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Firefox needs heavy hitter Linux power

Big boys' browser blind spot

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Open...and Shut In the past 20 years Linux has moved from Linus Torvalds' personal hobby to an industry-dominating force, reshaping the server, embedded, and mobile markets. Linux's growth wasn't fueled on the fumes of peace, love, and late-night pizza orders. It has been driven by the collective efforts of many corporations, each intending to bludgeon each other by co-creating a rock-solid operating system.

No matter the diversity of the companies involved, from IBM to Wind River to AMD to Qlogic, the purpose was largely the same: to create an open-source complement to drive paid product offerings. Indeed, this collaborative development effort was largely possible because product value shifted up the stack, away from the operating system and into middleware, databases, applications, and more.

Like the browser.

Oddly, though, despite the rising importance of the browser in consumer and enterprise computing, there is no community open-source browser attracting the contributions and capitalistic urges of the technology world.

Instead, we see increased Balkanization of the browser market, with several major competing camps: Mozilla Firefox (Gecko-based), Apple Safari (WebKit-based), Google Chrome (WebKit-based), and Microsoft Internet Explorer (Trident-based, for now). In mobile, things are a bit better, with a seeming convergence around WebKit.

Why? We've already seen with Linux that for all the vendors efforts to compete in Unix, the real competition - and the real money - was found in complementary software, services, and hardware. It's inefficient for so many companies to be reinventing the browser wheel, with little apparent performance benefit.

And yet it doesn't happen. Mozilla's Firefox, the most likely community to rally around, gets pretty paltry corporate contributions, compared to Linux. True, the foundation does attract a significant body of individual developer/user contributions, but arguably the organization could do far more with more corporate financial and development resources. It currently relies on Google for the vast majority of its funding, with a contract that runs through 2011.

One decision from Google to pull the plug on its involvement and Firefox development would suffer. Considerably.

The alternative is WebKit, but that is largely controlled by Apple, and secondarily by Google. Given the two companies' hold on emerging markets, it's unlikely that many others are going to underwrite that dominance in code or cash to WebKit.

So we're left with Mozilla and Firefox, an exceptional browser run by an independent foundation. Like Linux, Firefox can be a neutral Switzerland around which furious competition swirls.

And it's not just about Google and Apple throwing in their lots with Firefox. It's rather about IBM, Oracle, and other enterprise technology companies whose applications will increasingly run in someone else's browser. This is a serious strategic mistake, and, like Unix in the past, is a compelling reason to actively contribute to a vibrant, neutral open-source community.

My money would be on Firefox to fill this role. I'm a Chrome user, but Chrome will never be a true community effort. Firefox is. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open-source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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