Mozilla Labs this week took steps to open up its idea factory to wider outside input, asking for community help to develop the next big ideas that might power future browsers. Like any good research lab, the goal is not an immediate product but a set of innovative ideas that can be played with and debated without the pressure of an immediate implementation.
Mozilla Labs' "concepts" can consist of three parts: ideas, mockups, or prototypes. The idea of throwing open the lab to more voices was all about hearing from… new voices (surprise!), so Mozilla wants to make sure that plenty of people can contribute, even if they can't hack code.
"You don’t have to be a software engineer to get involved, and you don’t have to program," says the announcement. "Everyone is welcome to participate. We’re particularly interested in engaging with designers who have not typically been involved with open-source projects. And we’re biasing towards broad participation, not finished implementations."
Ideas are simple text descriptions of a new concept. They're meant to be thrown out by anyone, then talked about and possibly taken to the next level, which is the mockup. Mockups turn ideas into pictures or video clips that illustrate how the idea might look and operate in practice. Finally, prototypes are fully interactive implementations of ideas, though they may not be "fully functional or pretty."
To illustrate the process, Mozilla commissioned three videos from UI designers, each showing possible ideas for browser development. While the "Bookmarking & History Concept" and "Mobile Concept" are both quite cool, the "Aurora" idea from Adaptive Path is certainly the most radical potential change to the browser's look and feel. Each concept is highly visual and therefore difficult to explain in words, but all three are worth a look.
The Aurora concept
For now, "contributing" a concept is something of a nebulous process. According to Mozilla, users should just "use your favorite method of sharing an concept with the world. If it’s an idea, blog about it. If it’s a mockup, put it on Flickr. If it’s a prototype, host it on your web site." The organization promises more structure is coming soon, however.
A future bookmarking system?
Mozilla wants to encourage outside innovation in other ways, too, including contests like the recent "Extend Firefox 3" challenge. The contest, which will give away a Macbook Air and other prizes any day now, seeks to recognize the best third-party extensions to Firefox 3.
While Firefox 3-specific contests are directly related to the browser, the broader call for "concepts" is not. The ideas developed could easily be gleaned by rivals, but Mozilla isn't worried. One of the odd benefits of being an open-source developer is that you don't need to be (and can't be) as secretive as most in-house commercial development.
While the concepts shown so far may never see release, they do provide more evidence of how the revitalized Mozilla has been driving browser innovation in the last few years. And not all of that innovation comes from Mozilla itself—AT&T has used the Mozilla codebase as the foundation for its experimental Pogo browser, which seems to be working through visual ideas that are at least superficially similar to some of Mozilla's concepts.