What is interesting — I suppose — is that this is a moment that many of us have been holding our breaths for. Considering the massive install base, the sheer inertia and lack of incentives to change (if it ain’t broke don’t really apply in this case, however), it’s remarkable that Microsoft did push through this effort as quickly as it did, both directly answering the call of Firefox’s meteoric rise and then upping the ante ever-so-slightly.
If I were blunt, I would say that, from a lay-person’s perspective, Firefox is like IE6 with tabs and a search box, a popup blocker and less spyware and is a bit faster. Oh, and has a nice icon.
If if Microsoft hadn’t become monopolistically lazy, Firefox would kind of be like the bugfix version that should have followed the subsequent IE6 service pack upgrades… offering a little more speed and functionality, but not messing much with the basic model of the browser.
But it wasn’t Microsoft that released Firefox, it was an upstart foundation called Mozilla, charged with promoting choice on the net. And after basking in the limelight for some time, is being shoved sideways by Internet Explorer 7, which incorporates many of the changes that set Firefox apart while improving on some of the additions that Firefox did add first… like RSS subscriptions and tabbed browsing. But IE7 also adds a pretty decent Favorites manager, a Phishing filter, improves its standards support (finally!!) and other incremental things. But more importantly, they actually learned a bit from the open source community and opened up their process by publicly releasing five betas and a release candidate… something Microsoft hasn’t really succeeded at in the past.
Y’know, this is important — and not just because Google’s looming over the playing field with Mozilla very near to its cafeteria — oh no… if you read what the marketingspeak they’re announcing this release with, it says “we heard you”.
“We heard you”.
Jim Allchin said something to me rather ominous when I had dinner with him and some other terrific folks back in January. After I’d introduced myself as a Flock employee and an open source ambassador he looked me squarely in the eye and said
…even though that might not be as open as you might like, we are learning.
Now, while the PR machine may be in full effect here, I do believe that Microsoft did hear us. I believe that the New York Times ad that I designed was the shot heard round the world, with the echoing reverberations resulting in upwards of 10-20% adoption of Firefox. It wasn’t the ad itself or the fact that I designed it that matters (anyone could have designed it — I just happened to be the lucky schmuck spending all night plugged into a PowerMac G5, trying to get Illustrator to cooperate (did you know that one of the core Illustrator engineers actually pitched in to help me to get the ad to render?!). What matters is the fact that we had a community speaking with one voice, in concert: that the starfish could collect itself from its little communes spread across the world and demand something more. And build something better, for itself.
Now here’s the problem. That voice — that spoke clearly and spoke loudly — woke the slumbering giant. It was groggy and it was a bit lame having been sound asleep for so long, but once it was fully awake and realized who had woken it up, it went about chasing down the sonovabitch who dared to threaten its slumbering dominance.
But when it awoke, it was faced with challenges on all sides: from Google, from Apple, from Firefox, from Sony, Yahoo! and others. It was no longer king on the hill and now that its enemies were becoming evermore decentralized and spread out, it couldn’t just smash them to bits or eat them whole… instead, it had to go quiet and think for a moment… and realize, heck, it could actually compete if it became more like its attackers… more nimble and more decentralized.
And that is where we are today — in the middle of an uprising from within — lead by folks like Kim Cameron, Ray Ozzie and others — on the opening lines of Web 2.0. What’s lead us here so far has only been the precursor in what will be a very long and very gradual change in our cultural and technological environment. But the launch of Internet Explorer 7 represents the true beginning of Web 2.0 because the vast majority of folks who have been living on borrowed time, using the spyware prone and popup-riddled previous version of IE, now have a capable browser… one that’s just as fast as what the rest of us are used to, with tabs and support for feed and CSS standards. And it’s delivered automatically, without a thought or a care necessary. So what comes next is where things get interesting.
I’ve asked before what Firefox advocates intend to do next… whether they can really hold on to the gains they’ve seen in recent years, or whether they’ll see a slow attrition in their numbers to alternative browsing experiences or even cede back ground to IE.
Long ago I proposed a plan for Firefox advocacy that was based more on ideology and less on features. It focused on spreading the open source co-production philosophy beyond the confines of nerdville and academia — the same philosophies and practices that carried the development and creation of Firefox — because it is my contention that open source is a positive force and should spread beyond its traditional software roots. In essence, it needs to become more inclusive, more diverse and generally more representative of the wider community it strives to serve. Otherwise, it will continue struggle to become a viable economic and productive alternative to the existing growth-based model.
But the change that’s necessary won’t happen without explicit effort or without constant self-reflection.
So here we are now, on the precipice looking out on the mere beginnings of Web 2.0. With Internet Explorer caught up and inching ahead, there is a critical question for Firefox advocates: do we stay the course and continue promoting Firefox as a product competing with Internet Explorer? Or, do we focus on the wider, more gradual fight to spread and improve open source principles and practices — in effect, to “win the hearts and minds” of those who employ us by day but leave us hacking at night, struggling to make a decent living at it should we choose to pursue it as our primary occupation? Personally, I prefer to chase the latter… for, after all, what really comes next, well, shall be determined by our combined intentions being realized.