Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Get Foxy

Yesterday saw Firefox, the open source web browser, attempt a download world record with its final release of version 3 (the beta version has been around for a little while but this is the "finished" version). Apparently there is no current record holder so I'd say it was reasonably likely that they've won that title.

Being the good citizen I am I complied and downloaded the new version which seems slightly slicker and feels a bit faster than my previous version. Which is nice. No problems so far.

The Guardian reports that they had so many downloads that it overwhelmed their servers, which is hardly surprising when you're talking about 14,000 downloads per minute.

It was an excellent stunt to help increase the take up of Firefox which, although it is the leading open source web browser, is still well behind Internet Explorer. 18.4% of browsers worldwide use Firefox against Microsoft's 73.8% - despite the fact that Firefox is free and IE is part of the dark machine.

Open source software, like Firefox, Thunderbird and Linux, use the principle that if something is collectively owned, open to all and free it actually turns out a more secure and effective system than one that is hidden behind tight security where benign users cannot point out problems, fix bugs and make cool new suggestions. That principle certainly seems to hold true and Firefox is a far better system than IE and Ubuntu is more secure than its Microsoft mirror image Windows, which is consistently vulnerable to viruses and the like.

Funnily enough when the developers first started on Firefox the logo was copyrighted which prompted hardliners to create an exact copy of Firefox (with identical updates) called Ice Weasel where even the artwork was free. I keep meaning to transfer over but never get round to it.

Alas, whilst it's nice to have alternatives to software tied into the corporate machine, you can't actually step outside of the capitalist model altogether. So, if you look at the world map, you can see that of six and half million downloads of version three just one of them is in Chad. Yes, that's one person. In fact the map looks pretty much like any other map of statistics related to wealth. The richer the country the more people are downloading FF3.

One note of caution on the map by the way: it doesn't have anything built in to account for the population levels in each country so it can give a distorted picture if you're not careful. For instance 145,000 people have downloaded FF3 in China (at the time of writing) which puts it in the darkest colour on the map - but please remember that proportional to their population they "should" be getting around two million. But the map's very interesting none the less.

"But it's free!" You cry, "surely poorer nations would have a higher take up." Sadly whilst it may be in the interests of third world countries to step out of the pockets of the big players - the very fact that they have less economic leverage has left them more, rather than less, vulnerable to that system. Whilst some development projects have aimed to promote open source it's actually been difficult to compete with the industrial might and prestige of Bill Gates and his epigones.

It's also the case, and this probably doesn't need stating but I will anyway, that with limited funds, computers, bandwidth and electricity it's probably going to decrease the number of people in poorer nations using any software at all in comparison to richer countries with a high technological penetration.

That doesn't mean letting up on promoting this sort of thing because it can't solve every problem of inequality all in one go. It just means that there are no magic bullets that can sidestep other social, economic and political factors. If bullets can step that is.

Every new society grew in the womb of the old so we can't just discard these alternatives as inadequate (which they are taken alone) but we should use them to help promote the idea of a more equitable world - where technology is available to anyone who wants it not simply rationed by wealth and kept secret for the sole purpose of expanding the riches of the powerful.

1 comment:

weggis said...

Yurp! I have my son's old PC in my loft, it's quite a good one, and I keep meaning to bring it down and load it up with Linux and all the other OSS stuff to see how it works. I'm just too lazy. Maybe after my op?

And you must stop posting pictures of cats. Mrs Weggis has a habit of sneeking up on me when I'm browsing and she hates cats. Doesn’t bat an eyelid if I’ve got a picture of a naked women up on the screen [purely research you understand]. They [that’s the cats] dig up her daisies and poo on her petunias.

I bought her a Cat Deterrent for her birthday as recommended by the PSPB, but unfortunately it wasn’t the model she wanted.

I am currently in the dog house.