Apps by Everybody: Firefox OS experiments in Brazil
Brazil is an interesting place for Mozilla—it’s fertile ground for programs that cultivate digital skills and empowerment.
Bobby Richter and I recently made a trip to Brazil to better understand how Mozilla can participate in places where the future of the mobile web is still being written. We presented Webmaker.org and a prototype appmaking platform and asked for feedback.
People were excited, but they wanted to see Webmaker in Portuguese—and more progress on our appmaking prototype. Since then, we’ve put significant resources behind localizing our existing digital skills program at Webmaker.org. We’ve refined our prototype appmaking system, “Flathead.” And we’re ready to consider our next steps in Brazil.
Please read on for a summary of recent work by the Webmaker, Mozilla Labs, and Mozilla Foundation strategic development team.
Mozilla, digital literacy and empowerment
Mozilla exists to empower individuals in their day-to-day use of technology. We build products and project our values through things that will affect the market over the long-term. We do as Alan Kay suggested, predicting the future by inventing it. The future we see is one in which people are fully in control of their online experience
One of the ways we’re doing this is through educational programs like Webmaker, which helps people understand and control the code that shapes their online experience. People who understand the malleability of the web can make the web they want. They can make better sense of their digital surroundings and actively shape their digital experience. This is not merely a philosophical preference—it nurtures innovation, more jobs, and more social equity.
We’re working with people worldwide who share this vision. Our friends at Freeformers, for instance, aim “to empower a generation of digital makers who can shape their own future, and ours.” It’s this vision that underlies our UK campaign, Make Things Do Stuff, and our US campaign, Maker Party. In Brazil, we find that these values are also held by strategic decision-makers at FINEP, Brazil’s national investment arm; the Ford Foundation’s Brazil office, start-ups like AppFactory, and many others across the country. Worldwide, there’s growing agreement that the development of individual digital literacies and skills is an important part of an economically and socially just future.
Your own mobile app?
What if making a mobile app was dead simple? What if making your own mobile app were commonplace—something that millions of people chose to do? What kind of impact would that have on the market, and on people’s relationship to technology?
As mobile overtakes the web, the average person’s digital environment is increasingly shaped by apps. And these apps are significantly less open, significantly less malleable, and significantly more passive than the open web. The web says: “make me!” Mobile apps say: “use me!”
This leads Mozilla to consider how best to fulfill its mission in a mobile world. There is, of course, Firefox OS—our low-cost platform for open web apps. Open web apps look and behave identically to native apps, but they have the best characteristics of the open web: low barriers to entry, interoperability, and so on. They work on any HTML5 device and accessing them can be as easy as finding its URL. Contrast this with the single, tightly-controlled points of software distribution that are common on proprietary platforms, like the iOS App Store—we think open platforms like Firefox OS will better serve the next billion mobile users. But while open web apps make software distribution easier, they don’t directly address the fact that authoring mobile apps is actually really hard.
To democratize the creation of mobile apps, we’ll need to invest in a combination of tools and educational programs that scale extraordinarily well.
And so we’re currently exploring how to make mobile a more programmable medium for everyone; how to make mobile devices a site of self-expression.
As David Ascher puts it: “in the mobile world, the equivalent of creating a home page in Web 1.0 could be creating your own [mobile] app.”
This is a social impact opportunity, because you can imagine entrepreneurs, small businesspeople, and teachers doing their work more effectively with custom-built software.
To take one example, the Telefonica Foundation-led “Fishing with 3G” project uses Android mobile apps to connect local fishing economies. It links buyers and sellers by providing mobile interfaces to things like live pricing data. This facilitates commerce and makes individual fishermen more effective—in a neat hint of metaphorical consistency, it’s a social impact program that follows the old advice about “teaching a man to fish”:
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Imagine for a moment an extension of this project—what if the local fishing economies could develop similar systems for themselves, without outside assistance?
What if we could teach people to fish, so to speak, by creating their own mobile apps?
Not to draw these people into the business of becoming software creators, but imagine if people could very easily make apps to be more effective in what they already do.
Aspiring artists, shopkeepers, and social entrepreneurs of all stripes should be able to create apps for their own purposes, without undergoing an intensive computer science education, relying on specially trained engineers, or needing to raise the resources for a third-party to provide their technology solution.
It’s well understood that social impact dollars are better spent teaching people to fish. Our thesis is that there’s a big unfulfilled need in apps authoring. Apps authoring should be as easy as creating a blog.
Back in the days of Hypercard in the late 1980’s, the first generation of personal computer users could make single-purpose apps for themselves, friends and family. There’s something very cool about that, and we want to bring it back for the mobile era.
Looking to Brazil for insight
In thinking about where to research & prototype this work, Brazil is particularly fertile ground. It’s a big, lead market for Firefox OS. Our low-cost open web devices are being designed specifically for a demographic like Brazil’s growing middle class. One imagines mobile app development and software resources being offered alongside SIM cards in kiosks across the country…
In July, we went to Brazil to meet with a range of NGO partners to get their feedback and better understand these opportunities. In Rio de Janeiro, we met with FINEP, Brazil’s national investment arm, and with the Ford Foundation’s Brazil office. In São Paulo, we met with Google, Telefónica Digital, Fundação Telefónica, and Fundação Lemann.
We met with a Brazilian company called AppFactory, which shares our vision of personal-use mobile apps and with whom we hope to work closely over the next year. At FISL, the world’s largest free software conference in Porto Alegre, we met with the super passionate Mozillian community in Brazil (and, in a post-conference celebration, enjoyed a local specialty sandwich—made of chicken hearts for high shock value—but that’s another story.)
These conversations have helped validate our ideas about apps authoring and distribution. We met with some constructive skepticism Firefox OS in some corners, but at the same time, there’s incredible enthusiasm for the idea of a low-cost hardware platform for open web apps. The advantages of an open web apps ecosystem were well-received, and we collected lots of ideas about the kinds of apps that would become possible if the constraints on authoring and publishing were eased.
Between these institutions, partners, and community members, we’ve collected many valuable insights. People engaged with our ideas in demo and prototype form, and we’ve started to form partnerships that will help us to move forward in Brazil.
We did hear, consistently, that localized access to Webmaker tools is an important first step. The “cool factor” of our tools is undeniable, and Lehmann CEO Denis Mizne suggested that the existing Webmaker software might be a good fit for São Paulo high school curriculum, given the right curriculum and teacher preparation.
But before massive scale apps authoring and related opportunities can be realized, our existing software platform needs to be fully localized in Portuguese. This will open the door to a set of experiments and R&D with these partners and move us to next steps.
What We’ve Done Since Brazil
The feedback and observations we collected in Brazil have found their way into Mozilla’s digital empowerment roadmap in two very important ways:
Flathead: mobile apps authoring prototype
First, Mozilla Labs has developed a prototype tool for mobile apps authoring, codenamed “Flathead.” In current form, the tool enables desktop users to quickly wire up a functional web app using pre-built components. Users can create a variety of mobile apps without any hard computer science skills. It made its debut at Campus Party London 2013, where we showed an alpha (and we’ll probably have a newer prototype for Campus Party São Paulo).
With this tool, fishermen might create a point-of-sale mobile app; shopkeepers might create a coupon app; students might create their own small games to share among classmates. The tool is early but shows a lot of promise for enabling apps in the “super long tail”; apps that may have no commercial prospects or practical user base, but would offer immense utility to a small number of people.
We will be running user tests with this tool, and piloting learning programs over the next few months. Based on these trials, it could develop into a mobile-based tool (and become more appropriate for developing economies, where most people’s computer is a mobile phone). Look to Bobby Richter for a market demand analysis of this tool, as well as a technical breakdown of the tool itself (it’s pretty state of the art, under the hood).
The tool could be the basis of programs that teach digital literacy skills, or enable entrepreneurs to create their own mobile apps, or become a key differentiator for the Firefox OS phones. We’ll be exploring with all our partners and invite your feedback. We’re also looking for support (volunteer, in-kind and material) to explore all these ideas.
To make all of our digital empowerment programs more global, we’re starting a project to localize Webmaker.org—first for language, and later for region-specific content and communities. This will help extend Webmaker’s reach into non-English speaking regions, and enable non-English speakers to use the Thimble web editor, Popcorn video editor, and other tools in their native language.
We’ve prioritized Portuguese and Spanish translations of the tools. Our visitor traffic suggests that beyond Brazil and Latin America, we can expect significant interest from Indonesia, Egypt, and Germany.
This is a significant technical feat, and a significant human effort commitment, as Dave Humphrey explains. But the initial technical work has been completed. We will invite contributors to begin translating Webmaker in October, with a strong starting emphasis with Mozilla Hispano community.
Apps by Everybody
To understand the end game, imagine a world in which everyone has a device with which they can summon the programmatic magic to build whatever they dream. Everyone has a pocket computer connected to the sum of human knowledge, and wields it with purpose.
Earlier this year, a coalition led by Facebook—calling itself Internet.org—described its mission this way: “Today, the internet isn’t accessible for two thirds of the world. Imagine a world where it connects us all.”
There’s a lot to like in this vision, but it’s so broad that there’s not much to dislike. Our vision is more precise: we want people to be connected to an internet that empowers and respects individual sovereignty over technology. We want people to have skills and opportunities to build the Internet they want.
We know the realization of this vision is contingent on many things going right. But we’re proud to be taking some small steps in that direction.