Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Firefox distribution

There's no doubt that Mozilla is on a roll. Their main product - Firefox 2.0 - is still increasing market share every month. Firefox 3.0 is due out very soon, and looks incredible - it absolutely blows the socks off any other browser I've used. With Weave, Prism, Mozilla 2, Mobile Firefox, and Mozilla Messaging in the pipeline, they have a string of blockbusters lined up for years to come.

It's especially impressive given that Mozilla relies totally on downloads. All of their competitors come pre-installed on the major platforms (Internet Explorer on Microsoft Windows, Safari on Apple OSX, Opera on mobile phones). Mozilla have to work uphill, persuading every single user individually they need to download Firefox and register it as their default browser.

Mozilla is an organisation with an intense focus on its mission - to improve the web for everyone. They have a unique and powerful culture that non-technologists find difficult to understand - they are passionate enough to treat their mission as a moral campaign. Firefox is just a means to deliver this mission.

To achive their goals, Firefox must have a high market share, otherwise they can't influence the industry. Can downloads be enough? I think Mozilla should be more ambitious. Firefox has gained a reputation as a secure, well designed, fast, intuitive browser.

Taking the next step: distribution strategies

Mozilla should persuade OEMs to distribute Firefox as the default browser. Everyone in Silicon Valley knows that Firefox is better than Internet Explorer. The likes of Dell, HP, Lenovo, Acer and Toshiba can surely be persuaded this too, especially by offering a cut of Mozilla's search engine funding.

This would be money well spent. It would further the Mozilla mission by bringing the full power of the web to even more people around the world. Mozilla could target certain countries - for example China, where it only has a 2% market share but a freshly signed revenue agreement with a local search engine.

The arrangement could also apply in the mobile space, where default applications are even more entrenched. What about an arrangement to ship Mobile Firefox with Symbian, Nokia or Sony Ericsson?

Obviously, Mozilla should maintain their downloads channel. Starting an additional channel by signing agreements with manufacturers would take Firefox to the next level, helping them influence the industry with openness, standards and the power of the web.

The Big Switch

I finished reading Nicholas Carr's new book, the Big Switch, which describes the rise of the 'cloud' (web applications like Google or Amazon) using an extended analogy from the electricity industry 100 years ago.

Carr points out that companies originally had their own electricity departments generating power, but as the technology matured and economies of scale kicked in, they instead purchased electricity from dedicated utilities. In the same way, he argues that companies nowadays have their own IT departments managing software, but as web technologies mature, organisations will subscribe to websites managed by utilities instead.

It's a powerful argument, and already conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley. Carr states it eloquently and clearly to a wider audience. Executives will love the arguments; IT departments have always been expensive and very difficult to manage, and the prospect of simply subscribing to websites instead will remove many a headache.

Carr lists Google, Yahoo, Salesforce and Amazon as being at the forefront of this change. In fact, he implies that there is only space for three or four mega-suppliers of web applications. I reckon that's not true, and it's an area Carr could have spent more time.

For example, the financial services industry still spends far more on technology than the search engine industry. Some of that is spent on email systems and word processors, which could be procured from Google instead. But the vast majority is spent on trading, lending, sales, securitisation and investment systems; Google is not a bank and therefore can't compete with this. Banks will never give these systems away because in financial services, knowledge is power. Citi and HSBC belong to Carr's list of mega web suppliers - it's not just Silicon Valley!

The Big Switch is targeted at an executive level of readership, as you'd expect from a former editor of the Harvard Business Review. I think it hits the mark pretty well - it doesn't go into technical explanations (we're still missing that book!) but explains the likely social and organisational consequences of the web in a clear, engaging manner.

I wasn't so impressed with the other sections of the book, which debunk the techno-utopians who assume society can only benefit from the cloud, and explain how the web is becoming a form of Artificial Intelligence. It might be well put, but it's not really news - the web is hardly unique as a new technology in having winners and losers. Also I suspect Carr is overhyping the power of the web's AI.

Overall I was impressed with the style and subject matter. Carr has hit on a fundamental transformation in IT and the book will help business executives - and IT managers - understand and prepare for the changes to come.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Too many mobile operating systems?

Vodafone's CEO, Arun Sarin, has used his Mobile Wireless Congress speech to call for mobile OS consolidation. He's claiming it's a pain to develop for up to 30 different incompatible systems (though, in a clear reference to Microsoft, he also confirmed he didn't want just one).

Smartphone operating systems are such a new and rapidly developing field that it's not surprising there are so many. There will naturally be consolidation as the big players invest.

It's incredible to me that he just doesn't get the answer - develop in HTML, CSS and javascript! Modern browsers like Firefox 3 and Safari 3 contain all you need - including HTML5 offline storage - to deliver compelling applications. Sarin's developers are focused on the wrong layer in the stack.

The theme of the 2008 Mobile Wireless Congress is supposed to be internet applications. That's a start, but still not clear enough. Let's hope the 2009 Mobile Wireless Congress theme should be web applications.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Tabbed Browsing

Tabbed browsing has been one of the key recent improvements to the web. It's made it far easier to work with multiple pages - many people keep dozens of tabs open for days, waiting for the opportunity to read or complete them. It was one of the main selling points behind Internet Explorer 7.

And yet, tabbed browsing is terrible. You can't resize, reshape and move tabs, like you can normal windows - they're all stuck at the size of the browser window. You can't search across every tab. And they blatantly overlap with the taskbar, for those using Windows.

Is there a better approach than tabs? Sure - think how you organise pieces of paper on a desk. They're in piles, at various angles, and at any point you can bring them to the front and work on them. But hmm - pieces of paper tend to get lost or crumpled under others.

I still don't think anyone has properly implemented a simple, powerful, and intuitive interface for working with multiple documents visually. That seems ridiculous - what on earth have we been doing for so long!

We can guess at what a solution might look like - a multi-touch screen allowing document resize and zoom, a quick search function across open documents, some way to remember default document dimensions. Some combination of Mozilla SVG photos and Jeff Han's multi-touch.

In the meantime it's worth pointing out that, for all their advantages, tabbed browsers are only a quick and dirty fix to the problem of working across multiple documents.

Friday, February 01, 2008


So it happened. Microsoft finally took the plunge and made a offer to Yahoo! they couldn't refuse.

Microsoft's reasoning is straightforward - they want to catch up with Google in the search and advertising business, which will require tens of billions of dollars of capital investment in the next few years. Sharing that load is a no-brainer; this is a game where scale wins.

Though Microsoft are focusing on the first two elements of Google's tagline "search, ads and apps" with their acquisition, I find their apps strategy - "Live" far more interesting.

Live has never seemed coherent. There is Microsoft live, Windows Live, and Office live. There is Hotmail Live, not to be confused with Windows Mail Live. All of these products overlap in confusing ways with their traditional client software equivalents. It's an utter mess, and it still seems to be going nowhere, perhaps due to cultural problems - Microsoft still don't seem to get the web.

Similarly, Yahoo's apps seem to have no connections or synergy between them, and they have a serious "peanut butter" prioritisation issue. However, in Yahoo's case, they at least own some incredible assets (Flickr,, Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Music), and some talented people that truly understand the web.

Hopefully the merger will force both companies to list their apps and place them in a simple, overarching framework. For example, a matrix with content types (text, raster images, vector images, audio, video) versus functions (CRUD, publish, collaborate, version, syndicate, search, store). That would even beat Google at their goal of features, not products. Because every month they dither, Google will move even further ahead.