Home Firefox: Aiming for One Million Contributors

Firefox: Aiming for One Million Contributors

Mozilla’s Dietrich Ayala would like to have one million contributors to Firefox in 2012. It’s a tough, probably unreachable, goal that Ayala says he’s kidding about. Kind of.

Ayala spoke at FOSDEM about developing Firefox in 2012, and new approaches that Mozilla is taking to try to reduce time and effort required for contributing to the browser.

Barriers to Entry: Total Perspective Vortex

If you talk to developers about contributing to Firefox, they’ll tell you it’s hard. This isn’t just criticism from competing projects, this is coming from Firefox developers themselves. Mozilla’s Bobby Holley, talked about hacking Firefox’s Gecko engine and likened the codebase to the Total Perspective Vortex in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Trying to comprehend the entire thing at once is a short road to crazytown.

So why not drop Gecko and embrace WebKit, which by many accounts is easier to develop with? Holley says that Mozilla doesn’t just want to produce a wrapper for a rendering engine. Mozilla wants to “steer the Web” to be more open, and to do that, they use Firefox. If something is bad for the Web, they hope to slow or stop adoption by not including it in the browser. (See, for instance, Mozilla’s position on H.264). If they feel something is important (like Do Not Track) they can try to drive adoption by including it.

But Gecko is still saddled with a lot of bad decisions and legacy code from the Netscape days. So, if possible, Mozilla will help developers avoid Gecko or at least soften the blow by making it easier to get involved with Firefox.

What Mozilla is doing

So Mozilla is looking for ways to eat an elephant, without just asking them to open really wide.

One of the things Mozilla is doing is trying to steer contributions outside of the main browser code with JetPacks. Some features that land in future Firefox releases, says Ayala, will be JetPacks. Browser ID and F1, for instance, will show up as JetPacks.

In addition, they’re also trying to remove other barriers to entry. The engagement team has weekly meetings about the barriers to contribution and how to remove them.

They’ve also working to identify new contributors and reach out to them. According to Ayala, when a contributor’s first patch is being reviewed, they get an email with an acknowledgment for sending the patch to thank them.

Mozilla is also looking at simplifying communication and its toolchain. Ayala says that, right now, “the number of tools and communication places you have to be involved in, on an ongoing basis, is massive.” Where possible, they’re finding ways to let contributors jump right in and solve a small problem. without having to do a deep dive in Mozilla’s codebase, culture and toolchain.

He described one experiment where they put a piece of code on JS Bin and got tons of contributions. Why? Because it was easy for potential contributors to dive in. They didn’t need to go to Bugzilla or learn anything about XUL or the toolchain required to build Firefox.

Can They Do It?

Can Mozilla bring in one million contributors by the end of 2012? It seems unlikely, and it would be quite a challenge to handle the influx of contributors if they did succeed. One million folks sending in patches could get hairy, quickly.

But the organization is making a concerted effort to draw in a much larger contributor base, and even if they succeed in drawing in just 1% of the million contributor goal, they’re going to be in really good shape.

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