March 24, 2005
The Upcoming Showdown Between Open Source and Commercial Software
There is an event on the horizon that is going to prove the first major acceptance test for open source software, and the open source movement has brought it on of its own accord.
Open source has thrown down the gauntlet through its most visible general-use product: Firefox. Firefox's release was so fruitfully timed that it gained unprecendented recognition for an open application, and this recognition went beyond normal rules when it resulted in an ad campaign paid for by volunteers.
One could claim that this ad campaign was a historical first. Sure, non-profit agencies have made ads before, and volutneers have been previously willing to pay to spread a message to the public, but the Firefox campaign is different because its main intention is to publicise an alternative to an existing commercial product. I would argue that there was no social purpose to telling people about Firefox, and thus paying to do this was ultimately a waste. Others might argue that Firefox carries a great social purpose: the protection of innocent people from computer viruses and spyware. The protection of people's data. But this would be hyperbole. Other commercial products were and continue to be solely concentrated on protecting people from Internet Explorer's bugs. The real motivation behind the Firefox campaign was to spread the open source philosophy.
But when I say "social purpose", I don't know what I'm really talking about. Social purpose is not my point; web browsers should not be associated with the term "social purpose". My point is that Firefox must now get ready for a battle.
That battle will be with Internet Explorer 7.
Firefox has brought on the coming release of IE7 itself. IE was quite comfortably sitting there at version six without any development, without any challengers, until the well-timed Firefox strike. It was when people started becoming aware of the challenger that Mr Gates announced his intentions to release a much better browser, better than anything Firefox can be.
Now, I don't know what Internet Explorer 7 is going to look like, but if Microsoft just puts in 80% of its standard research and energy into the product, it will be a very innovative browser. And before I lose all my linux readership, whom this is aimed at, in fact, let me declare that there will probably be a lot of things in IE7 that are going to suck. Let me declare that IE7 will probably approach the unusable, as its predecessors have done. But despite its unusability, its interfering features, its irritation of our daily routine, it will be the most innovative browser existing at the time of its release. I will go so far as to say that Firefox will take up to a year to catch up with some of the features in IE7.
May I re-summarise? There will be certain features in IE7 that suck, and Firefox will spend a year trying to implement them.
And I said at the beginning: I believe that this event will announce the first major test for open source; in fact I believe that this fight will break the open source movement. Because a lot of people downloaded Firefox. And the upcoming competition between Firefox and IE7 is going to show that a product driven by a company with lots of money, which can spend that money on customer research, cannot be paced by an open source product. Firefox does what it does extremely well, but it is founded on imitation. IE7 works Ok... and is often broken, but it is founded on innovation.
Again, some will argue that Firefox has many features that IE does not, and I must reply that Firefox imitated the Opera browser for all of them. There is nothing in Firefox that Opera does not do better. And Opera is a commercial browser.
Commercially-driven products are always based on innovation. Even when they must sacrifice some elgance and security, they are forced to impress the user with something new, something visibly new at every turn. Open source products take the innovation in commercial products, and concentrate on fixing their bugs. Since open source does not get paid, it thumbs its nose at impressing users with new features. You won't see a feature like SmartTags in open source until it has gone through years of trial and refinement in the world of the commercial.
And for all those people to whom Firefox is the first foray into open source, the upcoming release of IE is going to prove this once and for all: open source might be secure, but it's old and ugly compared to what Microsoft can do.
I am a Microsoft and open source user. I prefer open source for its stability, its compatibility, its frequent improvement. But I like the "revolution" in Microsoft, even if I hate the new colours and have no idea why a paper clip is interupting my video chat with my grandma.
Open source can never survive on its own. Without its idol and competitor, open source would itself remain in idle, and we'd be stuck typing commands to a black mouth.