repost: Why I think Firefox is the best for users

After a discussion on the Mozilla marketing list, I received several requests to repost to my blog my thoughts about why I feel Firefox is still the best browser for users.  I have mixed feelings about doing this, but only because of course, of course, I am somewhat biased and secondly, this is hardly an authoritative account, both in terms of breadth and depth.

But I do profoundly believe that Firefox is the best browser for a user for a number of reasons, even in 2011 when we see some very large organisations making some very large investments in browser development.  Anyway, if you’re looking for some talking points, here’s my pitch on why I, hand-on-heart, prefer Firefox.  Thanks to Danishka for posing the question.  Mozilla.com is of course, much more authoritative on the topic.

Security & Privacy

It’s hard to speak to the security topic on IE9 given that you often tend to see problems retrospectively in closed browsers.  IE’s track record certainly doesn’t seem so stellar.   And personally, I do not find their independent research on “socially engineered malware” all that credible (nor do Opera and Google, from what I read) .

Firefox and Chrome use a lot of the same back-end for anti-malware and anti-phishing, but Mozilla has clearly offered a vision on privacy and Firefox has a very impressive selection of customisations for enhanced privacy and security today.

Chrome’s privacy approach is reliant upon customisation at the moment,  and IE’s “tracking protection lists” appear somewhat vulnerable to gaming.

Performance

This topic has partially defined the browser market for a long time: but right now, all modern browsers seem very, very fast.  They all win on some benchmark, and in the “real world”, which browser is fastest appears to depend on which website you use.  I’d argue no browser is currently outstanding in this area, although I would acknowledge that Firefox is not that fastest on the one-off activity of starting up.  It’s still very fast though…

User Interface

The user interface in Firefox 4 is “minimalist” in the same way IE9’s is, Chrome is,  etc. but what’s important to me is that we haven’t just chopped menus off and hidden them (which seems like a fair description
of what happened in IE9).  Rather, the UI is still very intuitive and contains features such as switch-to-tab, pinned tabs (which does have an equivalent in Chrome and IE) and tab groups that help the user manage
their workflow.

One obvious gap that’s often cited is the lack of a “new tab” page in Firefox: but the blank screen is intentional as the browser gets of the way of the user and doesn’t distract them in their workflow.  It’s hard to quantify the impact of that, but I’m aware of how distracting technology can be.   It possibly takes a browser without an agenda beyond that of the user to really and truly get out of the way.

Firefox 4’s interface is in fact still very customisable (Alex Limi’s blog on the Fx 4 UI is a great reference ) in a
way that IE and Chrome simply are not.

Customisation

I’d argue that Firefox still leads customisation broadly – although Chrome may quote a higher number of extensions, it’s worth bearing in mind :

  • questionable levels of curation in the Chrome add-on collection, some of the add-ons I’ve used are very disappointing (e.g. they open a pop-up window for a page on an expired domain…)
  •  Chrome add-ons are similar to Jet-Pack add-ons in terms of functionality supported.  Firefox offers that plus much richer, deeper customisation options
  • Firefox has a very strong tradition of user-generated customisation, including the Personas gallery.

And Firefox 4 has a new add-on manager which makes customisation of Firefox also much easier and restartless add-ons.

Sync

Lastly, Firefox Sync is both more secure and more useful that the equivalent in Chrome (and there is no “native” solution for IE, as Microsoft would say).  Firefox Sync is fully encrypted on the client side and allows you to
open tabs up across instances of Firefox.  If you use more than one instance of Firefox, this is incredibly useful!

Clearly, the market is much more competitive than it was 1, 2 or 6 years ago – and clearly there are many topics (especially platform support) that I didn’t go into here.  But I feel that the quality and philosophy behind Firefox still make it the best choice for users.  And if you’re a Windows XP user (and most people on the Web are), there are much, much better options available to you than Internet Explorer.

Party like it’s 2003

Something wonderful happened today – the OpenOffice.org community announced the creation of the Document Foundation, an independent, community-driven foundation.  They will maintain a version of OpenOffice.org, called LibreOffice, which will over time address some of the criticisms so commonly aimed at OpenOffice.org today.

OpenOffice.org seems surprisingly controversial to me.  Having been a StarSuite/StarOffice/OpenOffice.org user for over 10 years, I have almost certainly developed some form of immunity to its undoubted shortcomings, but I know many people involved in Free software who refuse to use it on the grounds of general user experience cruftiness.  Yes, it has bugs, many of which one is surprised to find in software as mature as OpenOffice.org is.  And what’s more, I gather that the codebase is also a bit of an Indian ocean (boosting Sun’s ranking in terms of lines of code contributed as Free software).  I’ve also heard criticisms about slow release management and the difficulty of getting fixes integrated – I recall Michael Meeks pointing out to me that many of the fixes he and his team had landed were only available in the Linux build.  The contributor agreement has also come under attack (also by Michael) even though it was there for fairly sane reasons (and it was certainly nowhere near as painful a read as the Canonical one).  But in spite of all of these things, OpenOffice.org has attracted a real community which has -let’s say it- changed the world.

When people complain to me about the OpenOffice.org user experience, I like to laughingly tell them how much better it is than in 1998.  While that might not convince many users, it is the literal truth, that OpenOffice.org has made massive strides in UX, and I am sure that LibreOffice will only push this harder and faster.  OpenOffice.org has become a viable alternative for governments and businesses around the world: it meets the needs of the vast, vast majority of users.  I consider myself a heavy document user and I consider that OpenOffice.org meets my needs.  OpenOffice.org’s market share is also a great deal higher than many people suppose (although I suspect that this figure is inflated by Sun and Oracle’s bizarre habit of distributing OpenOffice.org through Java platform upgrades).

Above all, OpenOffice.org and OASIS drove Microsoft to the standards table.  The Open Document Format was passed as an ISO standard in 2006, truly threatening on of Microsoft’s cash cows.  I (and may others) think that Microsoft’s response to this – incentivising Microsoft partner companies to go  rampaging through ISO member organisation, was a low point in Microsoft’s history.  But now we have two ISO document standards, ODF and OOXML, one of which, ODF, has been implemented in multiple programmes and web services, and is playing the role of a standard (the OOXML spec is around 12 times longer than the ODF one and has yet to be implemented to my knowledge).

To be clear, this post isn’t about bashing Microsoft, although their behaviour has lead people to question if ISO is indeed a suitable organisation for any software standard.  No, this is about something much more important than any organisation, business or foundation, that exists today.

Web standards are well understood as being important to the development of the web itself.  But if we care about the Internet, we should also care about the rights of individuals with respect to documents.  One of the strangest features of Microsoft’s enormous market share over the past 20 years has been the effect of creating a set of effectively proprietary standards: Word, Excel and Powerpoint are synonyms for text, spreadsheet and presentation.  But the creation and sharing of such basic artifacts of modern communication as these should be something that can be done by anyone, without being beholden to someone else, and innovation in this field should not be controlled by a single entity.

OpenOffice.org and OASIS have achieved this today for a brave or needy or innovative few.  The creation of an independent foundation and a new development direction to create a much more usable office suite seem like excellent next steps.  Indeed, it’s a delight to read in the FAQ that the Mozilla Foundation provides some of the inspiration for these developments.  My favourite perspective (one that I shared upon hearing the news), comes from Guy Lunardi of OpenSuse

Ultimately, we envision LibreOffice doing for the office productivity market what Mozilla Firefox has done for browsers.

…and the Document Foundation doing for document standards what the Mozilla Foundation has achieved with web standards.

New List: Market Insights

I had the great fortune to work with a remarkable community manager for a few years, Jim Grisanzio currently of Tokyo.  Jim has a knack of maintaining a constructive attitude, giving credibility to a project and bringing people together.  If you’ve attended a Linux or OpenSolaris User Group in Tokyo in the last 4 years, I think there’s every chance you’ve met Jim.  One of the things I learned from him was that you should not be afraid to invent and reinvent different community structures.  Communities change in size, interest and focus all the time.  If the bonds are meaningful, they will withstand the friction of a new mailing list, a new bookmark, a new IRC channel.

So, starting today, I’d like to announce the Mozilla Market Insights community list.  This list is for anyone with an interest in tracing market developments in Internet software, and especially the web browser market, for sharing of both  qualitative and quantitative data, and for getting access to the expertise of others in those activities.  In scope for discussion: demographics, market shares, product comparisons, methodologies for all of the above, and how they relate to Mozilla and open web projects.  Not in scope: marketing campaigns and events, changes to Mozilla (and especially Firefox) product road-map.

Why another list?

18 months ago, we dusted off the Marketing List which I think has become quite vibrant. At the same time, “marketing” is a rather broad term, from campaigns to product information to newsletters to events.  And while I think there is some level of interest in discuss market insights within the marketing list, I think we are at a a volume of traffic now where not all threads are getting followed up on.

A couple of folks, Bob Chao and Majken Connor both expressed concerns about creating a new list, concerns which I want to acknowledge. Bob’s point (at least, my paraphrasing, which Bob can correct if needed) was that my motivations of creating a “quieter” place for this kind of work might reduce participation and that we should, essentially, be loud and proud in everything we do.  He has an excellent point, but I still maintain that a specific list will increase participation amongst a few interested parties.  I think that Majken’s shared some of these concerns and was also bothered about potential fragmentation.  So, I think that sets the bar quite well – I’d like to get this list up and assess it by the end of the year.  If we feel that participation has declined or that we feel fragmented as a community, then I’ll happily kill the list and revert to the old state.  Of course, I will do whatever I can to make sure that doesn’t happen.

So, if you enjoy numbers that have been crunched, or have some of your own to crunch, if you have a view on just how many web-capable devices there are per person (and what it was 2 years ago and what it will be in 2 years’ time), or if you have an idea just how many browsers there are for Android right now, please join the list.  Right now, I’m putting together a forecast for adoption of Firefox 4, and I’ll be delighted to share and hear other perspectives.  So, if this is appealing to you, please sign up here Mozilla Market Insights community list or market-insights-subscribe@mozilla.org.

See you on the Internet…

Still thinking about the Open Web

Earlier this week, Dria wrote about some ideas for articulating the Open Web.  It’s important because

  1. it’s important, and
  2. we (meaning the Mozilla project) need to articulate what sets us apart from other browser producers.

Let’s first assume one hurdle: the difference between the Internet and the Web.  I wonder how many people outside the industry understand that?   (I even wonder how many people in the tech sector do not.)  But let’s put that problem aside, and assume for a moment that net neutrality is a given, and not in grave danger.

We want rather to be able to articulate the importance of technology choices such as a preference for webm and Ogg Theora over the H.264 codec.  Mozilla (and, let’s remember, others) make these choices for a very clear set of reasons.  At least, they are clear to us.

While I like the commentator Tiago Sá’s comment about Firefox being fundamentally participatory, and that a small number of users who have internalised the proposition of the open web is preferable to a large number of users who haven’t, for me, whether or not an individual Firefox user cares is moot.  I think part of Firefox’s success and impact in the market was that you didn’t have to care about what it stood for to love it.  But of course, the more people who do understand, the better.

But what concerns me more is that within the industry, in my perception, the level of understanding of Mozilla could be better.   We need to be loud and unambiguous about why an Open Web matters.  We have to articulate why the ability for anyone to pick up a set of tools and go and build on the web without being beholden to anybody else is important,  what that means for both the capabilities of the tools the have, but even more importantly, the terms (yes, the licensing) by which they can do that.  And then, we need to articulate what the societal impact is – and there are in fact several: economic, social, cultural and so forth.  And that, in the parlance of our times, is a non-trivial task.

It’s already genuinely difficult to remember life before the Web.  I say Web, and not Internet, because Web is how almost all of us first experienced the incredible power of the Internet to connect people and ideas in ways we had not envisaged before.  Sure, I used email first, and yes, it was amazing, but it did not open up the world, it merely made it more efficient.

The Web’s virtue isn’t contingent upon the specific technologies that make it, another set of technologies with the same properties and freedoms would do the job, but if we didn’t have the Web, we’d have to invent it.

Dria sets out of set of possible and useful analogies for explaining the web as a public resource.  Some of them are very good, some might suffer slightly from some culture-specificity (e.g. volunteering in a public library), and she starts to address the point of the web as a public good.  One analogy I especially like is considering the public road network.  The road network is something that is almost entirely subject to public provision and regulation (let’s not shy away from it), and the cars that drive on it – although subject to stringent regulation – are privately provided and serve primarily private objectives.    Now, imagine for a moment a road network which was run on a commercial basis, where the main interests represented were the car manufacturers.  Unless you’re an Ayn Rand acolyte (and maybe even then) it’s a much bleaker picture.

But let’s also try another tack – I am not in all cases a fan of argument by analogy (to refute argument by analogy with an analogy, one often ends up comparing apples and pairs), so I first want to think a little harder about what’s important – what this public good is, how it manifests itself, and how it exists at all.

Software is both machine and information.  It’s a tool composed of intricately expressed ideas.  In this way it is quite similar to mathematics, language or a theoretical science.  Private ownership, or perhaps better expressed, any form of public exclusion, is clearly negative outcome for the world, to say absurd in many cases (although the distinction between applied science and invention is a blurry one).

So, as I say, I’m still thinking, and maybe you are too.  But my definition of the Open Web would comprise two parts:

  1. what is important about the web: not the intrinsic qualities of the technology, but the incidental ones, i.e. the behaviour it facilitates
  2. what are the specific qualities of the technology that engender this (both capabilities and licensing, in combination with the previously-assumed net neutrality)

With these, I think our analogies will butter a few more parsnips.

The end of OpenSolaris?

[updated following Mo’s comment]

Just five years after an even that sparked a global celebration, and one that I was proud to be a part of, the dream appears to be over.  And what promised to be the start of a new era, if not of dominance, at least of a renewed competitiveness, proved to be a chimera.  Yes, just five short years after Liverpool won the Champions League in Istanbul, the club’s constrained ambitions were fully revealed by the signing of the distinctly limited left-back Paul Konchesky.  Oh, and Oracle confirmed that the OpenSolaris project, launched in 2005, is effectively dead.

Adam Leventhal offers a rather interesting perspective on OpenSolaris, and it’s a perspective I share much – but not all – of.  But to understand how the project could make so much sense for Sun and so little for Oracle, I think it’s necessary to understand the mentality at Sun.   Specifically, the dot-com boom was a success from which Sun never truly recovered.  The company grew far more rapidly than seemed advisable, quality and culture the obvious victims.  And the aftermath of the dot-com boom, and the emergence of Linux and horizontal scaling, placed Sun in a very obvious bind.  Sun’s previously unassailable technological advantages were being attacked by that most dangerous of competitors, a commodity market.  Nothing stung (nor stuck) more than the label Merrill Lynch pinned on Sun in 2003, that is was in danger of becoming “irrelevant”.

The response, initially ungracious, turned to one of acceptance, respect and accommodation for what appeared to be a cyclical phenomenon.  Greg Papadoloulos, Sun’s CTO summed up the world view, as “Red Shift” (a term which refers to the property of light from astral bodies that are moving away from the viewer).  The idea was that the technology market was always subject to commoditisation,  a sort of Moore’s Law writ large: processors, storage, software – all would be subject to lower and lower prices (and it is staggering when you consider what 1GB of storage cost 10 years ago and what it costs today).  Sun’s strategy, then, was to look for the “red shift” segment – the segment of the market that want more than commoditisation will offer, that want to stay “ahead of the curve”, for whom technology is a prime competitive weapon, and a centre for investment.  This is actually a throw-back to the dot-com era: Sun was still hoping to capture the startups, and if Sun had capitalised on the the first boom, it had missed out badly on “Web 2.0”.

Sun aspired to be central to the next network-inspired boom, and it was understood that to do that, you had to be promiscuous, available, familiar, and easy-to-acquire.  Hence open source, and hence OpenSolaris, and hence creating an OpenSolaris distribution (rather than just offer the source).

The OpenSolaris distribution, project Indiana, was controversial for its two reasons – firstly, it exposed the fact that Sun retained the trademark “OpenSolaris” and could and would use it to further its strategy.  How serious was this?  Even if you felt that OpenSolaris did need a binary distribution, it was deeply divisive.  For example, it caused the esteemed and founding OpenSolaris Governance Board member Roy Fielding to resign from the project, commenting “this well is poisoned“.  This controversy also partially hid the second issue (something that Adam identifies, and which in truth predated project Indiana), that a lot of OpenSolaris development was aimed at making something usable on the desktop, rather than an enterprise-class operating system.

The question that was constantly aimed at Jonathan Schwartz and other Sun executives (and is one I still get, working as I still am, for an open source project), is “how do you make money?”.  Sun was always somewhat evasive on this point – but essentially Sun would continue to make money from servicing its enterprise customers and defend that business, while strategy was geared up to become a ubiquitous – i.e. highly relevant – vendor once more.

What does Oracle care of this? Not a great deal.  For all their red-blooded tough-guy image, Oracle are as much farmers as they are hunters, and they understand that it is much easier to rertain customers than to acquire them.  What does Oracle care for the red shift?  By definition, it’s a sector that doesn’t have much money, unlike Sun’s traditional customer base.

When Merrill Lynch called Sun “irrelevant”, it also went on to say that it expected Sun would “eventually be acquired for its installed base“.  That is debatable, because by the time Sun was acquired by Oracle, it was a veritable smörgåsbord of technologies that would have interested Oracle, including Java and MySQL.  But still, it’s an interesting lens to view the acquisition through.  Oracle cares much more about delivering an enterprise-class operating system than it does about providing useful and accessible technology for developers.

So, farewell OpenSolaris?  As the project is currently constituted, it seems so.  But happily, there is a community around the code, a community that has grown and diversified and is now genuinely independent.  The one aspect of the project that was most roundly criticised in 2005, the CDDL, would appear to be one of the things that has most guaranteed the longevity of the community post-Sun.  Participants in the Illumos community appear (to my non-lawyerly mind) to be safeguarded  from any claims from Oracle, at least for the code released under the CDDL.  Oracle’s aggression towards Google over Android is not a great concern for Illumos.

And what of Liverpool’s back four?  Well, with the arrival on Konchesy and Raul Meireles we might suppose that Roy Hodgson intends to play a 4-2-3-1 (pioneered by Benitez in Liverpool’s 2007 defeat by AC Milan, unless you know better, and almost universally adopted at the 2010 world cup).  What’s more, Liverpool have retained their crown jewels in Gerard and Torres, and we know that 4-2-3-1 is system they both shine in.  The future for OpenSolaris and Liverpool could be so much worse.

The coming “browser battle” ?

First Look: Google Increases Graphics Performance With Chrome 7 | ConceivablyTech

IE9 and Firefox are significantly faster in these tests than Chrome and it may be ironic that Firefox already creams IE9 in its own tests. Mozilla’s hardware acceleration isn’t finished yet and if the current performance is any indication, Firefox may clearly outrun IE in HTML5 performance.

Indeed it might.  And while there is little differentiation in Javascript performance and page rendering, the IE Test Drive suite shows what a divergence there currently is in complex graphics rendering.   One thing is for sure, it looks like 2011 will be a vintage year for browsers.