Firefox: The ultimate test for open source?

The adoption of the Mozilla Foundation's browser by millions of non-technical users could be the biggest test yet of open source development

The news late last week of a potential security vulnerability in the open source browser Firefox led to some fiery and frenetic reader contributions to our TalkBack service.

The majority of replies were from fans of community development, as is usual with articles about open source software; software created by passionate individuals is bound to arouse passion. While many of the replies were fairly constructive, pointing out that the security flaw wasn't actually that severe or highlighting the higher frequency of exploits in Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser, some of the TalkBack was far less objective.

Some of the more vociferous open source fans among our readership questioned why the article should have been written at all. The gist of these responses seemed to be that Firefox should not be subject to the same kind of scrutiny as its proprietary competitor from Microsoft. This article was regarded in some quarters as being nothing more than an attempt to undermine Firefox and even the whole methodology of the open source software community.

For some, Firefox has been placed on a pedestal and should be beyond reproach. Yet these are the same individuals who are keen for Firefox to be seen as on a par with IE. Surely if this is the case, it's only right that the open source favourite should face the same scrutiny as the proprietary offering, not all of which is balanced, objective or even fair.

Criticism is an inevitable feature of any development process and Firefox, however superior it is to IE (and we believe it is), will only face more of it -- if only because of its increasingly broad reach. If the development methodology that forged it truly is superior to the proprietary approach then open source enthusiasts have little to fear; groundless attacks designed to promote Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt will be exposed as just that.

It could be claimed that the growth in the popularity of Firefox --16 million downloads and counting -- presents the open source community with its first mass market test. It is the first time that an open source application has been placed in the hands of tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of non-technical users and asked to perform. Linux is enormously popular but on the whole is being administered by technically competent users -- trained IT staff in many cases. But Firefox will increasingly be adopted by the general populace, who in most cases will lack the inclination or expertise to get under the hood of an application. The year ahead may finally provide irrefutable evidence of whether open source development really deserves the devotion it inspires in its advocates.

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