Firefox - the killer ap

Back in the heady days of the internet - say, between 1995 and 1998 - the browser of choice was Netscape Navigator (or just "Netscape"). But even in those days, the power of Microsoft was rising, and as more and more people purchased Windows 95 and 98, Internet Explorer became the most popular. It was sad for many to see the demise of Netscape, but, what was a person to do? Netscape became "bloated" with features that slowed things down, and Internet Explorer was supplied free with Windows.

The die was cast. After a few short years, the growing net community had embraced IE and ignored Netscape. A Browser that commanded 90% of the market had been reduced to around 10% by the year 2000. This was a clear and significant victory for the software behemoth Microsoft. The Browser Wars had finished with Bill Gates on top.

So what happened to Netscape?

Faced with potential annihilation, the source code of Netscape was opened in 1998. While the Netscape company faced financial losses, they turned to the small open source community for help. In doing so, they created the first truly "free" web browser - software that was not just free to download and use, but also to modify. This decision did not really help the company financially, but it was a momentous occasion nonetheless which has reverberated ever since.

Netscape's early "in-house" name for its product was "Mozilla", so when the browser was made open source, it was released under that name. The people who worked on Mozilla were open-source programmers who realised that they had a potentially good product on hand. Despite the fact that Internet Explorer was the dominant browser, problems with Microsoft's browser began to emerge - specifically security. The Mozilla programmers realised that if their browser was to compete properly, it had to be superior to Internet Explorer in all the ways that count - security, usability and flexibility.

During the process of developing, releasing, developing again and releasing again, Mozilla became more "mature". Eventually a split emerged between the programmers - those who wished to keep email a feature of the browser (as Netscape did originally) and those who wanted a more lightweight email-free browser. As a result, the project "forked" into two different software projects. Those who wanted an email feature in the browser continued the "Mozilla" name. Those who wanted a stand-alone browser called their project "Phoenix" - with the idea of the Netscape browser emerging from the ashes to begin anew. It was a good name, but they had some copyright problems with it so they changed it to Firefox.

Firefox now commands a significant minority of the world browser market. According to the always trustworthy Wikipedia, Firefox and Mozilla users now comprise between 13-20% of the total. Internet Explorer, which reached about 97% at its height, now hovers around 80%. There is no doubt that IE still rules the roost by a significant margin, but ever since Firefox was released in November 2004, this margin has been slowly chipped away.

Since Firefox is not marketed like other software - by being open source there is no profit to be made by marketing it in the traditional sense - its growth has been the result of the social networks that typifies today's internet. As a result, Firefox's growth was never as fast as Netscape and Internet Explorer were in their prime, and will never be. Instead, the growth has been slow, steady and permanent - those who switch to Firefox rarely go back to IE.

I have titled this post "Firefox - the killer ap". Killer ap is short for "Killer Application", a historical way of looking at popular and important software and their effects. The original Lotus 1-2-3 software, for example, convinced many businesses in the 1980s to purchase IBM Compatible computers. WordPerfect convinced businesses to replace typewriters with PCs.

For many years now, Linux fans like myself have wondered when the world will embrace Linux and open source software. "Is 2005 the 'year of Linux?' " is one headline I saw. Of course, ditching Windows and embracing Linux is a difficult and potentially dangerous thing to do. Most people are not geeks or nerds, so the thought of moving on from Windows into something totally different frightens them.

Firefox is Linux's killer ap. Firefox has shown to a significant amount of people that free, open-source software can be superior to proprietary software. Linux users like myself represent probably less than 0.5% of all PC users around the world, which means that the majority of Firefox users are Windows users as well. Moreover, these Firefox users (the 13-20% of people browsing online) are probably aware of what open source software is and are also aware of Linux.

I have been arguing to friends for a long time that the only way Linux will penetrate the marketplace and take away Microsoft's monopoly is for a major recession to hit. Faced with the desire to save money, alternatives to expensive proprietary software will be taken seriously. Already, OpenOffice is providing Linux with another killer ap - a completely free and reliable alternative to Microsoft Office.

Even now there are some interesting signs - especially in Europe. As I stated before, Firefox commands between 13-20% of the world browser market, but in Europe this figure is much higher. A recent report shows that Firefox is used on 28% of European computers - much higher than the average. Moreover, some countries such as Finland, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary have usage rates above 40%. It would not be outrageous to predict that Firefox will be the majority browser in these countries within a few years.

Both Firefox and OpenOffice will, I believe, lead many people and businesses to embrace Linux as time goes by. As more and more ordinary people experience the power and pleasure of well-made open source software, resistance to using Linux will begin to crumble. Moreover, the bloated monopoly that is Microsoft, which created the much-derided Windows Vista, will continue to annoy its customers with sloppy programming and arrogant methods of doing business.

There are two areas, however, that Linux will find it very difficult to compete in.

The first area is in hardcore gaming. These are the people who spend hours playing online death matches with 3D shooting games, or World of Warcraft or similar. The games software is not free, but people are willing to pay through the nose to play it. The vast majority of these games can only be played in Windows XP or Vista. For these gaming companies to create versions of their software for Linux is not exactly profitable. To be sure, there are gamers out there who play death matches with Linux 3D games, but they are a very small minority. Until the greatest and newest games come out on Linux as well, gamers will remain faithful to Windows.

The second area is in graphic design. My friend Dave and his wife run a graphic design business and the fact is that this industry is dominated by Apple Macs. As far as I know, there is neither proprietary design software that will use Linux, not is there open-source design software of the quality needed by this industry. This is not to say that they won't be developed, but there is another hurdle that Linux faces in getting this crowd - their fanatical love of Macs. Mac users, like Linux users, are a minority in the computing world but they are louder and more noticeable. Their belief in the superiority of their computer and its software is not without reason. As far as I understand, those who take the step to ditch their Windows PC and buy a Mac are almost always exceptionally happy with their choice. I have never used a Mac, but it seems that those who do are quite willing to extol its virtues. Mac users will be very unlikely to embrace Linux in the short to medium term simply because their product works and because Linux does not offer them what they need (especially the design industry). Once Linux does, we might see some crossover - but not for some time.

So long as the world economy keeps growing, people and businesses will
be happy to spend money buying Microsoft software. But, since a
recession is brewing, I predict that there will be a significant
increase in the amount of people using Linux and open source software
in general. This won't be enough to unseat Microsoft's dominance, but
it will affect it.

1 comment:

Chestertonian Rambler said...

From my experience, there's also the difference between private and corporate uses.

That is, a corporation can pay one or a small number of gurus to set up a "bulletproof" Linux system, which can then be used for day-to-day activities by employees with a minimal training. In many cases, this may be cheaper than going with a proprietary Windows system--and offers more potential customization.

Personally, though, I don't think Linux will be accessible to the end-user until it wants to be so. Firefox and OpenOffice are, to my experience, superior in all ways that count to their Microsoft versions, and GIMP is a legitimate alternative to Photoshop. But beyond that, Linux boxes are paradoxically unversatile--there simply isn't a broad enough demand for simple, intuitive specialized apps.

Case in point: Last semester, I had an unexpected need for rather complicated formatting of words and pictures. Word didn't work the way I wanted it to, and OpenOffice was even more problematic. I talked to my OpenSource friend, and was informed that there are some "great OpenSource formatting programs" out there, though "they're more like programming languages than WYSIWIG apps." Fortunately my primary desktop is a Mac, so (for $60) I was able to find the perfect program for my needs.

A turn towards WYSIWYG and ease-of-use is needed (and present in GIMP, Firefox, and OpenOffice), but I'm not sure what is necessary to trigger that leap.