A warning for the bazaar

“We have a serious problem. Whenever I try to pitch Linux to anyone under 30, the question I get is: ‘Will it work with my iPod?,” he said. “We are not yet as a community making the painful compromises need to achieve widespread desktop market share. Until we do, we will get locked out of more hardware.”

Who said it? None other than Cathedral and Bazaar author Eric Raymond. He continues with a warning that the up-and-coming iPod generation [doesn’t] care about our notions of doctrinal purity and that they want their tools and gadgets to just work.

This is something that Firefox enthusiasts must take to heart, for what Raymond is talking about with regards to becoming the 64-bit desktop also applies to our dearly beloved open source browser.

The reality is that most people don’t care (or even know) what browser they’re using. In fact, as IE7 and Safari continue to improve, Firefox 2 is stagnating as a viable commercial product. The harsh truth is that once IE7 is pushed down the auto-update pipes, most people will no longer be incented to try Firefox since IE will once again be just good enough. It won’t matter whether they’re double-clicking the Blue E, a compass or some cute fox as long as they end up on MySpace.

If Firefox wants to continue its upward swing, it needs to continue to innovate and make things faster, easier, simpler and a better overall experience than its competitors. To date, Firefox 2 isn’t offering anything that wows me like something from an Apple product announcement (obviously heavy on the visuals, but stuff like CoreAnimation still rocks for devs). Until the community can answer Raymond’s warning, he may once again be foretelling the future.

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Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: Molly.com (YC W18), Uber, Google.

14 thoughts on “A warning for the bazaar”

  1. What signs are there that Safaris is being improved? And I see no dramatic improvements in Web Kit, either. Anyway all browsers look just like Netscape 2.
    The Places SQLite history feature in Firefox 3 is a jump ahead. But, I suspect it’s been deferred because Google wants to do much the same thing with browsersync, gmarks, etc.
    I think it really comes down to which browser will enable the most online web apps, apps that can also be used on small, mobile gadgets, too. I’m pretty sure that Microsoft will drag its heels sufficiently so that the new Web 2+ apps will be deveoped first/foremost for Googlefox.

  2. Chris, this is Karma actually..:)- I was backtracking on the “halloween document” and “Cathedral and Bazaar” just last nite.

    The “Bazaar” concept is – here it is, take it, use it, modify it and if it works well-lets add it once again to the Bazaar commodity list. A recursive loop of commodification. Tere is drawback, When developer groups fall out due to development of incompatible versions or personality conflicts, the code base “forks”. One sees this paradigm in BSD Unix, FreeBSD, OpenBSD and a host of such systems. The same rollup can be said about the browswer..from IE, FF, Opera, Flock and what may come.

    Its Ironic, maybe MSFT will win the browser war for the next 6-7 yrs when they get vista as a commodity

  3. @Lloyd: you know as well as I that Firefox 2 isn’t nearly as earth-shattering as the initial launch. There are some natable improvements particularly for the developer-set, but for most end users, the improvements and changes are modest at best.

    Which is not necessarily a bad idea — however, with the basics of IE7 changing sufficiently from an interface perspective (including adding tabs, popup blocking, a slick favorites redesign and RSS integration) the whole Firefox-as-product-in-the-marketplace thing starts to seem a bit… challenging. As an ideology? It wins everytime — but the market is a fickle mistress and there’s no assurance that kum-bah-ya will win in a capitalist system.

  4. Chris & Lloyd,

    We all know Firefox2 has some changes under the hood but for the enduser it’s just the first step in becoming GoogleFox. I don’t think I even call it Firefox when talking with friends anymore. It’s just GoogleFox to me.

    And if hype and marketing counted for something then Flock would be on top but at the end of the day Flock isn’t delivering on what users need or want. Chris — this is what we discussed Monday and what I was telling BVP at the TechCrunch party. So much potential just being lost in the execution.

    It’s time for something better, again. 🙂

    Eric Raymond isn’t wrong, he just can’t quite express a point of view very coherently anymore.


  5. David,
    GoogleFox? What causes you concern? Why do you attack Mozilla, who have an excellent track record of “doing the right thing”?

  6. Chris, I don’t think I know what you think is the most significant next step for Firefox as a product? As a platform I understand your view, and mostly share it.

  7. Lloyd — Mozilla and Google swap engineers more often than the kids on MySpace swap spit. Heck, Google even feeds them. This is not necessarily a bad thing — it’s an uncertain thing — which leads to suspicion, warranted or not.

    If Microsoft were as cozy, don’t you think people would think similarly?

    As a product, Firefox needs to make it easier to be social — which is essentially why Flock is important. What Firefox will not do is bother with the *write* part of the read/write web, and that’s where Flock’s business comes in. If Firefox managed your friends as well as your bookmarks and Flock focused on publishing and seeing the web-as-conversations, you’d have a pretty awesome complementary goods product play between Mozilla and Flock.

  8. Lloyd,

    I’m not attacking Mozilla. I’m telling it as it is. I still use GoogleFox (and I am right now). I just think that if people were aware of the hooks Google has placed into Firefox they might feel a bit differentely about both Google and Mozilla. My skepticism remains. That said, Google and Mozilla have great brands and great PR, both built on top of fantastic products. This is unquestionable.

    If you aren’t seeing this, I think you need to look closer.


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  10. Chris, what does making Firefox more social look like? Most people will not be able to recognize your vision unless it is actionable.

    Microsoft is a very different organization than Google. Healthy suspicion is still important.

    David, Writing “I’m telling it as it is.” really detracts from your arguments. What hooks are you referring to? I can’t see anything without evidence.

    The beauty of open source is that relationships are written right there in code.

  11. I stopped using IE a long time ago, although I’d been using an IE based browser, Maxthon. However after development on the stable version basically stopped (I’m hoping when version 2 is finally released it’ll once again set a benchmark for browsers) I switched to Firefox.

    Firefox is in some ways an oddity. As it comes out of the box there’s nothing really all that exciting about it. At the time though, I guess it was a perfect choice for most IE users to switch to as it had such a small learning curve after IE, and yet it could be customised with extensions to make it a powerful browser. Which is the path I took… experimenting with extensions for hours and hours till I finally had a browser that would do everything I wanted a browser to do. I assume though that compared to the average surfer I’m an exception. I can’t imagine too many people spending days trying extensions as I did, although when I install Firefox on other people’s computers along with a copy of my profile, they certainly get the benefits. 😉

    Then along came Firefox 2, and the way I look at it, missed the boat completely. Aside from a few clunky feature ‘improvements’, and a downgrading of (in my opinion) the quality of the GUI, it wasn’t really different enough from 1.5 to bother releasing. All version 2 seems to have done is annoy power users and extension writers (I tried battling with version 2 for a while but just couldn’t get it functioning as well as 1.5 did due to extension breakage and changes) and it simply gave the impression they wanted to release something to coincide with IE7. The problem is I (and I suspect many others) have gone back to using Firefox 1.5, and plan to skip the version 2 release completely. And IE7 has come along and basically out-foxed Firefox by doing what Firefox did when it was first released… offering an easy upgrade to a tabbed browser from IE6 and the promise of better security. And while IE7 would normally have been too little too late, it still has a huge base of surfers who know nothing better than the browser that came with Windows to draw from.

    I’m not sure what the answer should have been for Firefox to keep gaining market share, although I’m pretty sure version 2 was a mistake. It needed to be noticeably better than 1.5 in most respects (not feel like a downgrade) and pull something out of the box to keep it a step above IE for the average user.
    Even the extension system, which is a big part of Firefox’s success, needs to be looked at. Sooner or later even advanced users are going to get tired of playing the extension catch up game, or of losing features every time the browser is updated. And I’ve often thought that there should be better ‘rules’ for extension writers, such as making it compulsory to enable the user to disable any part of an extension’s functionality (to avoid conflicts), in order to let another extension do that particular job. For instance when extension ‘A’ gives you options ‘1’ and ‘2’ for a particular feature, it should be mandatory to have a ‘no effect’ option as well.

    So while I confess I don’t know what the answer is, I know that while Firefox was a great idea to begin with, it already feels to me like it’s hit a wall. Firefox 3 needs to clean up the continuing mess for extension users and pull something out of the box, or I suspect many people, even power users like myself, will sooner or later give up on the functionality battle and look around for something easier. And as much as I’ve come to love Firefox 1.5, I’m still keeping an eye out for Maxthon 2. 😉

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