 2, I kind of started worrying early because it became clear that Mozilla was partly selling its soul to manufacturers. We could localize but there was to be no guarantee, as it turned out eventually, that commercial manufacturers would ship all locales with a high completion. Why? Apparently Mozilla had forgotten to either negotiate harder regarding that and/or forgotten to design an easy way of pulling an unshipped locale once your device had been set up. Ho-hum but given our experience with the better-late-than-never solution to manual locale selection on Mozilla Mobile, I had reasonable confidence there would be a solution. Eventually. So I stuck with the project. Paid for a testing device. Managed to get a tablet for testing too. Helped with sometimes left-field solutions, like when I helped someone crack the problem of how to sort contact lists in lists with mixed scripts without resorting to automatic Unicode conversion (like how to handle a contact like রবীন্দ্রনাথ ঠাকুর on a phone next to Jack Sparrow – easy, ask the user to provide a manual phonetic spelling during contact creation), filed bugs, was a bit of a squeaky wheel… yeah ok, I submitted no patches but I can’t code for toffee, believe it or not.

I guess alarm bells should have started going off when Flatfish (the tablet branch) went quiet. As in, suddenly there no more nightly builds and bugs were beginning to pile up, some pretty central (like the fact no build ever shipped all locales – no, it was crazier than that, the locales where there but the translations weren’t getting pulled from Pootle). Eventually the word was passed round in a very unofficial way that Flatfish was no longer a project Mozilla was pursuing. Like that wasn’t worth an announcement? Even a short blog post by someone high up? Gee, thanks…

At the very least it was highly odd that a mobile OS aiming to compete with existing mobile OS would ignore the tablet side but maybe, I said to myself, we’re prioritising resources until it works well on phone and then we’ll get onto tablets again.

Then in early December we had the news fiasco. Short version is, somehow word got out that Mozilla was canning Mozilla OS but nobody had prepared anything official, not even a blog post, never mind press releases. Just some fluff about the Internet of Things. There’s a pretty good write-up here if you want the whole nine yards. Then all through December and most of January everyone, including Mozillians (at least the workers at the “bottom”) had no idea about what was going on. Great.

In a sense, we still don’t (unless someone can finally explain Connected Devices and the IoT to me in simple, short sentences explaining how that relates to end-users…). Except that we are to cease all work on localizing Mozilla OS for now. Who know if this will still the position in a month but for now, there are not going to be any phones which will ship the OS. Why? Reading between the lines, the uptake wasn’t great. Really? Like it was ever going to be easy to get a share of the iOS/Android/Windows phone market? If the decision makers expected an easy ride, they were naive. If they expected a tough ride, why are we bottling out now?

Which, incidentally, they could have made easier but considering one thing they mostly seems to have ignored – while the existing 3 hog most of the market, they are very restricted in their approach to localized interfaces. There are up to 40 million speakers of lesser-used languages in the EU alone and while certainly not all will shift by any stretch of the imagination, for a considerable number of those Mozilla OS would have been one of the few realistic means of getting a device in THEIR language. Neither Android nor iOS cater for Breton or Occitan. Small fry, you might think. Not so. It’s a bit hard to count but there are at least some 350 million people on the planet speaking languages which are not amongst the big boys Android & Co cater for. If that isn’t a market then I don’t know what is.

Will it come back? I don’t know. Would be good… even better if they teamed up with Ubuntu on this one. For now, I’m focussing on Ubuntu Mobile which is also localizable AND ships all locales with a high completion percentage and CyanogenMod AOSP which the Asturians have recently proven to be a way onto at least some devices running a version of Android. Gaelic SHALL go to the ball… would have been nice if it had been with Mozilla OS too.

But seriously, Mozilla is not too big to fail and if it continues to behave like an ocean liner which is steered in a fashion reminiscent of a revolutionary student committee, there will be a hard rock somewhere along the line for it. Which would be a great disservice to all the inspiring and hard working folks at Mozilla, not to mention the volunteers and the world at large. So please, revolutionary leaders up there, put down the hooch, put the origami helmets in the memento drawer and sharpen up your leadership, planning and above all, communication.

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