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Firefox Friday: getting down and dirty with the Firefox Creative Lead, Aza Raskin

Today we have something different for you. You're not getting add-ons, beta releases or titbits from Mozilla Labs this week -- oh no, instead you're going to be treated to an interview with the Creative Lead of Firefox, Aza Raskin.

It's not the frankest interview I've ever conducted -- there's definitely a little coyness; a couple of crinkled, twinkled corneas -- but it's still very interesting. If you read between the lines, Aza (or Mozilla) is definitely holding something back. I suppose, when you have an open-sourced codebase, it's wise to keep a few secrets.

Anyway, it's customary to tell you a little about the interviewee before we start. Aza Raskin is the same age as me -- 26 -- and has led what many would consider an unconventional life. Like his father Jef Raskin (who created the Macintosh project at Apple), Aza is first and foremost a human-computer interaction guru. His primary role as Firefox Creative Lead is to conjure up new and interesting ways for us to interact with his browser, and thus the Web. Aza, I think, is desperately trying to dream up the next paradigm shift -- and you know what, he'll probably succeed.

Now, let's get stuck into the interview. We're going to discuss all of the usual suspects -- Firefox, Fennec, Mozilla Labs -- and spend a little time discussing the future of the Web.

Download Squad -- A lot of your past work has been with interface design. With you moving from Mozilla Labs to Firefox proper, is the browser interface about to get funky?

Aza -- Mozilla set out to take the stagnant field of web browsing, owned by a single company, and revitalize it by crafting the browser to work the way people actually used the web. Fast forward to now. Firefox has accomplished that. The web browser is the place to be and there's a healthy ecosystem of competition.

The web continues to evolve in the search and social domains. The way we use the web has changed; we are a new breed of infovore meets Webapp-ian. The average web user spends more time with their browser than with their family.

Firefox has become faster, cleaner, and more powerful (streamable fonts, multi-touch support, HTML5, open video, hardware accelerated canvas), but has yet to have the user experience paradigm shift that gives users the tools they need to accommodate the new web's work flows. Managing your tabs and browsing session is an area particularly in need of innovation and it is something I've been thinking a lot about.

For the browser to not become commoditized, it must become more than just a window onto the web. It must become your smart personal agent. When we added spell-check in Firefox 2, we upgraded the entire web overnight. Our work with the Account Manager (a sexy feature with an unsexy name) will do the same.

Expect Firefox to lead the way in creating radically new and radically better user experiences.

Will we see a revival of Ubiquity?

We put Ubiquity on hold because we realized that the core technology Ubiquity was built on top of needed to be solidified. We turned that streamable, no-restart functionality, based around an easy-to-learn API into Jetpack. After Jetpack hits 1.0, we plan on porting Ubiquity on top of the new platform. We are also investigating how to take the interface ideas from Ubiquity and make them accessible and discoverable to Firefox's user base of 400 million people.

You often sound quite academic and scholarly in your musings, both during your tenure at Mozilla Labs and on your personal blog. Does this stem from your interaction with universities and researchers from the Test Pilot program?

I try to be as clear and non-sesquipedalian as possible in my writing. Clearly, I need to try harder.

With you now being the Firefox Creative Lead, will we see even more interaction with the community/researchers/etc. to craft a better user interface?

Firefox already has the strongest relationship with researchers and practitioners of any project I know, which is doubly impressive when you realize that the project supports 400 million users. The accessibility that anyone in our community has to change the lives of a significant portion of humanity is unprecedented.

For Firefox development, we make heavy use of tools like Concept Series and increasingly Test Pilot. Take a look at all of the fantastic concept videos for the Home Tab that came out of our Concept Series. Our UX team has reviewed every single movie.

In the upcoming Firefox 4 beta, you'll see us working to build even greater involvement and engagement across the board. One facet of this push is including Test Pilot by default in the beta releases.

Fennec. Is it just Mozilla's plaything, or is it a serious undertaking? Are you ploughing enough resources in to compete with WebKit offerings? Are you planning to use Fennec as the basis for other applications, in the same way Firefox is used in Songbird, Komodo, etc.?
It's real. The web loses when there is only one rendered engine. We are committed to keeping the web open and full of competition, both on the desktop and on mobile.

Other than per-tab processes, it feels like it has been a long time since we've seen a major shift in how Web browsers operate. It feels like browsers are homogenizing, becoming a platform for Web apps, rather than trying to emerge from the pack with unique features. Do you see Firefox bringing something new to the table with you at the helm -- or are we now into the 'boring', stable phase of Firefox's development arc?

Web browsers have evolved a lot in the last five years. What once seemed impossible to do on the web is now commonplace. We have world-class web-apps that are often better than their desktop equivalents in almost every domain, save a few. Our browsing habits have evolved a lot too.

Browsers risk becoming commoditized if they remain as a simple window to the web. They must become your personal and smart user agent. There are a number of major and minor shifts that need to happen in order for the browser to be the user's agent. Expect them. Web browsers have been stabilized for a while. We are about to push them to their next level.

Finally! Is there one particular aspect of the emerging technologies -- HTML5, WebGL, the iPad, etc. -- that excites you? What technology do you think is going to sneak up and bite us on the ass a lot faster than anticipated?

2D game-quality, high-speed graphics on the web. It will open up bold, new, user experiences. Also, we need that ability to create some of the next big paradigms for browsing the Web.

* * *
Many thanks to Aza for taking the time to answer my questions, and to the PR peeps at Mozilla! May this be the beginnings of something beautiful; there are many other prodigious developers at Mozilla that I'd like to interview...
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Tags: answers, aza raskin, AzaRaskin, firefox, firefox friday five, FirefoxFridayFive, future, interview, jetpack, mozilla, questions, test pilot, TestPilot, ubiquity, web