The Firefox web browser isn’t your everyday open source project. The combination of cutting edge technology, a carefully-designed and useable interface, a savvy grassroots marketing effort and a competing product only updated for regular security fixes has led to a rare piece of software: an open source desktop app that is making clear and measurable inroads into Microsoft’s market share.
Last week WebSideStory announced Firefox’s market share had increased to 6%, but that tells only part of the story. The trend is more pronounced among IT early adopters like Computerworld’s readers — last month 14.3% of visitors to our website were using Firefox, up from 8.3% in July and almost nothing at the beginning of the year.
Firefox is now the Mozilla Foundation’s flagship browser, but its birth was decidedly low-key. In fact, it started as an experimental project.
“A bunch of us decided to create a new browser,” Goodger says. “I wasn’t involved initially, but the people who were working on that had other things to do. So I came into it and picked it up.”
Firefox wasn’t the first experimental Mozilla browser. A version for Mac OS X lives on as the Camino browser, and Goodger says an even earlier version was built with .Net — which raises some intriguing possibilities.
From the beginning, however, Firefox was envisaged as a browser for the masses. Open source projects are often criticised for including every feature or UI widget that some developer was motivated enough to add, but Goodger says keeping the interface simple was always a priority.
“Mozilla is an open project and everyone has their own ideas, especially about UI,” he says. “But while a lot of people don’t have proficiency in a technical area such as SSL, everyone thinks they know something about UI.
“The challenge is always about creating the best UI for the widest number of people — while keeping at least some of the noisy people happy.”
That pragmatism is also evident in Mozilla’s rendering engine. It does a fine job of rending modern sites written in various versions of XHTML, XML, CSS and so on, but perhaps more importantly it does a pretty convincing imitation of Internet Explorer when faced with a website written with only the market-leading browser in mind.
“You can do a lot of research on people and on your solution, but if you can’t find a way to make it compatible with IE then the adoption is going to be slow,” Goodger says.
“The purists would say that might not be the perfect thing to do, but it lowers the barriers to entry and makes people come and look at our software.”
Years after the browser wars, it must be gratifying for Mozilla developers to see Microsoft taking note of their efforts again.
Goodger is certain Microsoft is paying close attention. “Absolutely,” he says. “They had thought they’d won, and they had. They dissolved their IE team and now they’ve put it back together, so I think we can take some credit for that.”
It’s not just the Firefox browser that Microsoft will be watching. The Mozilla software used to develop Firefox and sister projects such as the Thunderbird email client and the Mozilla suite is licensed as open source and could be used to build other programs. XUL, the user interface markup language, eases cross-platform development, for example.
“We still have goals to improve on the technology we have,” Goodger says. “It’s easy to develop apps quickly.
“I’m from a web background and it’s not too difficult to go from web program construction to XUL.”
So could we see, say, an office suite produced with the Mozilla “platform”? “I don’t see why you couldn’t."
Goodger says he aims to “make the thing useful to a set of people wider than the hacker community”. Still, he admits he does sometimes feel pressure from people who desperately want to see a favourite feature included.
“I just have to write it off,” he says. “Not everyone understands all of the details that are involved, or they might not understand that we really are trying to get the biggest market share that we can.”
That drive for market share requires deliberate marketing — a departure from the traditional open source position that software is designed by the people who use it, and whether it appeals to others or not is irrelevant. Mozilla hasn’t been shy that it wants you, your friends, your colleagues and your family to use Firefox. The project has been boosted by a steady stream of good publicity in traditional media, through word of mouth and, especially, from bloggers.
“Marketing has not been something that’s been traditionally done in the open source community,” says Goodger. “The community marketing initiative has worked out really well, and one other thing we’re trying to do is involve students.”
Goodger, a blogger himself, says the Mozilla Foundation really noticed the impact of blogger hype when Firefox 0.6, then known as Firebird, was released last year.
“It’s something that really surprised us,” he says. “It seems to be a really useful marketing tool and it’s a good way to get feedback.”
That people so readily recommend Firefox to others is no accident, however. Goodger says when making design decisions he tries to think of people he would want to use it — and suggest it to others.
“You focus on the people you want to use it. You want to focus on people like them and focus on the little details.”
Goodger says this approach is analagous to luxury car manaufacturers. “You think they could have saved a lot of money and made a cheaper car, but it won’t feel as nice and you wouldn’t recommend it to somebody else.”
In the computing world, Goodger uses Apple as inspiration.
“I have a huge amount of respect for what Apple does. Every product they make is so polished and so well thought-out. Their marketing is too, although you don’t see that so much in New Zealand.”
Goodger is a graduate of Auckland University’s Faculty of Engineering, where he first began hacking on Mozilla. New Zealand has the technical talent to compete with larger overseas organisations, he says, but lacks the business skills and contacts to capitalise on it.
“That’s probably the biggest barrier so far as New Zealand goes. I know that there are people here who are talented.
“What I do wish is that there were more opportunities here for software engineers — people just leaving university like myself — not just to go and work in support but to work in something more creative and to make your own mark.”
Not everybody gets to sit in the hot seat of a high-profile project like Firefox. How do you follow that? Goodger doesn’t know yet.
“I’ve learned a lot in the past year,” he says, particularly in engineering and in people management. “I know this is a hard task.
“I haven’t really thought past Firefox 1.0. I’ll probably keep doing this until that’s no longer true.”