On Firefox as the Free Software mascot

by davidnielsen

I often hear the following line of reasoning as to why Firefox should be our default browser. When a user first gets tempted to switch to Linux, he is likely to do so because he has used Firefox on Windows and found that he likes the “Open Source experience” and wants more of it.

Now this is poor logic for many reasons, not limited to the fact that if you switch to a completely different OS for an improved experience that might as well encompass the browser as well. It’s also not true for people who buy their machines with Linux preinstalled, something that is becoming more and more common, yet the Firefox fanboys still make the same argument and are successful in their quest. Even for a market like the netbooks where Firefox’ ressource overhead and performance problems are even worse, it’s still “because users expect it to be there from prior Windows experiences”.

I don’t deny that some people might switch because of Firefox and like to see the same browser profile work (though one could argue history, bookmarks and such are or should be importable in any replacement browser). However yesterday I found out that it also works the opposite way, I met an old friend whom I haven’t seen in years. He had specifically avoided trying Linux despite his desire to do so because he had tried Firefox on Windows and had found it a horrible experience. The basic reasoning seemed to go like so: Firefox is the high profile Open Source project and Linux as a whole touts the value and superiority of the Open Source model. Considering Firefox’ high profile as an Open Source project, I expect it to be indicative of all of Open Source. More over given it’s status and high level of success I would expect it to be indicative of the best Open Source can create, as I found it unreasonably poor this must mean that the rest of Open Source can’t possibly be better.

I can’t say that I really ever considered this way of looking at things, but sometimes it is frightening that the two biggest mascots we have for Free Software – OpenOffice.org and Firefox are generally in such a horrible state. They are also not healthy examples of open development, OOo is basically Suns prisoner and according to Michael Meeks’ data they are suffering from a shortage of developers as compared to the size of the project. Firefox is Mozilla’ little castle, they guard it carefully to not let anyone but them taint it’s name. Both reinvent the wheel when it comes to translations and neither integrates well with the environments they live in. This all comprises to create an experience that is less appealing overall. OpenOffice even admits on their website in a research project to create a new interface that the aim is to make something people want to use not something they are forced into using because it is the best of a range of poor choices or because there is no other option.

Maybe it is time for us to collectively ask these two projects, who are our face to the public in many cases, to please make an effort to make us look good.