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Oct
17

Walking with Dinosaurs – Mozilla’s Pascal Finette on WebFWD

by Rory MacDonald

Rory MacDonald sits down with Mozilla’s Pascal Finette, former head of Mozilla Labs and now the man behind Mozilla’s new WebFWD initiative, an accelerator programme for exciting open source projects…

“My path to Mozilla is probably a little bit leftfield,” says Pascal Finette, the man behind Mozilla’s new WebFWD programme. “When you look at my CV, my background is that I studied economics and psychology, then I founded a start-up straight out of college, I worked for eBay, I did mergers and acquisitions for a US software company, I did consulting for start-ups and then, the last thing I did before I joined Mozilla, I actually co-founded and ran a venture capital fund: an early stage seed-fund in Germany and UK.”

So how does a man with such a seemingly high-flying executive background become drawn to work in the world of free and open source software?

Finette came to Mozilla through his wife, Jane, who was running Mozilla’s European marketing. Through her, Finette met with Brendan Eich, Mozilla’s CTO, and Chris Beard, who was working at the time as the foundation’s chief innovation officer and heading up Mozilla Labs. Over dinner in a London restaurant, the three men got into conversation about what an incubator programme for Mozilla could look like.

The conversation continued via email until Chris Beard eventually asked Finette if he would help Mozilla to think the incubator plans through in a more structured way than a dinner conversation.

“From that, I started working for them, literally on the weekends. Because, well, I had a day job, I did run a venture capital firm.
“But the half a day a week turned into a day, then into two days, then three. I got so sucked into the Mozilla fold, and so fascinated by the Mozilla mission, open source, the people and the wider community. We came to this point where I sat down with Chris Beard and he basically said, ‘I really like what you are doing, why don’t you come and join us?’ ”

After a conversation with his partners at the venture fund, they all agreed that Finette should follow his new-found passion for Mozilla. So around three years ago, he started out in a new role heading up Mozilla Labs and working on projects such as Sync/Weave and Personas.

“Then around six months ago I picked up this topic which was in my head and in my heart all this time, which was: how can we help external projects?” explains Finette.
“I had long conversations with Mitchell Baker, our chairwoman, and Gary Kovacs, our new CEO, and a bunch of other people inside Mozilla and they basically all said ‘This is great! We should do this.’ And so, I did.”

So what is WebFWD?
WebFWD is a new unit within Mozilla, whose sole focus is to work with external projects and to help them in the form of an accelerator programme. It is part of a desire I tried to express when I was in Mozilla Labs, which is to work with external projects in a much more structured way than we have done before.

What kind of companies and projects are you looking for? Are there selection criteria?
We do have a theme, but this is malleable and it can and will evolve over time. Very broadly speaking, we look for projects which fit, as a prerequisite, into the Mozilla framework. This is defined by our mission, which is ‘Promote choice and innovation on the internet’, so we are definitely looking for projects which do something on the internet. If you do something really interesting with an Arduino chip, it’s probably not the right project for us. At least not at this point in time.

Secondly, there are a few requirements that we have. We obviously believe that open source is the right model for you to develop and deploy your software. And then we are broadly looking at two areas, the first being deep technology which pushes the web platform itself forward. This could be video in the browser or voice over IP in the browser, this is one of the interesting topics we are currently looking at. In these cases, these kind of projects very often do not have a business model, so I think this is one case where we as Mozilla can be very helpful.

Thirdly, I am also very interested in innovation on the user value side. Currently the two projects we have within WebFWD fall into this category. This is innovating, keeping the users’ interests deep at heart and building solutions for these users.

Which projects is WebFWD currently helping and what are the plans?

One of the companies we are currently working with is called OpenPhoto. And what they do is that they solve this problem: today you have your pictures which are often very close and dear to you; imagine the pictures of your kid growing up, you want to have those pictures around in 20 years time. You have this issue that you have these pictures on a multitude of online services today, so you have got them on Flickr, on Facebook, on Instagram, whatever.

What they do is that they wrote a piece of software that allows you to plug all of these service together, list the pictures and all the metadata: so all the comments and all the tags, and then put them into a storage bucket of your choosing. This could be Dropbox, your own website, Amazon S3, whatever. They make it easy for you to move them around, so that you become master of your own data.

You don’t need to rely on Instagram being around in 20 years time if you want to show your kid this is what you looked like when you were half-a-year old and you had your first spinach. For us this is a really interesting piece of technology, because it clearly solves a user need, in a specific niche where we believe the market has not yet produced the best response.

This is certainly a worthy cause. But if we look at things such as Google’s Data Liberation Front project or Facebook Friend Exporter, Facebook seems quite keen not to let you get to your data: certainly the metadata stemming from interactions on the site. Every time someone opens up a new method of doing this, Facebook seems to shut it down and it becomes a sort of arms race.

Yes this is surely a part of the challenge. But I think this shows you, even more, how much of a need there is for someone standing up and saying I will write a piece of software that allows you to do that. You don’t want to be at the whim of any entity when it comes to something as dear to you as your photos.

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