Why Microsoft Windows Vista users will leave Firefox

I read that in an upcoming version of Firefox, the increasingly popular free software web browser, there will be an “Exit Survey”. Ben Goodger, a Firefox developer, writes in his blog:

We’d like to know why people leave Firefox. A survey on uninstall would help us find ways to make the software better in future versions.

This is interesting because I believe that a significant number of users will have no reason to run Firefox in Microsoft Windows Vista because that version of Windows will run Microsoft Internet Explorer version 7. MSIE 7 will have tabbed browsing and increased support for web standards, two of the reasons most popularly given for running Firefox.

Neither of these reasons is why I recommend one run a free software web browser, such as Firefox.

I recommend users run it because it respects the user’s freedoms to share and modify the browser (hence the “free” in “free software”). But this is not a view shared by the Mozilla Foundation. The Mozilla Foundation is a supporter of the Open Source movement which eschews software freedom and promotes a development methodology that says businesses ought to license their programs under an “Open Source” license because then the program will be developed faster, with fewer bugs, and all at remarkably little additional cost to the business.

Unpaid labor is certainly attractive to many businesses, but something that ought not appeal much to users (neither on the order of treating a business like a charity, nor because most computer users aren’t running businesses). Also, this is a set of claims which is easily disproven. There are plenty of so-called “Open Source” programs with bugs, or programs which are developed quite slowly compared to their proprietary counterparts.

The Mozilla Foundation talks about browser choice. The claim is one I’ve laid out here before, but it basically goes like this. Users deserve a choice in what browsers to use so that no one organization can dictate how things work on the WWW.

This would be okay as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far and it isn’t really true. Mozilla (the project producing the software we know today) didn’t offer users a choice in browsers. One only needs two alternatives to be said to have a choice, and therefore we can say that Microsoft and Opera offered WWW users a choice. And there’s nothing about a “choice” that requires software freedom. Netscape Navigator, MSIE, and Opera (once the most popular web browsers) are all proprietary programs. So there’s your choice, pick your master. This isn’t surprising, the Open Source movement only complains about proprietary software in that it is less efficiently developed than the software development model they advocate; there’s nothing there about how people ought to treat one another, how to build a better society by eschewing a dog-eat-dog society, and why we ought to value freedom for its own sake.

So long as the Mozilla Foundation remains silent on software freedom, they are ignoring the best reason to use Firefox instead of a non-free browser, and in so doing giving users no reason to stay with free software. Users have to learn to value software freedom for its own sake to have a reason to continue to use free software instead of a proprietary alternative.

3 thoughts on “Why Microsoft Windows Vista users will leave Firefox

  1. Have you seen the Screenshots of the new IE with tabbed browsing? Looks like FireFox with an IE skin :-|

  2. The majority of people – even tech heads – don’t want to modify their software. They just want software that works.

    From the user’s perspective, IE works, Opera works, Firefox works. What’s the difference? That’ll be even more pronounced when IE 7 comes out.

    “Software freedom” is an ideology that doesn’t have any significance to the strong, strong, strong majority of users. And really, why should it? Most of us are perfectly happy getting other products in our lives from companies that exist for profit and don’t reveal every inside detail of their operations.

  3. A thorough and very easily understood explanation to why software should not have owners is available. I strongly recommend reading their essay because the folks at the FSF have been talking about this issue for so long and thinking about this from a socially relevant perspective, not just from the viewpoint of what businesses today want and how to confirm the status quo. On my community radio show, Digital Citizen, I play talks from the FSF and I find that people who have been taught to evaluate software solely on the basis you describe come away understanding that there are greater social issues at stake here. It is far more instructive to pull back the lens and examine the situation we’re now in from a perspective of how things came to be (proprietary software is actually quite recent, not how computers and software worked originally), and what effect they have on people (generally, making them helpless no matter how expert they may be in dealing with computers).

    The chief reason proprietary software is to be eschewed is its effect on society. Proprietary software separates us from each other and makes us dependent on the proprietor who gains control over how we communicate with each other and get jobs done. We are incapable of helping one another in a way that isn’t predetermined by the proprietor. You can’t help your friends by passing on a copy of a proprietary program (even one that is useful for you and would be useful for anyone else who has a comparable job). You can’t help your community by sharing copies with them, or modifying the software to make it more useful for them (even doing so commercially).

    However, there are other reasons why proprietary software is to be avoided. Software that works is fairly inaccurate as well as inadequate to understanding how proprietary software adversely affects us as people; it’s hard to find people who know what they’re talking about who will agree that proprietary software is trustworthy. After all, it’s uninspectable by default, so often determining how well it works is a matter of waiting for bugs to be found and then waiting for the proprietor to fix them (assuming they choose to do so at all). Meanwhile, we all relish the freedom of being able to inspect, modify, and share information about our cars, electrical systems, plumbing systems, and more despite that most people are not technicians of any sort. We think nothing of hiring out to handle these maintenance jobs.

    Many people value freedom of speech in its own right, so people are capable of understanding the importance of particular specific freedoms as well as the nice things these freedoms get us. The question is whether people are being taught to think of software in this way. And if they’re not (and I’d agree with you that they’re not), why not and who will pick up the job of accomplishing this?

    I look at the fight for software freedom as a campaign of education. And the proprietors are inadvertantly helping by showing what happens when you don’t have the freedoms to run, inspect, share, and modify computer software any time for any reason. In the past 20 years, the free software movement has made incredible strides around the world convincing people of precisely what you claim people will not consider. In the US, this fight is harder to make than in other countries probably because Americans have been taught to think that, metaphorically of course, the sun rises and falls because of businesses.

    Finally, you are conflating earning a profit with software freedom. The two are distinct. Small and large organizations (such as those charging hundreds of dollars an hour for modifying GCC, my own far less expensive consultancy, and large firms like IBM) see that the proprietary software distribution business isn’t profitable.

    I would be happy to purchase a copy of a tax form preparation program if it were free software. I’d expect that I’d actually pay for access to a 24-7 hotline for help from a real person skilled in the use of the program, a nicely printed manual, a warranty to cover my costs if I’m audited as a result of an error in the program, and a copy of the warranted program (along with its complete corresponding source code). Anyone is free to run, share, inspect, and modify the program but anyone would have the power to not sell a warranty or hotline support for anything but a program that is identical to their warranted version of the program.

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