[HCS-D]Firefox advocacy in the NY Times
Gregory Nathan Price
gprice at fas.harvard.edu
Tue Dec 21 00:57:10 EST 2004
Speaking of Firefox advocacy...
I especially like the line `Your children in college are already using it.' =)
Digital Domain: The Fox Is in Microsoft's Henhouse (and Salivating)
December 19, 2004
By RANDALL STROSS
FIREFOX is a classic overnight success, many years in the
Published by the Mozilla Foundation, a nonprofit group
supporting open-source software that draws upon the skills
of hundreds of volunteer programmers, Firefox is a Web
browser that is fast and filled with features that
Microsoft's stodgy Internet Explorer lacks. Firefox
installs in a snap, and it's free.
Firefox 1.0 was released on Nov. 9. Just over a month
later, the foundation celebrated a remarkable milestone: 10
million downloads. Donations from Firefox's appreciative
fans paid for a two-page advertisement in The New York
Times on Thursday.
Until now, the Linux operating system was the best-known
success among the hundreds of open-source projects that
challenge Microsoft with technically strong, free software
that improves as the population of bug-reporting and
bug-fixing users grows. But unless you oversee purchases
for a corporate data center, it's unlikely that you've felt
the need to try Linux yourself.
With Firefox, open-source software moves from back-office
obscurity to your home, and to your parents', too. (Your
children in college are already using it.) It is polished,
as easy to use as Internet Explorer and, most compelling,
much better defended against viruses, worms and snoops.
Microsoft has always viewed Internet Explorer's tight
integration with Windows to be an attractive feature. That,
however, was before security became the unmet need of the
day. Firefox sits lightly on top of Windows, in a
separation from the underlying operating system that the
Mozilla Foundation's president, Mitchell Baker, calls a
For the first time, Internet Explorer has been losing
market share. According to a worldwide survey conducted in
late November by OneStat.com, a company in Amsterdam that
analyzes the Web, Internet Explorer's share dropped to less
than 89 percent, 5 percentage points less than in May.
Firefox now has almost 5 percent of the market, and it is
Gary Schare, Microsoft's director of product management for
Windows, has been assigned the unenviable task of
explaining how Microsoft plans to respond to the Firefox
challenge with a product whose features were last updated
three years ago. He has said that current users of Internet
Explorer will stick with it once they take into account
"all the factors that led them to choose I.E. in the first
place." Beg your pardon. Choose? Doesn't I.E. come bundled
Mr. Schare has said that Mozilla's Firefox must prove it
can smoothly move from version 1.0 to 2.0, and has thus far
enjoyed "a bit of a free ride." If I were the spokesman for
the software company that included the company's browser
free on every Windows PC, I'd be more careful about using
the phrase "free ride."
Trying to strike a conciliatory note, Mr. Schare has also
declared that he and his company were happy to have Firefox
as "part of the large ecosystem" of software that runs on
Windows. In fact, Firefox is ecumenically neutral, being
available also for both the Mac and for Linux.
Mr. Schare may be the official spokesman, but he does not
use Internet Explorer himself. Instead he uses Maxthon,
published by a little company of the same name. It uses the
Internet Explorer engine but provides loads of features
that Internet Explorer does not. "Tabs are what hooked me,"
he told me, referring to the ability to open within a
single window many different Web sites and move easily
among them, rather than open separate windows for each one
and tax the computer's memory. Firefox has tabs. Other
browsers do, too. But fundamental design decisions for
Internet Explorer prevent the addition of this and other
desiderata without a thorough update of Windows, which will
not be complete until 2006 at the earliest.
How fitting that Microsoft finds itself in this
predicament. In late 1995, at a time when Netscape
Navigator was synonymous with the Web and Internet Explorer
had yet to attract many adopters, Microsoft made a risky
but strategically wise decision to redesign the Internet
Explorer code from the bottom up - re-architecting, in
industry jargon. As Michael A. Cusumano of M.I.T. and David
B. Yoffie of Harvard chronicled in their 1998 book,
"Competing on Internet Time: Lessons From Netscape and Its
Battle With Microsoft," that decision meant delaying the
release of Internet Explorer 3.0, but the resulting product
was technically far superior to Netscape's Navigator. In
Browser Wars I, the better browser won.
Today, it's the Internet Explorer code that is long overdue
for a top-to-bottom redesign, one that would treat security
as integral, and Firefox is the challenger with new, clean
code. Netscape bequeathed its software to the nonprofit
Mozilla Foundation, which used an open-source approach to
undertake a complete rewrite that took three years. Firefox
is built upon the Mozilla base.
All Microsoft can offer Internet Explorer users are
incremental security improvements, new patches to fix holes
in the old patches. In Windows XP Service Pack 2, the
company claimed as a major security advance a notice that
is displayed if the user takes an action within Internet
Explorer that sets off a download of a tiny application
called an ActiveX control, which can take control of your
PC and, in a worst-case instance, erase your hard drive.
"Users still must make informed decisions," Mr. Schare
added. (With Firefox, users do not have to make decisions
about these miniprograms, which are blocked by design.)
Bruce Schneier, the chief technical officer of Counterpane
Internet Security Inc. and an authority on security issues,
did not hide his anger at Microsoft's claim of having
improved Internet Explorer. "When my mother gets a prompt
'Do you want to download this?' she's going to say yes" he
said. "It's disingenuous for Microsoft to give you all of
these tools with which to hang yourself, and when you do,
then say it's your fault." He lectures his clients (and his
mother): "Don't use Microsoft Internet Explorer, period."
He has been using the browser Opera, but having tried
Firefox declares it "a great alternative."
THIS month, officials at Pennsylvania State University
recommended that students and staff stop using Internet
Explorer because of persistent security problems. The
announcement said that "the threats are real, and
Stuck with code from a bygone era when the need for
protection against bad guys was little considered,
Microsoft cannot do much. It does not offer a new
stand-alone version of Internet Explorer. Instead, the
loyal customer must download and install the newest version
of Service Pack 2. That, in turn, requires Windows XP.
Those who have an earlier version of Windows are out of
luck if they wish to stick with Internet Explorer.
Mr. Schare of Microsoft does have one suggestion for those
who cannot use the latest patches in Service Pack 2: buy a
new personal computer. By the same reasoning, the security
problems created by a car's broken door lock could be
solved by buying an entirely new automobile. The analogy
comes straight from Mr. Schare. "It's like buying a car,"
he said. "If you want to get the latest safety features,
you have to buy the latest model."
In this case, the very latest model is not a 2001 Internet
Explorer, but a 2004 Firefox.
Randall Stross is a historian and author based in Silicon
Valley. E-mail:ddomain at nytimes.com.
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