Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Microsoft and the Fox of Fire

No its not the title of the next Harry Potter book, but everything you are about to read is complete fiction and is based solely on my ill informed opinion.

For its great design, user friendliness and innovation, the Firefox web browser is my browser of choice and in my opinion one of the best pieces of free software on the net today and it really has enabled me to "Rediscover the web!". Now before I go any further , let me nail my colours to the mast here... I am an Open Source advocate but not in the "I hate Microsoft as the evil opposite of Open Source" kind of way. I think this mind set is a bit of a waste of time... Take away the MS marketing FUD and all other evil empire notions, In corporate land, for whatever reason many Microsoft products and solutions are clearly the best fit. Windows XP is the best desktop OS, Office 2003 has no rival and Exchange 2003 is probably the best corporate email system. That said, there is no reason why Open Source Software can't a.) compete with MS product's (competition is good for MS and for OSS) and b.) be used in situations where it is the best fit. For example the Apache web should almost always be considered before Microsoft's IIS product, why? Because Apache is a much better product and is often a far better fit than IIS.

What I really don't understand is Microsoft's "Open Source is the root of all evil and must be stamped out" approach... And before the four hundred thousand MS employees out there cry foul saying "We don't really think that way at all!"... Humbug! I have witnessed many a Microsoft consultant run for the hills screaming for a cavalry charge at the slightest hint of a non-MS option being deployed and heaven forbid that product be Open Source! Even if it does run on Windows and it is a better fit for the organisation, MS people still seem to get the all clammy and hot under the collar when an Open Source app is installed anywhere within the reach of their bogoradar. Now I can fully understand a company not wanting competing products installed in place of one of their own, but when the product you are using is running on a windows platform and has no MS alternative and just happens to be an Open Source product why on earth should that bother them? I know, I know you are probably saying "It doesn't, does it?" well yes it does bother them, I have seen it happen! I guess some people see things very black and white. Personally, my attitude to this (politics aside) is horses for courses, if a Microsoft product fits then use it, if something else is better then use that.

Anyway, back to Firefox. The Firefox web browser is one of those products, like apache, that clashes with a Microsoft alternative and in many cases is a much better option. Obvious features like tabbed browsing, the very cool extension model and its smooth and clean design immediately appeal (security I think is a bogus reason for choosing between the two, more on that one later!). While Internet Explorer has been sitting at version 6 Firefox leaped frogged Microsoft in the browser stakes. So what are MS doing... Well of course they are developing IE 7 which has many of the neat features that Firefox has (tabbed browsing being the main one). Cool right? No Wrong! I believe they missed a huge opportunity here... Here is what should have happened: Note: This is where the real fiction bit kicks in!

Seeing the success and widespread adoption of the Firefox browser, MS should have dropped all further development for IE, lost their fear of Open Source, and made a massive contribution to the Firefox project by implementing stuff like ActiveX and extending the browser features so that it can interoperate with IIS and Windows like IE does. Imagine what a cat amongst the pigeons that would create! MS could leverage an already brilliant piece of software and if they played their cards right get the existing developers on side to continue contributing. In one fell swoop they could have won over a chunk of the OSS community signaling an end to the cold war and gaining a feature for Windows that other developers could embrace an extend.

Yeah okay I live in a faery land! If only it were that simple... But one of these days I bet MS will adopt a small but significant open source project as a way into the OSS world, whether it will endear them to the OSS community or not I don't really know, but I'd like to see it happen.

... And they all lived happily ever after.


Anonymous Todd said...

Two comments:

1. You mention Firefox is cool for obvious features like tabbed browsing, extensability, and cleanliness. I'm not sure that's the right thing to focus on. The new MSN toolbar shows that IE can do tabbed browsing right now (IIRC, tabbed browsing started as an extension to Firefox, too, so it's not something so intrinsic to a browser that it has to be built in). IE has had a very robust extension model since version 4 that allows everything from new toolbars (google search bar) to popup blockers, to the afore-mentioned tabbed browsing, and even to user scripting a la Greasemonkey (check out Turnabout at http://www.reifysoft.com/turnabout.php). That it's not used or evangelized as much as Firefox's extensability is a shame, especially since IE lets you write your code in full-feature languages like C++ or C#, rather than limiting you to what you can do with Javascript. Your final piece is on "smooth and clean design", whatever that means. If you're talking about the user interface, that's a bit of a red herring. IE can rearrange its toolbars with much more ease than Firefox, but it doesn't have theming. If you're referring to code, that's a) something that 99.5% of all browser users don't care about, and b) something that you can't really judge about IE given its closed-source nature (cop-out? maybe). Firefox is definitely a nice browser, but you can find better reasons why it's better than IE. How about better standards compliance? Transparent PNGs? CSS2 support?

2. You bet that Microsoft will adopt some small OSS program, but you didn't bother to mention the fact that Microsoft has already published two projects under open source licenses: WiX and WTL (search Sourceforge, where they're hosted). WiX in particular has already been picked up by several open source projects (MySQL, PostgreSQL) to build installers for their Windows versions.

8:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

why is everyone making such a fuss about tabbed browser windows? the simplicity of the current model in ie is truly wonderful. i've tried the tabbed windows in ff but they really don't add anything much to the whole experience. i hope ms concentrates on other issues in ie7 such as standards support and png.

1:47 AM  
Blogger dev said...

You gotta be joking about Microsoft contributing to the Firefox project.

The very fabric of the internet would colapse under the outcry from slashdoters/OSS zealots/whoever against Microsoft for buying out/trying to kill/tainting Firefox.

8:10 AM  

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