Why Mozilla needs to pick a new fight

25 Oct 2010

One of my very first gigs when I started at PC Pro in 2007 was to interview Tristan Nitot, the president of Mozilla Europe. He was an affable chap, full of engaging answers to questions he’d no doubt heard a hundred times before. The interview practically wrote itself – though for the sake of appearances I held the pen.

Safari for Windows had just been released and I asked Tristan what he thought of it. “I want Safari to have a significant market share. We want choice, we want innovation, as a company that's what we stand for,” he told me.

I’ll be honest, at that moment Tristan was the software world’s Tom Jones and my knickers were mid-flight. Three years later and things are a little different. These days, standing for choice and innovation in the browser market is a bit like saying you stand for air and the colour blue. We have the browser ballot – Opera’s work, but Mozilla celebrated loudest – bookmark syncing across multiple machines, private browsing, hardware acceleration. The list goes on.

Standing for choice and innovation in the browser market is a bit like saying you stand for air and the colour blue

Internet Explorer is learning how to play nice with others, Safari gets prettier every iteration, Opera’s on feature steroids and Chrome goes whoosh. Do we still need Mozilla keeping everybody else honest? If not, then what is it that Firefox still offers? What is the outstanding feature? Add-ons are nice – I don’t use any because Chrome comes with all the ones I need preinstalled – but selling your browser on them, as Mozilla seems to be, is riskier than inviting Wayne Rooney to your nan’s birthday party.

Like the catalyst in a science experiment, I’m beginning to wonder if Firefox’s greatest contribution to browsers is not its continued existence, but that it existed at all. Put another way: Mozilla has won all its battles, is it time the company picked a new war?

My lord, if looks could kill I’d be stabbed, shot and dropped off a bridge by now. But bear with me, ferocious internet creature filled with malice and wrath. I’m not suggesting Mozilla give up on Firefox, or that the company’s rubbish at creating browsers. It’s not. However, given the resources available to rivals, and their renewed impetus, Mozilla’s beginning to look like a pantomime horse with a 100,000 people inside being asked to race in the Grand National.

Roaming troublemaker

I think Mozilla has a lot more to offer as a kind of roaming software troublemaker. The company has already proven itself brilliant at pulling a community together, offering it direction and spurring innovation in a lifeless market. Now that browsers are healthy, wouldn’t it be brilliant if Mozilla started a ruck elsewhere?

Now that browsers are healthy, wouldn't it be brilliant if Mozilla started a ruck elsewhere?

And in the finest traditions of “did you hear what that bloke just said about your mum” I’d like to suggest that it crash Microsoft’s cushy Office party. As it stands, Office 2010 and Office 2007 are brilliant, and all the rest are rubbish. I’m sure the community behind OpenOffice.org work very hard, but pretending the last seven years never happened is no way to make an office suite. Similarly, and I’m looking at you Google, pretending hard disks don’t exist isn’t exactly healthy, either.

In fact I’d rather carve words into my own flesh than ever use either again – a point rammed home every time to use Ubuntu for an extended period. (Just imagine how much more attractive Ubuntu 10.10 would be with a decent office suite pre-installed.)

This is a market that desperately needs somebody to be brave. Look at Scrivener on the Mac, an utterly brilliant piece of software chock full of ideas that deserve a bigger audience. I've written before about the implementation of tabbed documents in a word processor, and that’s only the beginning. There’s so many things that could be better.

I can feel the rope being slipped around my neck, but before you kick away the stool, give yourself over to wistfulness for just a moment. Imagine if Mozilla decided tomorrow to build an office suite. Imagine all those ideas. Imagine how brilliant that could be. Just imagine. Now imagine Firefox 4. Honestly, which one of those are you most excited by?

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