Category Archives: Technology

The Big Munge

“Give me your email address so I can call you!” she said.

At first, I thought I misheard. She must have have muddled “call” and “write.” So I asked for clarification.

“Whatever. Call. Write. I prefer to call people at their email addresses. Or message them.”

Then I realized that she was referring to a FaceTime conversation, using her email address (an thingy), which she used interchangeably, and in fact, indistinguishably, with SMS/MMS. And I had a series of discomforting thoughts  about the pros and cons of paying attention to extricable components within what I’ll call The Big Munge. By that I mean the grand unified stew of communication protocols and data that Millennials kids these days consumers interact with so differently now, and have so many different assumptions about.

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What is this?

Questions and answers, because my friends and I have been doing a lot of asking and answering, in unequal measure, with more asking than answering. Because I’ve been distraught by the incessant stream of reductionist observations about Mozilla, each one like being punched in the heart with the hard fists of righteousness and conviction. Because questions and answers once brought me peace, when I was much younger.

Who are you?

A man with no titles. Formerly, one of the first technology evangelists for Mozilla, when it was still a Netscape project. A Mozillian.

Who is Brendan Eich?

A man with a title titles. An inventor. A unifier. A divider. A Mozillian. A friend.

What has Mozilla done?

From humble and unlikely beginnings, Mozilla entered a battle seemingly already decided against it, and gradually unseated the entrenched incumbent, user by user by user, through campaigns that were traditional and innovative, and increased consciousness about the open web. It became a beloved brand, standing firmly for open source and the open web, championing the Internet, sometimes advocating politically for these convictions. It relied, and continues to rely, on a community of contributors from all over the world.

What has Brendan done?

Many things intrinsic to the open web; he helped shape technologies used by countless numbers of users, including to write and read this very post. Also, a hurtful and divisive thing based on a conviction now at odds with the law of the land, and at odds with my own conviction: in 2008, he donated $1000 to California Proposition 8, which put on a statewide ballot a proposition to define marriage as strictly between a man and a woman in the state, thus eliminating gay marriage, and calling into question pre-existing gay marriages. The amount donated was enough to oblige him to list his employer — Mozilla — for legal reasons.

What are my convictions?

That any two people in love should be able to marry, regardless of their genders; that the marriage of two such people affords all legal protections intrinsic to the institution of marriage including immigration considerations, estate planning considerations, and visitation rights. That this is in fact a civil right. That matters of civil rights should not be put before a population to vote on as a statewide proposition; in short, that exceptions to the Equal Protection Clause cannot be decided by any majority, since it is there to protect minorities from majorities (cf.Justice Moreno).

How do such convictions become law?

Often, by fiat. Sometimes, even when the battle is already seemingly decided (with the entrenched weight of history behind it, an incumbent), one state at a time. State by State by State (by States), using campaigns that are traditional and innovative, to increase consciousness about this as a civil right.

How should people with different convictions disagree?

Bitterly, holding fast to conviction, so that two individuals quarrel ceaselessly till one yields to the other, or till one retreats from the other, unable to engage any longer.

For real?

Amicably, by setting aside those convictions that are unnecessary to the pursuit of common convictions I share with other Mozillians, like the open web. Brendan embodied the Mozilla project; he would have made a promising CEO. My conviction can be governed by reason, and set aside, especially since the issue is decided by courts, of both law and public opinion. His view, only guessable by me, seems antediluvian. Times have changed. I can ask myself to be governed by reason. We need never touch this question.

But I can do this because my conviction about the law, stated before, has never been tested personally by the specter of suicide or the malevolence of bullying; marriage equality is the ultimate recognition, destigmatizing lifestyles, perhaps helping with suicide and bullying. And, my inability to marry has never disrupted my life or my business. I cannot ask others to lay aside convictions, without recognizing the sources of pain, and calling them out. (Here, Brendan made commitments, and Mozilla did too).

What will the future hold?

Brendan has said his non serviam but calls out a mission which I think is the right one: privacy, also a civil right, especially privacy from governments; continued user advocacy; data liberation; a check on walled gardens (and an end to digital sharecropping); the web as mobile platform, even though it is under threat in the mobile arena, the battle seemingly decided, the entrenched incumbent slightly less obvious. This latter — mobile — is reminiscent of the desktop world in 1998. It’s the same story, with smaller machines. Perhaps the same story will have to be told again. I’d like Mozilla to be a major player in that story, just as it always has been a major player on the web. And I’ll be looking forward to seeing what Brendan does next. I’ll miss him as part of Mozilla. This has been crushing.

Coda: what have wise ones said?

“I don’t know why we’re talking about tolerance to begin with. We should be at acceptance and love. What’s this tolerance business? What are you tolerating, backpain? ‘I’ve been tolerating backpain, and the gay guy at work?'” — Hari Kondabalu (watch him on Letterman). And blog posts: Mozilla is not Chick-Fil-A; Thinking about Mozilla; The Hounding of a Heretic (Andrew Sullivan); a few others, discussing what a CEO should do, and what qualities a CEO should possess, which are out there for you to discover.

SxSW 2012 Redux

Things HAPPEN after the browser wars panel I’ve now moderated for five years in a row at SxSW. Brendan posts this about H.264 in Mozilla.

Then, Jeremy Keith, our unofficial rabble-rouser, excoriates the cognoscenti about a certain “lack of imagination.” Chris Wilson, finally at liberty to blog and tweet about his responsibilities as web platform guy for Google, responds conversationally.

Browser wars always delivers. Thank you, Brendan (“Dart? Good luck with that!”), Charles (who conducted a much-needed straw poll: “Who knows what vendor prefixing is?” to which many hands went up, underscoring the fact that SxSW is really our favorite audience), Chris (“Do you ship VBScript?”), and John (“Chromeless — my favorite word.”).

The panel always coincides with my birthday. I won’t get mawkish, but I will say that there’s something interesting about growing up with web browsers professionally. When I was with Netscape, I talked a relentless amount of smack about IE and railed against closed-source stacks. That kind of talk is antiquated now, really. Flash fallback (for video) notwithstanding, there are open sourced stacks that confuse the web platform landscape. We talked about some of those during the panel, chiefly Dart (though SPDY and VP8 got some mention, along with Native Client). At some point, I found myself moderating a panel where browser vendors agree about the importance of DRM, and its inevitability on the web platform, at least as far as video goes. Times have changed. Have we all grown up? There used to be visceral auto-immune responses in some circles to any kind of mention of DRM whatsoever.

This time, SxSW was bigger than ever. Long lines. LOTS of long lines. And after-after-after parties for people that scorn sleep. Of course, I allowed myself some minor peccadilloes this year at SxSW. Like how I found myself on Snoop Dogg’s tour bus at 4a.m. one night, somewhere on the way to San Antonio. But that’s another kind of story. You’ll have to ask me about it in person.

Update: You can follow the H.264 conversation on the hacks blog also if only to be exposed to a different comment stream.

Browser Wars Episode V: The Angry Birds Era

It’s back on again. Five times makes an institution, I suppose, despite what some feel is an anachronistic name (“Browser WARS? Haven’t you won already?”). This year, with Angry Birds getting at least an honorable mention. March 10 2012, from 5PM – 6PM, at Salon K of the Hilton Hotel in Austin, Texas, for SxSW.

I can’t seem to stay away. This is a vibrant space, and the very smart people I will moderate during Saturday’s discussion are the forerunners of it: Brendan Eich, who invented JavaScript, and is Mozilla’s CTO; Chris Wilson, who worked on every version of IE till IE8 and now works on Chrome for Google (we’re thrilled to have him back, following a brief moratorium); Charles McCathie Nevile, Opera’s Chief Standards Officer, back again this year; and John Hrvatin, IE’s Program Manager and a veteran from last year.

The technologies that we steward here have profound implications for society, and an hour is tight. Recently, Microsoft protested about how Google circumvents privacy in IE and Safari (showing, amongst other things, that two players, Google and Microsoft, are at loggerheads frequently).

Then, there are interesting questions about content itself. Should web video have DRM, or is that the real anachronism? Content protection measures in HTML5 Video proposed by Google, Microsoft, and Netflix have been dubbed unethical; parties within one company clearly don’t agree about how to take it forward, but that’s really how the web works (and big organizations like Google).

And then there’s those Angry Birds. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web, called for installable web apps to become more widespread, something which Ian Hickson (editor of the HTML5 specification) dubs “anathema.” What prevents Angry Birds from being an HTML5 app on mobile, and what exactly are the application stacks the web is in competition with? Some of our panelists and their organizations have been moved to call us to arms.

Throw in the vendor prefixing controversy (now as seen in the popular press!), SPDY, VP8 and other “non-standard” well-meaning projects, along with the Metro environment’s use of HTML5, and I think we’ve got ourselves enough wheat and chaff for a panel. As usual, audience participation counts for at least one-third of the panel, so come with questions. I look forward to seeing you all there, and to a Saturday night out in Austin after the panel. That’s an institution with longevity, too.

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When Vikram and I shook on building after a boisterous lapse into the kind of Bangalore patois so typical of the average South Indian porki, we honestly didn’t think it would get the kind of attention it has been getting, delusions of grandeur notwithstanding. Of course, the whole team is delighted by it. CNN, the Economist blog, the Wall Street Journal blog, The Huffington Post, and The Times of India have covered it, along with a few other online and offline publications. And given that I recently wrote a small exposĂ© about the foundational three Ms behind the idea, it’s high time Samosapedia got some airtime on my own blog.

I spend a substantial amount of time either thinking about or working on Samosapedia, which is not surprising for any co-founder. Software alone is not really what keeps me busy. The very smart Braxton, who joined us because he loves the concept, stewards the code (Ruby on Rails straddling Heroku) really well, and puts up with our proclivity to IST with humor, which cemented our bond. The big questions to me include the editorial oversight needed to build the world’s largest cultural dictionary.

Let’s first touch very briefly on the imperfection of calling it The Definitive Guide to South Asian Lingo, since in choosing to call it that, we reveal something about ourselves as editors. One of the most priceless reactions we got to the term “South Asian” was “Aren’t South Asians Filipinos?” It turns out the term “South Asian” causes a small modicum of irritation and confusion. Other observations were that we shouldn’t use the term South Asian at all, but instead say “desi” or “Indian.” On this one, we’re sticking to our guns. There are enough commonalities linguistically and culturally, and enough radical differences, for us to be geographically inclusive on the site. The term “South Asia” may come from a taxonomy generated outside South Asia itself, but we can’t find a better, more inclusive term that matches our aspiration for a giant cultural dictionary. We’re ceasing to worry about labels. The existing one has been well received so far — thanks to our users, we have over 6000 entries now, and we’re going to keep on growing.

What becomes interesting is that sometimes, definitions aren’t merely objective. We don’t really want them to be objective, which is why we allow for multiple entries for a given term. Take for example entries like the one for the Jan Lokpal Bill, which as of this writing, still features prominently in popular press in India. One user’s idealism may test another user’s opinion on the whole approach taken by the bill, with the result being controversy. We welcome it — the lingo we’re collectively cataloging is multifarious, and controversy is the by product of engaged users. By that same token, one user’s humor may offend another. Here, we’ll traipse as lightly as possible, because we want to allow maximum self-expression, liberating language and encouraging our users to be creative and playful. Soon enough, we’ll also want to have users help with moderating words. It’s not just a dictionary we’re building here, but a community, responsible for its own editorial oversight, without the founders being gatekeepers.

Samosapedia has rapidly become a small anthology of South Asian writing, and makes people laugh, bringing delight and nostalgia (nostalgindia?). I am really excited about it, and about all the things we’re going to do with it in the future.