Mozilla Labs Shuts Down

Sep 23, 2014

Mozilla’s product think tank sinks silently into history.

Word has trickled out that Mozilla Labs, the think tank behind innovations such as the Mozilla Popcorn web video and social networking tool, has disbanded. The move apparently happened quietly earlier this year, but the story recently went public with the blog post of former Mozilla Labs developer Ian Bicking. Although the Mozilla Labs site is still live, the last post in the Mozilla Labs blog is dated December 9, 2013.  The Labs group has long seemed a bit adrift from the greater Mozilla community. A search in the search bar for the blog at the official Mozilla Project blog at the Mozilla project website reveals that Mozilla Labs hasn't been mentioned in a blog post since June 1, 2010.
Mozilla has been in some controversy recently, with some Free Software advocates questioning its independence from donor corporations such as Google. In this case, however, it appears the closing of the Mozilla Labs project was not related to politics and was based more on technical and structural issues within the Mozilla community. Mozilla Labs was actually a separate organization that operated largely independently of the Mozilla project. This kind of independence, which is common in corporate labs, is created to spur innovation and free, creative thinking, but it can also cause problems.
According to Bicking’s blog post, “Labs groups are often criticized for being too separate from the companies they belong to. In Mozilla this was a problem because we had a hard time getting things done – for instance, if the success of a project depended on changes to Firefox, then it was hard to get those prioritized. By working separately, we also would often use patterns that weren’t liked by other people. People in Labs would often come from the perspective of web developers, where much of Mozilla is focused on user agents, and this is a much bigger divide than I initially appreciated. But the technical problems were perhaps a symptom: integration with the rest of Mozilla was viewed as a problem, a late-stage effort, not part of the exploration and experiment itself.”
As Bicking points out, Mozilla Labs should not be confused with Mozilla Research, which is still going strong. Mozilla Research is home to projects such as Mozilla Rust and ASM.js. The difference, according to Bicking, is that Research focuses on foundational web technologies and Labs was all about building new products.
The former head of Mozilla Labs, David Ascher, has moved to a role of Vice President for Products at Mozilla. The Mozilla Foundation appears to view this change as restructuring for greater efficiency and productivity, rather than as a refocus of the foundation’s priorities.

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