26 June 2011

Mozilla vs. corporations: a culture clash

This week 5 was launched, keeping with the announced faster release schedule. The unexpected consequence: a controversy regarding the role of Firefox in the enterprise and how the rapid release cycle affects businesses that have switched to the open-source browser. Both sides have taken rather extreme positions and the discussion rages on in the comments. I can see the justification for both, but also flaws in their arguments and how both will ultimately loose opportunities.

Mike – I’ve been wearing the same corporate hat all day and beating my head on the desk. For most corporations, the technology is a tool for accomplishing their core competency and the business drives the technology. Being faced with deciding which is more important: security updates or the critical production web application needed to manufacture your product is not a happy place to be. A more stable release is needed when you are looking at large corporations with millions of pages of web content (sites, applications, etc.)
Nikki Alex

Any company, regardless of size or activity, has the ultimate goal to create added value, to make profit from the limited resources at their disposal. Naturally, this means keeping the revenues large and the costs as small as possible. As pointed out in a follow-up post by Mike Kaply, testing a new major browser version every six weeks or so – and possibly updating business applications to be compatible – will increase the costs of operating the company. Changing the testing procedure to reduce the time needed to validate the browser isn’t as easy as it sounds: any new procedure will have to be approved by the management and most likely also by an external auditor, meaning more time and costs. Increased flexibility is nice to have and could make the company more competitive in other areas as well, but it doesn’t develop over night. Deploying the new version without the full set of tests, on the basis that the changes between versions are minor, is a dangerous gamble: if some component breaks, it could cause significant productivity losses and again overhead for troubleshooting. At some point the management will start to evaluate if switching to another platform wouldn’t be more cost-efficient in the long run. I personally find it a bit odd that a big company would rely on such a great number of browser-based custom applications (“thousands”?), but I don’t know the specifics. Probably at some point it was estimated that developing on top of a browser was more time- and cost-effective than using native applications (multiple operating systems?); unfortunately it opens the door to this kind of hidden risks, especially since Firefox was never designed to be a business platform, workflow or something similar. It’s another perverse effect of the long Internet Explorer monopoly, who led companies to believe that browsers should be just as “stable” as the underlying OS. In a way, it’s similar to the problem faced by developers of iOS apps when Apple decided to change the rules over night.

Mike, you do realize that we get about 2 million Firefox downloads per day from regular user types, right? Your “big numbers” here are really just a drop in the bucket, fractions of fractions of a percent of our user base.
Enterprise has never been (and I’ll argue, shouldn’t be) a focus of ours. Until we run out of people who don’t have sysadmins and enterprise deployment teams looking out for them, I can’t imagine why we’d focus at all on the kinds of environments you care so much about.
Years ago, we didn’t have the resources. Today, I argue, we shouldn’t care even if we do have the resources because of the cost benefit trade. A minute spent making a corporate user happy can better be spent making many regular users happy. I’d much rather Mozilla spending its limited resources looking out for the billions of users that don’t have enterprise support systems already taking care of them.
Asa Raskin

On the other side of the controversy, I find the response of Asa Raskin a bit condescending and one-sided. If people use Firefox privately they are considered users, but if they go to work and fire up the same browser they suddenly stop being Mozilla’s customers and their needs are no longer relevant?! Ignoring corporate customers doesn’t seem like a smart move for a product that has stagnated for more than a year and that doesn’t do so hot in the mobile space either. The lack of strategy leaves the space wide open for the traditional supplier, Microsoft, and the new kid on the block, , who will certainly seize the opportunity to push along with Google Apps. Google Chrome already has tools to integrate with corporate group policies and to control the auto-update mechanism. Mozilla is also passing away a source of income – it could offer paid support to companies deploying Firefox on a large scale. Right now, most of the money come from the search deal with Google, which is set expire later this year. Without funds, no amount of rapid updates will be able to sustain Mozilla.

Why is it such an issue for some that Firefox now updates every couple of weeks? It could be a problem of perception: people simply dislike change – just remember how many times was bashed for changes in design. There is also the recurring frustration of broken add-ons for both private and business customers; Firefox still struggles to manage the compatibility across versions. In the end it’s hard to understand why the rapid development couldn’t be run inside a traditional versioning system. Minor releases would have triggered less alarm bells for users and companies, while at the same time breaking less extensions that don’t update often enough. If anybody still wonders why Google decided to start fresh in browser development, here is the best justification for it: set people’s expectations right from the beginning and avoid this kind of friction along the way.

Who is to say that “public good” and corporate success can’t go hand in hand? In the end, the problem could lie with different organizational cultures: companies don’t understand Mozilla’s commitment to the web, because for them it’s just another tool used to communicate and promote; any evolution should be carefully considered against the costs and business impact. On the other hand, being a non-profit organization, Mozilla doesn’t focus on profitability and so has no real context to relate to it’s corporate customers and their needs.

Update: And now we have the official, more moderate, response from Mozilla.

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