Mozilla president kicks Ballmer, trashes DRM, quotes Spiderman

INTERVIEW: Tristan Nitot, president of Mozilla Europe, is a disarmingly casual guy, especially over a good lunch in a high-class London restaurant. But despite the relaxed delivery, he doesn’t pull his punches.

Nitot is co-founder (with Peter Van der Beken) and president of Mozilla Europe, a non-profit organization whose goal is to develop and promote its open source software and, increasingly, that of others. He previously worked on the Netscape project for more than seven years. He is also founder of OpenWebGroup initiative.

Nitot is passionate about what he sees as Microsoft’s opposition to the Internet’s development when it stopped development of the Internet Explorer browser for five years after 2001. He believes this acted as a serious barrier to the development of the Web in general, not just the open source movement.

“IE was getting more and more obsolete in development terms. The Internet was stalling because of this,” he says. It was technologies like Netscape’s Netcaster, which acted as the core of what became RSS that helped open up the Web again.

But Mozilla’s Firefox itself has come in for criticism. The next version of the Firefox browser will be 3.0. How does he react to criticisms that Firefox is slowly becoming bloated?

“No, Firefox is getting speedier and speedier. Developers ask for new applications inside Firefox all the time but the early Mozilla Suite of 2003 – which wrapped up a browser, email client, HMTL editor and IRC all in one – showed that it was often too complicated a proposition for the Internet user.”

He says Mozilla is working hard at finding a balance: “We don’t want to incorporate features for the sake of features – only where it makes sense for the user experience.”
How does he view Apple’s Safari (a strategy Apple came up with long before Mozilla had got its act together with Firefox)?

“My dream is that they eventually pick the Mozilla / Gecko / Webkit combination and give up Safari,” he says. “We see Safari and Firefox as allies in bringing diversity to the Web.”

Later he goes further: “We are not against Microsoft, but we are against Microsoft’s monopoly [of the browser market].”

So is Steve Ballmer a block on innovation at Microsoft? “Could be, yes,” says Nitot with a smile.

He relates his view – held by many – that Microsoft’s attack of the web is directly related to the threat the Web poses to its desktop applications, as evidenced in recent times by Zoho and Google’s apps.

But has he heard of the Blue Monster movement inside Microsoft to engage better with the open source community (also at Gaping Void)?

In a word, no. But Nitot does recognise the sentiment: “My perception is that at the lower levels of Microsoft, there are people who are just like me. They understand the Net and the power of Web standards. They understand that, as Spiderman says, with great power comes great responsibility.”

Does he extend his belief in open source to the open sourcing of content as well as code? What does he think about DRM?

“I don’t think DRM has a future. Treating your customers like thieves is bad business practice. Today the customer is not ‘king’, they are considered thief first.”

He relates a story about his young son being visibly upset by a DRM-enabled music CD which would not play on his older model HiFi.
“It is stupid to think that the key to a DRM system won’t leak. So if it becomes more painful for a legitimate customer to use a product than it is for the pirates then that’s a problem,” he says.

And the future for Mozilla? Nitot believes there will be greater emphasis put on embedded Mozilla code into both mobile devices and ones for the developing world like the OLPC.

Nitot – replete with smile – will be appearing next at the Mozilla 24 event where Mozilla will hold a global conference via beaming in speakers and audiences globally.