Living in the Future: Notes on Mozilla’s Next Big Innovation Challenge

Mozilla is launching a new innovation challenge this November. The goal is to seed demand for high-speed broadband by prototyping and building bandwidth-intensive, next generation web apps.

It’ll take place over 8 months in collaboration with the National Science Foundation, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and US Ignite (a national competitiveness initiative to lay “a new foundation for America’s Broadband Future”).

As part of this project, we’ll be playing in the GENI test bed: a sandboxed network environment that offers flexible design and absolutely huge pipes. We’re talking 1 Gbps territory, up and down—about 250 times faster than average residential speeds.

I’m extremely excited to serve on this project, and proud of our contribution to a great public need: universal, high-speed connectivity, and all the economic development it enables.

The project

The theory behind US Ignite is that there are a number of “killer apps” that are impossible to build on today’s public Internet.

In the same way that email and the world wide web drove demand for our current networks, we’re looking to drive demand for next-generation networks through innovative apps and experiences that feel like they’re from the future. Stuff like (to throw out a few ideas) instantaneous streaming of the highest possible definition video; zero latency medical imaging; and the ability to render photo-realistic, constantly evolving 3D environments directly from the cloud.

These kinds of apps require sustained, ultra-high upstream and downstream speeds, and a new kind of design flexibility. Of course, these apps will run in modern web browsers, and will capitalize on all the newest open web technologies—HTML5, fast javascript, device APIs, hardware acceleration, WebRTC, WebGL, WebCL, and more.

The project is compromised of two very specific competitions:

1) an ideas challenge, where we ask participants to imagine how web apps running on next-generation networks could improve people’s everyday lives;


2) a development challenge, where small teams will compete for rounds of funding from a $500k prize pool, drawing from their creativity and talents to build “apps from the future.”

An Apple futurist promo from 1987—that came true. We want to evoke the same sense of wonder.

The first part is designed for everybody. It will scratch the same itch as the The Internet Wishlist, “a suggestion box for the future of technology.”

We want to inspire a sense of wonder and possibility, appealing to people’s wildest dreams and aspirations for the web—the kind of stuff that shows up in futurist videos, in science fiction, in dreams and flights of fancy. And then, we’ll start to build this future with the GENI community.

The second phase will require participants to have some pretty specialized skills, and will be conducted under some tight constraints (since these apps won’t be possible on today’s internet, they’ll need to be developed through proxies, as mockups, or at sites in the GENI testbed). But we will strive to make it as inclusive and approachable as possible, with regular events and consultations, community building, and developer resources.

Mozilla and innovation challenges

This project will lean on software and expertise we’ve developed in the first year of the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership (MoJo).

Through MoJo, the Mozilla Foundation has developed or refined a number of capacities: things like running innovation challenges and distributed events; engaging new developer communities; and channeling the passion of Mozillians in areas where Mozilla hasn’t traditionally played.

We’ll be doing all of this and more in the Ignite project. And all the code generated by challenge participants will bear open licenses, which will support future developers in assembling ultra high-speed web apps.

The Hard Parts

Running a challenge program requires an informed balance between timing and incentives. To get to that balance, I’ll be consulting with a ton of people over the next few weeks.

As we finalize the program design, assemble a jury, build relationships with companies, researchers, agencies, developers, and users, and push out the project’s home on the web, we’ll try to stay flexible.

At its core, this program is about guiding a group of highly specialized network engineers and client-side developers through a few rounds of iterative development on their apps. We need to learn about (and speak naturally with) this constituency. At the same time, we need to bring the core Mozilla constituency—web makers, participation wonks and social entrepreneurs—into both the challenge and the broader discussion about how the web will work in the future.

That will be one of the most important things to get right: making Mozilla Labs, MDN, and Webcraft equally at home in the program with the GENI network engineers and community.

Equally important—we’ll need to pull off this big and complex program without overly exposing our process, or brow-beating people with programmatic rationales and details. I’ve already done a fair bit of that in this post!


We’re shooting for an initial launch in November. I’m working on ways for interested parties to get involved in the project planning. In the meantime, stay tuned and leave your feedback in the comments here!

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