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Mozilla's 'magic pixie dust'

About the authors
Becky Hogge is a freelance writer and broadcaster. She is the former executive director of the Open Rights Group, a London-based campaigning organisation that fights for civil and consumer rights in the digital age. She was previously the managing editor, and then technology director, of openDemocracy.net. She blogs here, and co-presents acclaimed London radio show Little Atoms. Her first book, Barefoot into Cyberspace, was published in summer 2011
Hamza Khan-Cheema holds the Information Architect & Software Developer position at openDemocracy. He obtained a Computer Science degree from the University of Nottingham (UK). Hamza has also developed a complete content management system (CMS), based entirely on open source applications, for the University Of Gloucestershire.
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It's funny the little things you judge people by. A couple of weeks ago one of openDemocracy’s new interns shocked me when he exclaimed “I really can't stand this Firefox thing”. He was referring to the web browser Mozilla Firefox, used as standard in the openDemocracy offices, yet new to him, a lifetime user of Microsoft's Internet Explorer. But Firefox is more than just a browser: it is a symbol of the democratic use of the internet.

When Firefox 1.0 launched in the UK back in November 2004, it made the headlines. It was the first time the release of a piece of computer software merited its own leader in a national newspaper (Britain's The Guardian). Online hipsters downloaded the web browser in droves, and the adoption of the open source technology snowballed. Mozilla Firefox now enjoys just over 8% of the browser market share – not bad in a market that has seen some of the most high profile monopoly actions in legal history.

Hamza Khan-Cheema, openDemocracy’s Information Architect and Software Developer, explains what draws him, and developers like him, into the open source community

Why do you like working with open source software?
I think software which is developed under open source is generally better software with less bugs. Due to the nature of development when bugs do arise they are generally fixed quite quickly. The development release cycle is also generally quicker compared to closed source projects.

Open source software is usually distributed at no cost. This helps people who cannot necessarily afford the sometimes high prices that software houses charge.

Above all I think the main reason is the flexibility. If I want to add to the software I know I can download the source and change it to meet my needs and then make that change available to the community.

How long have you been interested in open source?
I started looking into open source software in my final year at University. I wanted to get to grips with GNU/Linux, so I installed it as my main operating system and developed my dissertation under it, utilising open source applications.

What else on openDemocracy is open source?
openDemocracy uses a number of open source platforms to power the site. The main pieces of open source software used are GNU/Linux as the operating system, Apache 2 as the http web server and Tomcat 5 as the JSP (Java Server Page) engine. All the code is developed using an open source IDE (Integrated development environment) called Netbeans.

Will you ever release the source code for the openDemocracy website?
Unfortunately we currently do not have any plans to release the source code for openDemocracy as open source. A good open source CMS (Content Management System) must be generic in nature, otherwise the usefulness of such software becomes reduced.

I really do hope that one day our CMS will be available as open source, It could happen once our technical team expands and there are people available to manage such an exciting project.

What do you think is special about writing software code that makes open source a good idea?
I think what makes open source special is that a lot of the projects are managed by people in their spare time, in conjunction with them having a full time job. This shows commitment and dedication by people who for no material gain are utilising their time for the benefit of the open source community.

The antitrust cases brought against Microsoft in the late nineties now seem like a distant memory. But in 1998, having been pushed out of the market by their Redmond competitor, a (comparatively) little company did a big thing. On 22 January, Netscape Communications Corporation, bruised and battered by the “browser wars” that for Microsoft were to end in court, gave away the source code for their Communicator 4.0 web browser.

For most of us, a whole pile of programming source code (the interface language between human and machine), is hardly an ideal gift. But to a growing community of programmers, it was as if all their overdue Christmas presents had come at once. These programmers, scattered all over the world but united by a collective enthusiasm for the opportunities for massive colaboration on software code that the internet offers, came to be known as the 'open source' community.

Netscape had timed their release well. Just seven months previously, a collection of essays by the technologist Eric S Raymond had been published under the beguiling title The Cathedral and the Bazaar. In the book, Raymond sung the praises of a new way of working on computer code, facilitated by the internet and pioneered by a young Finnish programmer, Linus Torvalds. Raymond defined the style of open source as against the hierarchical structures of commercial software companies, calling on Brook's Law (“Adding more programmers to a late project makes it later”) to back up his case.

Instead of this “cathedral-building” style of working, with authority over code limited to a closely controlled set of employees working in a top-down structure, Raymond showed how working within a “bazaar” model – anarchic, open and ad hoc – produced faster, better results.

He had a big example to back him up. From the late eighties, the maverick MIT programmer Richard Stallman had been working on a Unix-based operating system cheekily called GNU (Gnu's Not Unix). Programming had stalled on the design of one of the components, a kernel. Then in stepped Linus Torvalds and his band of merry programmers on the comp.os.minix USENET message board.

Together, in under six months, these programmers worked collaboratively to produce the Linux kernel, the final piece in Stallman's puzzle. The coding was exuberant, fuelled by the programmers’ enthusiasm for the project. There was no financial gain for any of them, and Raymond surmised that they had been motivated by the appeal of reputation – the better the code they produced, the more their peers would respect them as coders.

The promise of respect encouraged many programmers to submit patches to Linux (Torvalds maxim “release early, release often” meant code was raw and riddled with “bugs”) and the schema worked – a reliable kernel emerged in less than a tenth of the time one would expect from a commercial software company. From this Raymond made his first, charming, deduction: “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”.

So, when Netscape released the source code of their browser, it was eyeballs they were after. They set up the Mozilla Organisation (later the Mozilla Foundation) to manage the further, open source development of the software into a second generation browser, capable of taking advantage of all that the world wide web had to offer. Initially the eyeballs were slow to come. Netscape had got open source a bit wrong, and hadn’t given the programmers the tools they needed. For their part, the open source community was slow to trust a commercial company bearing gifts. In 1999 one of the officers on the project resigned, with the famous parting line “open source isn’t magic pixie dust”.

Nevertheless, in September 2002 Mozilla made its first, tentative, release – the Phoenix browser. The browser would be almost unrecognisable to Firefox fans today. A slew of “beta” (test) versions followed, until, little by little, Firefox emerged.

It is no wonder then that the world was on tenterhooks when the first non-beta release emerged last year. But is the Firefox browser’s history in itself a reason to use the technology?

Yes. Simply put, Firefox is better because thousands of man hours have been invested by people all over the world in making it a stable, usable and enjoyable piece of software. It boasts superior functionality to Explorer – tabbed browsing, inbuilt RSS feeds, and pop-up control. Further, because the code is an open standard, that is, available for scrutiny by every coder from hobby hacker to six-figure silicon-valley geek, an army of 'plugins' – additional services – have been developed by dedicated Firefox fans. These range from ad blockers to chat software to scripts that can change the way a website looks.

Internet explorer, by contrast, has enjoyed massive market share for so long that there has been no impetus to develop new features and services for its captive audience of users. And with no access to the code, only Microsoft can provide these services. Further, partly because the browser is so integrated with the Microsoft desktop and partly because Microsoft has a bad track record at fixing security bugs, Internet Explorer has been gaining a reputation for poor security.

This is set to change. A new version of Internet Explorer, IE7, has been released in beta, with rumours of a 1.0 (non-beta) release at the end of this year. The new IE7 mirrors many of the features of Mozilla. But even sworn Microsoft camp-followers are sceptical about the new release, mainly because the browser refuses to conform to open standards of the web.

For openDemocracy's part, we'll be sticking with Firefox, and this week we urge our readers to do the same. After all, in terms of development, open standards on the web are just as important as open debate – as our intern now understands. What could be more democratic than that?


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