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Mozilla wants to watch Firefox users

'Test Pilot' program would monitor 1% of users; data would be shared with outside researchers

January 23, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Mozilla Labs, the research arm of Mozilla Corp., wants 1% of Firefox users to allow it to watch how they use the browser -- and the Web in general.

"We need to know how people are using our products and using the Web," said Aza Raskin, the head of user experience at Mozilla Labs. "That's where Test Pilot comes up. It will give us a view into what people are actually using, while protecting their privacy."

Still in the planning stages -- a complete road map has not yet been proposed, -- Test Pilot will use a Firefox add-on to collect browsing and usage data, and provide tools to answer feedback questions. At the outset, users submit only a limited amount of demographic information, such as their technical level and geographic location, and as experiments and tests are offered, they can choose which ones to participate in.

The program will be completely optional to Firefox users, Raskin stressed, and privacy will be maintained. "Privacy is hugely important to us," he said. "We will never record the actual Web sites that people go to, for example -- we would do a hash on that -- but instead we might count how many times people read the same site."

Only aggregated anonymized data will be collected by Mozilla. "One of the great things about Firefox and Mozilla is that you don't have to take [our word] on faith," said Raskin. "There are no secrets with open source. In Test Pilot, the source [code] and the data will be open. That's a huge step forward, because everything you send has to be, and will be, published in human-readable format."

Users can be very sensitive about browsers and their privacy, as Google Inc. found out last September. Shortly after Google released Chrome, the search giant reversed course after critics claimed the browser captured keystrokes.

Mozilla will, of course, tap into Test Pilot to gauge interest in new Firefox features. "One difference between Firefox 2.0 and Firefox 3.0 is that the Back button grew in size," Raskin said. "Why did it change? Because we found that people used the Back button much more than the Forward button." But the decision would have been easier if Mozilla had then had a large pool of at-the-ready testers. "It would have been great to have more data on when they hit the Back button or the Forward button," Raskin said.

Down the road, Test Pilot will help Mozilla expand Firefox's capabilities and aid in the development of other Mozilla-affiliated software, such as the Thunderbird e-mail client, as well as entirely new software products. "Test Pilot is set up to do usability and feature research, at least in the beginning," said Raskin. "How do people multitask in the browser? What works and what doesn't? How do they use tabs, and when do they chat in the background?"

Mozilla Labs has set a goal of convincing 1% of all Firefox users to participate in Test Pilot and, ideally, would assemble a demographically representative group. That would eliminate the need to rely only on people Raskin dubbed "early adopters."

While Mozilla would immediately put Test Pilot to use, the data it collects would also be freely available to other researchers. "We want to reach out and engage universities and others by making this data set entirely open," said Raskin. "I can see some really cool findings coming out of this data."

Mozilla Labs plans to launch the first version of Test Pilot in the next few weeks. More information about the program can be found on Mozilla Labs' Web site.

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