What is Open Source Missing?

Quick, think of a free, open-source application!

Firefox logo

If I were betting on this, I would put my money on “Firefox” as your answer. Simply, it is the poster child for the open-source movement. A few lessons can be taught to the open-source community from the success of Firefox:

  1. Firefox is gaining ground in the browser market. Why? It is a superior product when compared to its infamous brother Internet Explorer. While Internet Explorer still holds the majority of the market share, I haven’t met anyone who has switched back once having discovered Firefox. In other words, being open-source isn’t good enough for most people. There has to be enough compelling features to warrant a switch.
  2. Firefox isn’t a copycat browser. The project clearly has its own direction, and is paving the way for the web of the future. That spell check in text areas?- not something copied from IE. Firefox extensions?- again not an IE copycat feature. Tabs? Its worth arguing that IE’s tabs feel like a cheap copycat of Firefox. You will never get ahead by copying something that is already available. The biggest offender? OpenOffice.
  3. Firefox has many contributers. It is developed by an organization with a proven track record, and competent developers. Its accepts patches from the community. Google pays Mozilla for promotion of its search engine (and probably contributes patches as well). It takes a village to raise a child, and the same is true for a software application. Linus Torvalds is quoted as saying “Many eyes make all bugs shallow”. Conversely, we can argue that few eyes make bugs harder to find.

Firefox has already passed the ultimate test of quality in my eyes – my wife uses it exclusively. I have never even bothered to ask her why, because I already know the answer. You don’t have to be an open-source fanatic to appreciate the quality that this product offers.

So why list these points? Because I feel that the biggest obstacle that the open-source community has to overcome in finding success is collaboration. Currently, a glance at Sourceforge shows over 150,000+ registered open-source projects. In reality, this is probably a drop in the pond of the open source world. There is no end to the number of projects available – only the quality of those products.

The power of open-source is a public code-base that anyone can modify. What is the point of open-source’s greatest strength if the community fragments and duplicates efforts? I would love to see projects and developers merge talents and make more of the killer-app variety.

So enough with the music players, and image viewers, and video players. As James says, if you hold your hand out, a dozen of them fall into it. I am looking forward to the day when I find one success story that that truly can be compared to the success of Firefox.



  1. I have to point out that your giant Firefox logo right beside the question influences its answer. After Firefox, the programs that come to mind are Octave and Maxima. It depends on what you do as to what you think of when that question is posed to you.

    I also have to point out some things about your point #2. The spellcheck feature I can’t help but get the feeling that they got the idea from OS X. OS X has systemwide spellcheck, and grammar check as of 10.5. The tabs came from Opera. I loved the way Opera managed “tabs” in its early versions. It was a full-on Multiple Document Interface. In other words, the tabs were windows contained within the overall Opera window. You could minimize them; sweet Jesus! I miss that feature. Extensions? Yeah, Firefox pioneered that one.


  2. John says:

    While GIMP was the first thing that came to mind for me, Firefox would be up there on my list of open source applications that have really had success. I have issues with your second point though. James already pointed out that Firefox “borrowed” tabs from Opera and spellcheck from Safari. The think I want to point out is that by copying the best part of your competitions’ products is that it helps people migrate easier. If you create and environment that is familiar to the end user, they will be more likely to stick with it.

    This does not mean that app developers should just copy. I think that in order to be successful, you have to borrow their ideas and make them better. Open Office just copied and as a result it sucks (ok, so maybe it really sucks because it is stupid slow, but how does that help me make a point). Firefox borrowed tabs and spellchecking, but also created much more with it’s extensions system and a great community that fosters the creation of them.


  3. Ben Simpson says:

    Yeah, I put my Firefox logo in as a last minute change, so it does kinda influence your answer doesn’t it? 🙂

    I think that it is worth mentioning that while Firefox is copying ideas, they are not the ideas of its main competitor – Internet Explorer. In other words, they are copying features that make other browsers incredible – not just copying features because that is what the browser with the most market share does.

    So to rag on OpenOffice again, if your going to copy, copy from something that isn’t already bloated and difficult.


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