Love and usability drive Firefox success

News 13 Sep, 2007

Founder of Mozilla explains how a sense of purpose and an eye for easy use has made the Firefox browser such a success.

The Firefox browser succeeds because it's designed for everyone to use and is a labour of love, the founder and president of Mozilla told attendees of a Westminster eForum on open source software in London yesterday.

The browser, which saw its 400 millionth download earlier this week, has 110 million active users and 18 per cent of the market share for browsers, Tristan Nitot told the audience.

The success of Firefox has been a turning point for other open source systems, he said. "Since FireFox launched, we see it's possible for open source products to have a lot of success," Nitot said, citing programs such as Open Office, Linux and Ubuntu as other big triumphs. "Open source in general is making progress in terms of usability."

But Mozilla is unique among open source projects, especially when it comes to usability. "We're different from average open source projects, which tend to be made from engineers for engineers," Nitot said. "They're scratching their itches. They have a need, and write it for themselves."

"People who can make software are engineers, nerds - not ordinary people," he said.

Because of this, many open source projects lack easy to use interfaces and feature too many options. "You end up with products with thousands of features and buttons everywhere," he said. "Power users and nerds will love having these options, but for normal people, including my mother as a computer user, too many buttons is a turn off."

Such options mean average users will never use the technology. "Limited distribution means limited impact," he said.

But he stressed this wasn't an attack on the nerds of the world. "I love these people," he said of engineers and developers. "I'm one of them. I'm part of them, I just wore a [suit] jacket to come talk to you. But we're different from 97 per cent of the population."

In order for Firefox to make an impact, Nitot said that 97 per cent of the population had to be considered. So Mozilla removed features in order to keep it easy to use for ordinary people.

While so many users is a sign of a usable technology, that other companies - such as Joost, AllPeer and StumbleUpon - base their work on Firefox is a sign of a cutting edge technology, Nitot said.

But the key to Firefox's success is not just its usability, but Mozilla's sense of purpose and the love of the people involved in it. "What makes us so special is we have a purpose," Nitot said. Choice and security in a browser are important as the internet impacts every piece of modern life in the western world - even dating, he said.

Nitot said people think of Mozilla as a company, and ask about revenue and competitors. "This does not apply to us," said Nitot. "We're advocates for users, rather than trying to make money out of it... Our goal is to promote choice and innovation on the internet."

There are basically two things that can fuel open source, he said: "Love, or money, or both." If it becomes profitable, more people will push for it. But, as with Firefox, users and developers spread the word about a product they love, insisting on installing it on the computers of their friends and family.

"I'm not sure motivating just be love is something that can be replicated," Nitot said, but such passion has clearly worked for Mozilla and Firefox, he added.

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