Ben’s 2015

Twenty fifteen: the year of Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan massacre, millions of Syrian refugees and a series of farcical presidential debates that ultimately delivered Donald Trump as the GOP nominee. You get the feeling that the world is headed in the wrong direction and the processes we have available to fix things aren’t good enough.

How did I spend my time? Work-wise, the trend that kept me up at night was the advance of “mobile internet 3.0,” i.e., walled gardens enforced at the carrier level. With mobile connectivity growing worldwide, helping new users understand and leverage “the whole web” seemed like the best thing we could be doing to push back against the likes of Airtel Zero and Free Basics. So coming into the year, I was 100% focused on creating a mobile web literacy strategy to leverage Mozilla’s strengths and assets. Spoiler alert: one of our biggest assets, Firefox OS, didn’t make it to the end of the year.

We started the year with strong progress. We worked with our Bangladesh community and the innovation unit in the PM’s office to test some web literacy workshops, using tools like Appmaker and prototypes like Webmaker for Android. In Rio, we kicked off our web literacy in LAN houses project with Ford Foundation’s Brazil office. We forged partnerships with UNESCO, UN Women, and advised on USAID’s local content and digital development plans. At Mobile World Congress, we launched a beta of our mobile content creation tool, Webmaker.

Over the summer (though not related to the emerging markets work), we received word that the National Science Foundation had approved our $3.2m grant to continue our gigabit education initiative with US Ignite. We also secured a significant grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to study the relationship between digital and financial literacy among first-time smartphone owners.

Following the launch of Webmaker 1.0, we headed to India and Bangladesh and held a series of high-level meetings on mobile web literacy, bringing a lot of interested institutions to the table. Despite strong interest, we weren’t in a position to commit to something at market scale. Changes in the Firefox OS plan and in the Mozilla team had highlighted the need to re-evaluate our overall strategy. Around this time, I began working with Mark to assess and articulate a multi-year strategy focusing on leadership development and advocacy, which we’re now working to implement.

Over the summer and needing a change of pace, I resumed a five-year-dormant push to bring collaborative video editing to Wikipedia, leveraging our years of learning and investment in the Popcorn Maker client-side code. My partner and I took a much needed vacation to a country with a lot of beaches and bio-diversity. I renewed my passport and license and became an e-citizen of Estonia (!). I also got deep into a conversation about the future of public interest privacy organization and pitched in on their first-ever fundraising campaign.

Near the end of the year, Mozilla published the smartphones and local content report I authored with GSMA—now a kind of capstone for that work—and had the opportunity to share the results at the Mobile 360 event in Cape Town. At MozFest, we convened a women and web literacy roundtable with UN Women.

And finally in December, the shoe dropped on Firefox OS. The company leadership announced the end of Mozilla-powered smartphones. It was a painful but overdue admission; it had been clear for a while that the product group didn’t really have the strategy or resources to make that play. Neither did Microsoft, for that matter. Google had run away with the game a long time ago. Still, it’s a shame that we couldn’t bring more social enterprise thinking and asymmetry to this very ambitious smartphone project.

That said, I’m happy with where the Mozilla 2020 strategy has landed, especially on the Mozilla Foundation side. We’re clear that the role of Mozilla is to support the next generation of “open leaders” and to be an effective and opinionated advocacy voice that will carry the open message into new frontiers.

During the strategy process, it has been pretty wild to look back on 5 years of what we’ve built together, and to have such a unique vantage on how the public interest internet is maturing. For instance: I witnessed the inventor of the world wide web, the founder of Mozilla, and the presidents of five major philanthropies commit to funding the open internet, because it’s an essential public resource. That’s a pretty meaningful marker in time.

Things are as surreal and surprising as ever. I’m thankful for the opportunity to work on meaningful stuff, as well as the space reflect on the value of that work and what comes next. To do that requires a different perspective and a break from the routine. So I’ll be spending three months on sabbatical in China, teaching at NYU Shanghai, and trying to see what the world looks like from that vantage. There’s already some interesting projects percolating for later in the year—let’s see what 2016 holds.

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