Empowering the software auteurs

Mozilla wants to tap creative people who may have no programming knowledge. Can that work?

Mind you, Firefox can trace its direct lineage all the way back to Mosaic, the original graphical Web browser developed by Marc Andreessen and his team at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. Launch any modern Web browser, in fact, and what you get looks an awful lot like NCSA Mosaic; the basic UI hasn't changed all that much.

And that's precisely the point of the Mozilla Concept Series. Mozilla Labs wants to find its own software auteurs -- people with unique visions, maybe even from outside the software development field -- who can shake up the world of Web browsers and spearhead a new direction.

The initial concepts in the series are compelling. Adaptive Path's Jesse James Garrett -- the man who brought us the term "AJAX" -- offers Aurora, a browser concept that emphasizes collaboration and contextual awareness. Wei Zhu presents a new approach to bookmarking. And Aza Raskin proposes new ways to fit Web browsers onto the small screens of mobile devices.

These ideas are an auspicious start. But then, you know what ideas are like. Anyone can mock up a few diagrams and concept videos. The hard part will be translating these rough ideas into working prototypes, then actual products.

To achieve this, Mozilla Labs will need something entirely new, and perhaps even more exciting. It will need a software project governance model that not only invites input from non-developers, but formally includes them as core participants in the application design process. They will be senior participants, in fact -- because, since programming ability is not a prerequisite for user interface design, programmers will inevitably be asked to implement features dreamed up by non-programmers.

How will that sit with the open source community? Will open source developers, accustomed as they are to a coder-centric meritocracy, be willing to adapt to a model in which a non-technical "auteur" calls the shots? Can a community-driven software development process really be guided by the vision of one person? In short, will Mozilla Labs really be able to empower non-programmers to effect change in its software, or is this all just big talk?

It's worth finding out, because poor user experience is a problem that is by no means limited to open source software. A lot of companies could do a better job of incorporating input from designers and other non-technical stakeholders into their software development processes, too. Mozilla Labs has taken an important step. I'm very interested to see what, if anything, comes next.

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