Empowering the software auteurs

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

The best technology products are often the product of a singular vision. Look at Apple. Look at Nintendo. These companies' enduring successes owe their existence to the presence of a strong guiding hand: someone whose exacting standards ensure that the project never strays too far from its core goals and principles.

In film, they sometimes call these people "auteurs." Coppola, Kubrick, Polanski, Spielberg -- you know these names by the quality of their output. They're not just personalities; they are brands. And while the names Jobs and Miyamoto may not be as widely recognized, the spirit of the auteur has had a profound impact on the technology industry, too.

Any tech company would love to have the next iPod or the next Wii. These are groundbreaking products that have gone on to dominate their markets. So how does it happen? How are technology visionaries discovered, and more importantly, how can companies empower them so that their ideas give birth to the next breakthrough products?

Mozilla Labs' Concept Series aims to find out. The Concept Series is a unique program that invites people from around the world to contribute ideas, mockups, and prototypes for the next generation of the Mozilla Web browser, regardless of their skills or backgrounds.

This is an exciting development for two reasons. For starters, it's one of the first concerted efforts to bring non-programmers into the fold of open source software development. While the open source movement has produced a staggering amount of code, designers and user experience experts have been neglected for too long, and it shows. The more free software is developed with the consumer in mind, the better.

Second, this experiment gives the open source community an opportunity to prove that you don't need to be an Apple, a Nintendo, or a Microsoft to deliver eye-opening products. Open source projects can do more than just clone existing software. When guided by a strong vision, they can also be a driving force for change.

Proprietary software companies -- Microsoft in particular -- love to tell us that this is hogwash, that open source is good at imitation but lousy at innovation. Just look at the Linux kernel, they'll say. Linus Torvalds didn't really invent an operating system; he just wrote his own version of Unix, which was already decades old.

I think that attitude sells Linus short, but it's easy to come up with a counter-example. The Mozilla Firefox Web browser is not only one of the most widely used open source applications, but it also consistently outpaces Microsoft's Internet Explorer when it comes to features and support for the latest Web standards.

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