jeudi 28 mai 2009

When sharing means multiplying

My colleague Gen Kanai and John Lilly have pointed me to an interesting article on Wired: The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online.

Of course, the author is not really using the word socialism in the same way we use it to refer to Eastern Europe 30 years ago, and I'm not sure that resorting to such a loaded word is really helping in starting a discussion, because we have to clarify so many things before the conversation can start. However, there is indeed matter for an interesting discussion:

We're (...) applying digital socialism to a growing list of wishes—and occasionally to problems that the free market couldn't solve—to see if it works. So far, the results have been startling. At nearly every turn, the power of sharing, cooperation, collaboration, openness, free pricing, and transparency has proven to be more practical than we capitalists thought possible. Each time we try it, we find that the power of the new socialism is bigger than we imagined.

There are a couple key differences in the Eastern Europe socialism and this new collectivist society.

  1. the old socialism is a story used by the elite to dominate the people. On the other hand the new collectivism is something done on a daily basis by the people, without any authority trying to impose it, without necessarily giving it a name.
  2. the old socialism took place in the real world, ruled by the economy of things, while the new collectivism is taking place on line, ruled by the economy of ideas. This makes a huge difference, summed up by this sentence:

In the economy of things, sharing means dividing. In the economy of ideas, sharing means multiplying.

In short, this new digital collectivism may work where the old socialism failed, just because in the online world it's much easier to be generous and give things away as you're not deprived of them.

edit: Mozilla lives in this world where sharing means multiplying. When you understand this, you realize that the utopia of what we do (building software given away for free) suddenly makes a lot more sense.

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dimanche 24 mai 2009

Jetpack and Generativity

Mozilla Labs Jetpack logo

As you may have seen, Mozilla Labs has recently announced Jetpack:

Jetpack is an API for allowing you to write Firefox add-ons using the web technologies you already know.

In short, the goal of Jetpack is to enable Web developers to create extensions for Firefox. There are already roughly 8,000 Extension developers who have built 12,000 add-ons. It's a lot, but it could be a lot more if we could find ways to enable people who build Websites to create more extensions.

What does Jetpack have to do with Generativity and generative technologies? Well, the Web is already a generative technology. When it was invented, Tim Berners-Lee and his team did not envision what it would become. People who have invented innovative Web sites and services did not have to ask them permission to invent them. Actually, the Web was invented on top of the Internet and the IP protocol. Tim Berners-Lee did not seek permission from those who invented the Internet nor those who deployed it (ISPs and network operators). This is exactly what makes the Net and the Web generative technologies: people could invent new things on top of them without having to ask permission.

Firefox add-ons are of the same nature: if you want to have a different browser, you don't have to ask Mozilla to build a specific version of Firefox for you. You can build your own add-on. Now building an add-on is quite easy compared to contributing core Gecko code, but it can be made easier. That's what Jetpack is aiming at. In short, enabling more people to hack.

In my recent article about generativity, I quoted Jonathan Zittrain about the 5 things that make technologies generative. #3 was ease of mastery, and this is exactly where Jetpack is good. It's actually lowering the barrier to entry.

It's also acting on item #5, transferability, as explained by the Jetpack announcement:

from a user perspective, Jetpack will allow new features to be added to the browser without a restart or compatibility issues, resulting in little to no disruption to the online experience.

By making the user experience better (no restart needed, less compatibility issues), Jetpack is making Firefox better and more generative, because innovations built with it will be more transferable.

Let's also talk about the 3 remaining items listed by Zittrain:

  • 1 : leverage: Jetpack leverages the existing Web technologies (HTML, CSS and JS+DOM) and applications (via their APIs)
  • 2 : adaptability: add-ons are already used in many different fileds, and I expect Jetpack extensions just in the same way
  • 4 : accessibility: to use these technologies, all you need is an Internet-connected computer that runs Firefox (so you can run Windows, OS X or Linux), which is a free download.

To sum things up, Jetpack is yet another demonstration of what Mozilla does to make the Web Browser even more generative.

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jeudi 21 mai 2009

A propos de générativité

Il y a un concept clé dans ce que nous faisons chez Mozilla, qui est plus ou moins assimilé par la plupart d'entre nous. C'est la notion de générativité. Oui, je sais, ça n'est même pas dans le dictionnaire... Quoi qu'il en soit, il m'est apparu que ce concept n'est pas bien compris par tout le monde, hormis ceux qui font des navigateurs ou des sites Web. Je me suis donc dit que j'allais passer un peu de temps à expliquer ce terme. À l'avenir, je compte expliquer pourquoi la notion de générativité est au coeur du projet Mozilla et du Mozilla Manifesto.

Commençons par demander à Wikipédia (version anglaise) ce qu'est la Générativité. En voici la définition (j'ai retiré la partie sur l'épistémologie pour vous éviter une migraine) :

La générativité décrit en termes généraux la capacité d'un système intégré à offrir une capacité indépendante de créer, de produire du contenu sans que les créateurs du système soient impliqués dans ce processus de création. La générativité technologique décrit généralement la capacité de l'Internet et des ordinateurs modernes qui permettent à des gens qui n'ont rien à voir avec la création et le fonctionnement de ceux-ci de produire du contenu sous forme d'applications ou, dans le cas de l'Internet, de blogs[1] Jonathan Zittrain a exprimé son inquiétude sur le fait que des technologies telles que les enregistreurs vidéo numériques et le GPS se sont éloignés des aspects génératifs et réciproques qui sont offerts par l'ordinateur personnel et l'Internet.[2]

J'ai pris conscience de la notion de générativité en lisant un (excellent) livre de Jonathan Zittrain. L'auteur y donne de la générativité la définition suivante :

La générativité[3], c'est la capacité d'un système à produire des changements non prévus via des contributions non filtrées provenant d'une grande diversité de contributeurs. Des termes comme "ouverture", "libre" ou encore "communs" en évoquent certains aspects, mais sans complètement le définir, et parfois en semant l'incompréhension.[4]

L'auteur décrit ensuite les 5 facteurs principaux qui font que quelque chose est génératif :

  1. Effet de levier : à quel point le système ou la technologie peuvent être démultipliés dans leur capacité à effectuer certaines tâches ?
  2. Adaptabilité : à quel point on peut l'adapter à un ensemble de tâches ?
  3. Facilité à maîtriser : à quel point les nouveaux contributeurs peuvent apprendre à se servir de cette technologie ?
  4. Accessibilité[5] : à quel point les gens qui ont la capacité et l'envie de contribuer ont-il accès à ces technologies ? (sont elles largement répandues, disponibles, bon marché, socialement acceptées ?)
  5. Transférabilité : à quel point les changements peuvent être partagés avec d'autres, y compris (et peut-être surtout) ceux qui ne sont pas des experts.

Je considère que la combinaison des PC et de l'Internet donne un outils merveilleusement génératif. Un PC connecté à Internet, c'est incroyablement puissant, versatile, facile à maîtriser, on y accède facilement[6], et ce qu'on y produit est facilement partagé avec d'autres.

On pourrait même dire que le PC connecté est la technologie générative ultime : Il permet aux gens d'inventer de nouvelles choses, et de faire des choses qu'on n'avait pas encore imaginé.

Vous vous souvenez d'il y a 20 ans ? Internet était utilisé essentiellement par des scientifiques, le Web restait à inventer. Repensons un instant à ce qu'on imaginait pas comme possible à l'époque (je suis sûrement passé à coté de centaines d'exemples, bien sûr) :

  • Publier son propre journal. Maintenant, on appelle ça un blog. Il y en a des millions en activité aujourd'hui.
  • Acceder instantanément à une encyclopédie incroyable qu'on peut mettre à jour soi-même. On appelel ça Wikipedia. La version anglaise approche des 3 millions d'articles (800 000 pour la version française). Elle est disponible en 265 langues, pour un total de 13 millions d'articles...
  • Acceder à toutes les cartes du monde instantanément, avec leur vue satellite. C'est Google Maps.
  • Un accès immédiat à une quantité inouie d'information ? C'est un moteur de recherche.
  • Retrouver des copains de lycée ? Utilisez un réseau social.
  • Partager des photos avec les amis, la famille ou le monde entier ? Flickr.com et des dizaines d'autres sites comparables. Des vidéos ? Youtube et Dailymotion. Des messages courts ? Twitter ou Identi.ca.
  • Travailler ensemble au sein d'une communauté avec des gens de tous les horizons pour produire un logiciel ? C'est l'Open-Source / Logiciel Libre (ou Mozilla ;-) ). Distribuer ces logiciels à des millions de personnes ? Voilà Firefox qui a 270 millions d'utilisateurs actifs dans le monde.

J'espère que vous comprenez mieux cette notion de générativité. Dans de futurs articles, je vais discuter le pour et le contre, et la relation avec le projet Mozilla. D'ici là, le livre de Zittrain est disponible au téléchargement, et vous pouvez lire sa critique par Cory Doctorow.

Notes

[1] Le terme blog me paraît ici très restrictif. Contenu et applications, voire sites Web est plus approprié.

[2] La définition d'origine est bancale et ma traduction ne fait qu'empirer les choses. Toute suggestion est la bienvenue !

[3] Ou le "caractère innovant", comme c'est dit sur la page d'accueil du site associé au livre.

[4] J'ai moi même utilisé la notion de "hackabiliy" / "capacité à être bidouillé" pour décrire cela. Je ne suis pas certain que ça soit plus façile à comprendre que "générativité".

[5] Pas au sens d'accessibilité numérique.

[6] au moins dans le monde occidental, bien sûr.

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mercredi 20 mai 2009

About Generativity

There is a key concept about what we do at Mozilla, which is kind of familiar to most of us. It's the notion of Generativity. I know, it's not even a word! However, it looks like this concept is not so well understood by people who are not spending most of their time building the Web or a browser or similar things. So I figured I should spend some time explaining what it is about. Then I'll blog on why Generativity is central to the Mozilla project and the Mozilla Manifesto.

Let's start by asking Wikipedia about Generativity. Here is the definition (I have removed the part about epistemology to avoid unnecessary headaches and added emphasis where needed):

Generativity describes in broad terms the ability of a self-contained system to provide an independent ability to create, generate or produce content without any input from the originators of the system. (...) Technological generativity generally describes the quality of the Internet and modern computers that allows people unrelated to the creation and operation of either to produce content in the form of applications and in the case of the Internet, blogs. Jonathan Zittrain has expressed concern that many recent technologies such as DVR and GPS have moved away from the generative, two-way aspects of the personal computer and the Internet.

I have learned about generativity in reading a (great) book by Jonathan Zittrain, where the author gives the following definition:

Generativity[1] is a system's capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences. Terms like "Openness" and "free" and "commons" evoke elements of it, but they do not fully capture its meaning, and they sometimes obscure it.[2]

The author then describes the five principal factors that make something generative:

  1. Leverage: how extensively a system or a technology leverages a set of possible tasks
  2. Adaptability: how well it can be adapted to a range of tasks
  3. Ease of mastery: how easily new contributors can master it
  4. Accessibility: how accessible it is to those ready and able to build on it
  5. Transferability: how transferable any changes are to others – including (and perhaps especially) non-experts.

I see the combination of PCs and the Internet as a wonderfully generative tool. A PC connected to the Internet, is amazingly leverage-able, adaptable, quite easy to master, affordable and the innovations produced can be easily transfered to other people. One could say that the connected PC is the ultimate generative technology: it enables people to invent new stuff, to do things that no-one had imagined before. Remember 20 years ago? The Internet was still used by scientists and the Web was still to be invented. Now let's think about things that were not possible at the time (I am sure I forgot tons of examples, of course):

  • Publishing your own magazine. It's now called a blog. There are hundreds of millions of them today.
  • Instant access for free to an amazing encyclopedia you can update with your own knowledge? It's now called Wikipedia. The English version is approaching 3 million articles. It exists in 265 different languages for a grand total of 13 million articles...
  • Accessing maps of the world instantly, along with a satellite view? It's called Google Maps.
  • Instantly accessing a fantastic wealth of information? It's called a search engine.
  • Reuniting with high-school friends? Use social networks.
  • Sharing pictures with friends, family and the world?? Flickr.com and cohorts of similar sites. Videos? Youtube and Dailymotion. Short messages? Twitter and Identi.ca.
  • Work together as a community with people from all over the world to produce software to access all of this? It's called Open-Source / Free Software. (Or Mozilla ;-) ). Distributing these software products to ordinary people that enjoy them? Firefox has now 270 million active users in the world.

I hope that I have succeeded in explaining what Generativity is. In future posts, I'll discuss its pros and cons, along with its relationship with Mozilla. Stay tuned! In the meantime, Zittrain's book is available for download, and you can read its review by Cory Doctorow.

Notes

[1] or "innovative character", as mentioned on the book's home page.

[2] I have been using "hackability" for a while myself. I'm not sure it's better than "generativity", though.

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mercredi 6 mai 2009

Poetry and pragmatics at Mozilla

John Lilly keynote

John Lilly keynoting

As I'm struggling to recover from the the lag, my colleague John Lilly has published a great post about last week's all hands meeting in California. John has included his slides from his keynote. I'll quote him directly about the content:

I wanted to talk about some of the context that we find ourselves in now and how we can think about becoming a longer term organization, now that Mozilla’s first 11 years are behind us. I focused on the tension between what I’ve come to call Poetry & Pragmatics. The pragmatics of an organization are how you do things; the poetry of an organization is why you do them.

There's a big difference; they're both important, and sometimes they amplify each other, sometimes they conflict. Getting the balance right, from day to day, from year to year — that’s the thing that great organizations do over time, and it’s what we need to always think about how to do better.

I often call myself a "pragmatic idealist", which is a tongue-in-cheek way to explain that I understand the importance of finding alignment and balance between the vision of Mozilla and what we deliver product-wise. I have been blogging quite a bit over the years about this in French, but refrained to do it because blogging the same in English is riskier for several reasons:

  • If my message is not well understood, the damage happens on a bigger scale
  • English is not my native tongue, so it takes more time to blog and increases the risk of not being well understood
  • The context is different between France and the rest of the World. When addressing a larger crowd, it's harder to find the right analogies, the common references to explain things in a meaningful way. Something that is well accepted here in France may actually be problematic or at least controversial in other parts of the world. This also increases the risk of not being well understood.

However, thanks to John's talk, I'm now willing to take a risk and blog more about Mozilla's vision, what it represents to me and what it means for the Mozilla community members that I meet in Europe. Now that I am officially in the poetry business, wish me luck! I hope I won't disappoint you, my dear reader.

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