What Microsoft (And Linux) Can Learn from Firefox

Monday Dec 24th 2007 by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

It’s not just Microsoft that needs to sit up and pay attention to Mozilla. The Linux community could do the same.

There are two things that I know with absolute certainty to be true; that Elvis is dead and that Linux poses no immediate threat to Microsoft’s business model.

But there is a popular example that’s in the wild that does demonstrate how successful open source can be – Firefox. Mozilla has proven that an open source project can go head-to-head against commercial software and make significant market share gains in a few years.

Since December 2005, Firefox’s market share has risen from 9.5 per cent to just over 16 per cent. When you consider that it’s up against a browser that’s bundled with Windows and which has won a number of browser wars in the past, that’s pretty good going. If it weren’t for the success of Firefox it’s likely that we’d still be waiting for Internet Explorer 7. Firefox is probably the best and most well known example of an open source project (plenty of people who’ve heard of Firefox haven’t heard of other open source projects such as Thunderbird or even Linux).

And better yet, it’s an example of an open source project that works.

Why does Firefox work as an open source project? A number of reasons spring to mind. First off, people are interested in and excited by browsers in a way that they’re not about other kinds of software. This is why Firefox is a well known brand and Thunderbird isn’t, even though both are Mozilla projects.

Firefox is also a successful open source project because it allows people to get involved at all levels – from working on the core code, developing add-ons, extensions and themes, to just promoting the browser. This makes the project seem grassroots and warm and fuzzy rather than corporate (in fact, Mozilla manages to project that sense of community rather than corporate despite pulling in millions of dollars a year – in that way it enjoys a public face that only companies such as Apple can manage).

But the main reason Firefox works as an open source project is that it’s matured quickly. Think of pretty much any browser add-on that you could conceivably want and chances are that it’s available for Firefox. Now there’s no doubt that extensions are a double-edged sword (many – but not all - of the complaints of Firefox consuming insane amounts of RAM can be traced back to extensions) but overall they give you the feeling that Firefox is a browser developed by users, for users (even if most users have had nothing to do with the development at all).

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So why is Firefox a threat to Microsoft when Linux isn’t? Because Firefox is a high profile example of an open source project that works. It’s also a project that has managed to develop (and hold onto) a huge amount of goodwill. Firefox fans are also very loyal, and if you can get people worked up to the point that some are willing to tattoo themselves with the Firefox logo (yep, there are plenty of examples of that), it shows commitment to the brand. And it’s commitment that Microsoft can’t buy, no matter how much dough they throw at coming up with slogans and fostering communities. The Firefox community is developed by the people, for the people, and because of this it feels authentic.

Compare this to the disasters that you see where people in suits (or worst still, people working for PR companies) come together and try to build a community. The people who came up with the adage that a camel is a horse designed by committee obviously never came across a community cobbled together by corporate suits – it ends up looking something like that inside-out dog from the movie Fly II.

But it’s not just Microsoft that needs to sit up and pay attention to Mozilla. The Linux community could do the same. While Firefox fans are certainly highly charged and enthusiastic, they don’t come across anywhere near as close-minded and aggressive as some in the Linux community do.

I know that I’m throwing about generalizations here and that it’s unfair to tar everyone with the same brush, but overall the Firefox community feels friendlier and more open to both suggestions and criticisms than any Linux community I’ve come across. This has to make up at least part of the reason why Firefox has a double-digit percentage market share and Linux is still waiting to get to 1 per cent.

The notion that open source works and is capable of delivering a product that people want is something that’s dangerous for software companies. Even though Microsoft doesn’t make any cash directly from commanding a dominant browser market share, seeing that share being slowly eroded away month on month despite IE being bundled with every copy of Windows must be generating a few frowns at Redmond.

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