People have this remarkable quality of equating the properties of wildly disparate objects. These are often captured in the aphorism; no man is an island, food is love, green is the new black. Even more remarkable is that a wealth of meaning flows between us when these phrases pop out of our mouths.
In this vein, the Mozilla corporation, creator of the superb Firefox web browser, has declared their software to be 100% organic. No, it's not to be eaten; but in this interview with Paul Kim, Mozilla VP, he explains why the term is relevant. Please, feast your eyes on this, and give us your gut on the matter; can software be organic?
Paul Kim: Hi, how's it going?
PK: I'm excited to be talking with Treehugger, you guys are doing amazing work.
TH: Thanks. Want to start with some background on who you are?
PK: I'm the VP of marketing for Mozilla Corporation. I've been with Mozilla for a bit over two years - I helped launch Firefox 1.5 and 2.0.
TH: So Mozilla is really taking off; as someone who has been doing web development since 1994, I've seen most of the browsers that have come along and Mozilla is a great one, probably the best ever. So, thanks. What do you think makes Mozilla so great?
PK: I think without a doubt it's a relentless focus on improving the web experience for everyone, and that manifests itself in Firefox. The proof is in the growth - we wouldn't be approaching 20% worldwide market share with an inferior browser. And the key to making a great browser Mozilla-style is our open source development process and community. Without that there is no Firefox.
TH: So the community is important, how many developers do you have? and why do they participate?
PK: There are about 50-60 developers employed by Mozilla Corporation directly. But there are hundreds of folks who don't work for us contributing code to Firefox development. I can't presume to tell you why each individual participates, but in speaking with some folks it's clear that the mission of helping to maintain an open and participatory Web is pretty motivating for most people. And there is of course the satisfaction in contributing code to a product that is used by over 150 million people.
TH: I have read your blurb on 'organic software'; I find it is similar to the definition of 'free software'. What are the differences between the two terms? Do the developers recognize it is a different model?
PK: I should clarify that we're not trying to create a new model. Instead, what we're trying to do is to help new sets of people who know nothing about open source software quickly start to understand that Firefox is something different from the software they're currently using to access the Web. 'Organic software' is a concept we came up with that we thought would resonate with end users in ways that 'free software' doesn't. I think 'free software', at least in the US, doesn't carry the same valence that 'FLOSS' does in, say, Europe.
TH: Certainly the term 'free software' can be confusing; I had to read over the whole free speech/free beer explanation several times before I got the hang of it. Is it just a terminology issue then - organic sounds cooler?
PK: I think for people not in the open source movement, the term 'organic' is a lot clearer and immediately graspable. I think in the broader culture, and again I'm speaking of the US, the word 'free' gets filtered through a consumer lens. So yes, it's a terminology issue for end users - trying to communicate clearly what practitioners already grok.
TH: I would suggest that the term 'organic' is also a consumer lens, a powerful one. In the food world, 'organic' means something very concrete; it's how you farm, what chemicals you use, third-party inspections, etc. It is essentially a branding term, a 'seal of approval' that is hard to get and highly sought. What are the similarities/differences here, is there a danger of diluting this term by applying it to software? One might see the term in your context and see Mozilla as trying to glom on to a distinctive branding term, like many food producers try and do. Isn't there a danger here? And is this really what you are after?
PK: That's a great question. I'm really happy we're having this dialog because we're super conscious of respecting the source of the 'organic' brand. So let me break down the question.
The main one for me is the end result -- people have a preference for organic produce because it hasn't been tainted by, say, pesticides. The reason consumers prefer organic goods in part are that they are better for you and your family. In a similar way, what we're suggesting is that Firefox is better for you because it's produced in a way that respects the user.
I don't think this dilutes the term 'organic', but I'm also hoping your readers will give us this feedback. We have nothing but respect for the strides the green movement has made in reclaiming some semblance of sanity in something as core to the human experience as food production. If we can stand on the shoulders of giants that'd be awesome.
TH: So, I like to summarize what I've heard so far. Mozilla is akin to a healthy product for a variety of reasons, and many developers participate because they think it great; however, the world at large is not so convinced - yet. Firebox is better because it respects the user. Any other items? I assume it's better for other reasons as well.
PK: I think the world at large hasn't heard the story yet; we don't have a $500 million marketing budget like some folks. But I do think when people learn about Firefox and Mozilla, something about the story does connect with a lot of folks. And mostly this is happening through word of mouth recommendations.
Regarding Firefox being better; yes, it respects the user. But it also respects open standards, which create a level playing field for any individual/company/organization to create Web content for others. And it is a manifestation of Mozilla's core belief in the importance of providing vehicles for participation on the Internet. See http://www.mozilla.org/about/mozilla-manifesto.html
TH: It sounds like a case of 'there are poisons out there' and Mozilla is 'poison-free'. I can see how this is akin to organic, and I think, as a heavy mozilla user, I could see why this is the case. And supporting open standards is important. So, the actual process of creating the Mozilla browser, that is not part of the organic definition?
PK: That's a great analogy. I would include the process of creating, yes. And in fact, the proof is in the code -- our code is completely open for anyone to review. So anyone can vet our claims of being on the side of the end user. If there was poison in the code, a hacker would find it.
TH: The process of creating... explain that. Some have argued that the open source process is 'communism supported by capitalism' i.e. well paid programmers in the real world work on open source in their spare time that their job affords them to do. How does 'organic software' fit into this; what is 'organic' about the labor process? How does 'openness' equate to 'organic' – maybe third party reviews for quality?
PK: Let me see if I understand the question; it's about the open source process. Again, I'm not going to presume I can speak to the motivations or efforts of countless programmers who are contributing every day to major open source projects like Linux, Apache, and Firefox. But I think there is something more primal about open source, more primal than communism or capitalism. It is the ability for anyone who has the passion and knowledge to make things better. I think I would bore with you tales of what I've seen from the programmers I work with - heroic efforts to fix security issues that require all nighters. You don't' do that kind of thing if it's just a job.
So organic as it relates to labor process; I think the pastoral myth has at its core a notion of land and farmer bound together in a virtuous cycle. I like to think that in open source software development, we've recaptured some of that goodness.
TH: I like the word 'primal', it reminds me that Mozilla is really a tool, something - like all technologies - that provides an advantage over nature. It's a spear to kill a mastodon. But it's a flexible tool, a tool that has no owner, a community thing. It's like the village well, not owned by any one entity.
PK: That's exactly right - we don't own the code. We put it out there anyone can take it and build on top of it. And they do! We're set up as a public benefit organization owned by a 501(c)3 nonprofit foundation, and we view our work as a public trust.
TH: The great irony of the process is that the Internet is global, and yet the Mozilla software is akin to a locally-owned resource, something that can be modified to suit your local, particular purpose and you have control over.
PK: That's interesting; you raise another good point. In fact one of the main drivers for the growth of Firefox is just that - being global and local. We shipped Firefox 2 in over 35 language versions the day it was released. And that's because we have a huge volunteer localization community. For example, Firefox is available in all 11 official South African languages. Contrast that to, say, Internet Explorer 7, which shipped in one language at first release.
TH: I think this adds to the 'organic' idea, kind of like locally grown food; these are different ideas but relate to the same concept. Right, so why didn't you go with 'sustainable software'?
PK: Organic as a term when paired with 'software' I think pops out more. But again - that's just one opinion. I'd love to hear it from your readers.
TH: One item that comes up over and over in the green world is 'what does it mean to be green'. The term is, I think, a bad one; it is overused and cannot be operationalized very well. Basically, the biggest mistake is that the term green should be used mostly as a verb, and it's mostly used as a noun. This leads me to suggest that maybe a clear distinction regarding software and food might be helpful -- Richard Stallman suggested this when we explored the relationship between computing and the environment. What do you think?
PK: Dr. Stallman is a hugely influential figure in the free software movement. My personal opinion is that where there are possible alliances of like minded people who seek similar outcomes, it's our responsibility to make those connections visible to the rest of the world. Whether you are coding open source software or farming sustainably, you are part of a greater world that needs you to be mindful of your actions and that is a powerful message to send to the powers that be.
TH: Another item we often kick around is whether green thing is actually a movement or a series of isolated events; pairing up with environmental groups suggests that more is at stake than just removing some bad gas from the atmosphere. What do you think about this, is there a revolution brewing?
PK: Concerning climate change, I think the scientific evidence is overwhelming; we're not living as a species in a sustainable way. For the sake of the future, I certainly hope there is a revolution in the way we live. And it's got to start here in the US, where we consume the most of any people in the world.
TH: But its not just consuming right; its respect for the consumers, it's coming together and agreeing on standards (computer or no), it's donating time to volunteer projects, it's a sense of openness and freedom; am I hitting on the similarities that you are finding? And are these items part of a philosophy that the Mozilla Corporation would espouse?
PK: Yes, absolutely. I think the message of open source software is fundamentally optimistic, that people can rally and self organize and make stuff that makes the world better. It's all encapsulated in the Mozilla manifesto, which Mitchell Baker, one of Mozilla's founders, helped author.
TH: Are there enemies of the 'organic software' movement ? If so, what are the +/- of these processes? And are these enemies of the environmental causes as well?
PK: I don't think we frame the situation that way, we think of it more as institutions that hinder the progress and evolution of the Web. If you look at history it's clear that once Microsoft eliminated Netscape from the picture, all of us who use the Web enjoyed several years of a progressively worse experience. With all this said, Microsoft does a ton of good works, and I'm sure they do a ton to help the environment. They have massive resources to bring to bear, and they're consistently ranked as a top company on many measures.
TH: Ok. So, are these other institutions promoting alternative 'non-organic' processes, simply not on board yet, or deliberately trying to subvert a movement in your opinion? I'm trying to make the cross connection; might this mean that they are 'anti-environment' or at least 'anti-revolution'?
PK: I think demonizing your competition is a relic of the industrial economy. I don't really have a good insight on the motivation of these other institutions. But their actions definitely speak to a desire to control.
TH: Would you classify them as 'non-organic'?
PK: I would classify them as old school. And just to be super clear, I'm not suggesting rebranding the 'open source' movement as the 'organic software' movement; we are using 'organic software' as a tool to reach a new set of potential end users for Firefox.
TH: Anything else you would like to add today?
PK: No - this was really great you helped me clarify a bunch of stuff. Thanks a bunch!
TH: Thank you!