Monday, 29 November 2004

another contribution to the great geek debate - or how to choose a web browser

open source or closed, that is the question. Even if your life isn’t consumed by this issue and even if you don’t live for technology, this question embodies some larger issues that are well worth considering. in case you are thinking “open what?”, i’d better explain.

throughout computing’s history (and prehistory) many of the significant discoveries, inventions and developments were made by gifted and insightful individuals who were keen to exchange ideas. these individuals whether they worked for a computer company or not, often believed that what they were doing was important enough to share with the world.

so what happened? money and lots of it happened. the computer/it sector grew beyond the dreams of any of its early pioneers and while sharing is nice, it can sometimes get in the way of of squilions of dollars. its not like the geeks (now a compliment) don’t want to share, but they now work for corporate giants and they in turn have shareholders and…

the open source movement is a kind of backlash against this corporate ownership of ideas. the name refers to the ‘source code’ for software which is the list of instructions for a computer to run a program. developers of open source (let’s call them open sorcerers) share the fruits of their labour freely* with the entire world so that anybody can use, modify or learn from their work. because anybody can look at a piece of code and improve on it, they often do and some of the open source projects proceed at a prodigious rate. the movement has a kind of 60’s “freedom” ethos as well as a strong evangelising streak and has produced credible alternatives to and in some cases superior products to those of their corporate competitors.

even for those who wish to ignore computers and can, it is hard not to notice the parallel with other fields of endeavour such as medicine, science and the arts. intellectual property laws which were intended to promote innovation have acted instead to thwart and stifle it (but that’s another story). even though much research and development is publicly funded or at least built on previous public work, we are seeing more and more of the resulting information and knowledge leave the public domain. the benefits to humanity of shared knowledge and understanding are being eroded away and maybe widespread adoption of open source software can help us develop a model for reclaiming those benefits as the rightful inheritance of all mankind.

And now for the nitty gritty – how to choose a web browser.

I am a creature of habit and if I have a tool that works and that I feel comfortable with, i tend to stick with it. i have several versions of just about every kind of software on my computers but there is inevitably one that i use the most.

after an initial exposure to the web via Mosaic, I quickly became a Netscape user. it took a lot to make me change to Internet Explorer. i stuck with Netscape 4.7 for a very long time, waiting for the company to come up with a credible upgrade always trying new things that came along but eventually giving in to the IE juggernaut.

i have been using IE for several years as my main (and default) browser but i also use Opera and Mozilla and i try any newcomer that i come across. recently i downloaded the latest Mozzila-Firefox and after some testing, it has replaced IE as my default.

a claim you often hear from the open source community and Mozilla evangelists are no exception, is that their programs are more reliable and less buggy than anything Microsoft can ever dream up. the truth is that despite a few outstanding examples, the opposite is often true. i always have many browser windows open and i spend many hours a day on the web but IE hasn’t crashed itself or my computer for over 6 months – it is a stable product with many well thought out features. contrast this with my new favourite which has caused me to reboot twice in the last fortnight. another claim always made for the Mozilla products is that they are more standards compliant. this ignores the fact that with over 80% of web surfers using IE, IE compatibility is one of the most important standards on the web.

given the above, you ask, why am i changing? there are several reasons.

the first reason is that i often have to compromise my web designs because IE just wont display things the way it says it will. i wouldn’t even care if i had to use non standard code to get things to work but sometimes IE just wont cooperate and there is no comprehensive user manual called “the real IE standard” (except maybe deep in the Microsoft Vaults).

secondly, Mozilla is a far better product than IE was when I first adopted it. it took IE a while to mature into the useful product it is today but i expect Mozilla to do that even faster given it’s frenetic rate of development. by the time it has, i should have become familiar enough with it to have my next few years of browsing comfortably covered.

third, Mozilla is likely to continue to improve despite what might happen to any one company and it will continue to be available for use on a wide variety of operating systems.

finally, being an open source project, means that all the work done on Mozilla will never be wasted. it will always be available for somebody to build on in the future.

as is my way, i will continue to use my other browsers and keep an eye out for anything new but Mozilla Firefox’s time has come and I have made the change. maybe you should too.

*as to exactly what you can legally do with any piece of software, read the license it comes with. this article confers no rights on anybody.