How Can We Harness the Firefox Effect?

by Glyn Moody

Three things are striking about the recent launch of Firefox 3. First, the unanimity about the quality of the code: practically everyone thinks it's better in practically every respect. Secondly, the way in which the mainstream media covered its launch: it was treated as a normal, important tech story – gone are the days of supercilious anecdotes about those wacky, sandal-wearing free software anoraks. And finally – and perhaps most importantly - the scale and intensity of participation by the millions of people who have downloaded the software in the last week.

But the question has to be: what now? How can we harness that amazing spirit, to make the Firefox Effect permanent, not just a media event that comes around once every few years?

One obvious way to do that is to apply the lessons learned in the rise of Firefox to its sibling, Thunderbird. Until recently, Mozilla's email client was rather neglected, relying more on organic growth than any concerted marketing to get it onto the desktop. In this respect, the decision to spin off the project as a separate outfit, Mozilla Messaging, and to appoint David Ascher as its head, is decidedly good news. Already I detect a new breeze wafting through Thunderbird's feathers. But I think much more could be done.

For a start, we need a real SpreadThunderbird movement – not just an address that redirects to the Thunderbird site. We need to get people around the world as excited about their email client as they are about their browser. And that's eminently feasible: alongside the browser, email is where people spend a lot of their time; they would care about improvements in Thunderbird because they would be using them daily. As a corollary, SpreadThunderbird could also spur on the development of Lightning, the calendaring extension. This is a critical component for enterprises, and one of the main reasons, I suspect, that Thunderbird has not taken off much within companies, despite its other virtues.

I mentioned that email is the most popular app alongside browsing, but there is one other that is up there too: word processing. That brings me on to my second suggestion for an area where the Firefox Effect might be directed: Like Thunderbird, has been gaining fans steadily, but we could well be near an inflection point.

The ISO approval of ODF, and the parallel uproar over the attempt to win the same for OOXML, combined with the increasing maturity of seems to me to provide the perfect environment for a big push. Again, I think that people could get enthusiastic about their word processor in the same way they manifestly have about their browser, if the right online community could be forged.

Looking out to the longer term, the way Firefox has created a huge, global community of enthusiastic supporters could well prove to be one of its most important achievements – even beyond the code. The recent high-profile success of Firefox 3 has kick-started a very interesting conversation in the blogosphere around precisely this subject.

For example, David Eaves has picked up on the Mozilla Foundation's Statement of Direction, which says: “The mission of the Mozilla Foundation is to create and promote the Internet as an open platform that supports the principles set out in the Mozilla Manifesto.” He writes:

The open web is a social value. It’s not a fact, it’s not necessity, and it’s not a requirement. It’s a value - one that a growing community of people believe in and are willing to fight for. Indeed an emergent community in support of this value, initially composed of coders and technophiles, has steadily grown in size and scope. Today, there are hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people who believe in the open web. They want the internet to be an open platform, indeed, they know the internet must be an open platform.

This means the message and goals of organizations like the Mozilla foundation and others that promote an open web, have broad appeal and resonate with a increasingly diverse community.

This is exciting.

It will also create new challenges.

Those involved in promoting an open web need to know that they are part of a social movement. Yes, it is language and terminology that make some of us uncomfortable. But it is the reality of our situation.

In a similar vein, Mark Surman, who is a fellow of the Shuttleworth Foundation, writes about “The Next Million Mozillians”:

[The] Download Firefox campaign demonstrated that, at least on the company side, Mozilla has the horsepower and respect to galvanize large numbers of people. Over 8 million people downloaded Firefox 3 in a day. In some ways more impressively, 1.6 million pledged to do so in advance. These pledgers care about Mozilla, and want to chip in to making the web more open. This problem is, beyond downloading, there is very little for ordinary, not-so-techie folks to chip in on.

Mozilla Foundation could change this. It could invite people en masse to help define what we mean by the open web (really, we need to work on this). It could encourage them make videos, mashup pictures and write blog postings that explain the importance of the open web to my grandmother (or my kids). And, over time, it could give people -- geek and non-geek alike -- the scaffolding and encouragement they need to invent new pieces of the open web that have not yet been imagined. Pieces that use openness and participation to make the web better for work / music / life / love / play / the-stuff-that-matters. Imagined this way, the Foundation has the chance to create the next million actively contributing Mozillians. I think it should take that chance.

I agree, but would like to push this idea even deeper. Beyond open source and the open Web, there are burgeoning open movements in many nearby fields: open access, open data, open science etc. I'd like to see the Mozilla Foundation reach out to them, too, and to channel some of its amazing people power into furthering their aims. Because openness feeds into itself: open science depends on open data and open access; open access builds on open source software, etc. etc. And as openness becomes stronger in those areas, it starts to seep into others, where the process is repeated. It's already happening, but the success of Firefox shows that we can make it happen faster. The crucial challenge now is maintaining Mozilla's momentum.

Glyn Moody writes about openness at opendotdotdot.

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