Tag Archives: firefox

Firefox 3 and the power of sustaining innovation

As I implied in my previous post, I don’t want to simply repeat all the great comments about Firefox 3 that everyone else is posting; better to read them in the original and not get them second-hand from me. But then I thought: instead of rehashing others’ posts, perhaps I can rehash my own? I’m quite fond of the theories of innovation created and popularized by Clayton Christensen, including his concept of disruptive innovations versus sustaining innovations, and have written a number of posts discussing those theories in the context of Mozilla and Firefox. What better occasion than the launch of Firefox 3 to write yet another?

In Christensen’s theory sustaining innovations are those intended to satisfy the most demanding users, along the product dimensions that they most value. Viewed in this light Firefox 3 represents sustaining innovation at its best. Demanding users of the web open lots of browser windows and tabs, run complicated web applications, are looking for more ways to improve their productivity when browsing, want a browser that preserves their security rather than threatening it, and like to customize browsers to their own exacting specifications. Firefox 3 meets their demands with (among other things) improved JavaScript performance and lower memory usage, productivity enhancers like the awesome bar, better protection against malware and phishing attempts and improved identification for SSL-enabled sites, and an ever-expanding collection of useful extensions.

Big deal, some might say: Firefox 3 is just an improved browser, nothing more. When do we get the really exciting stuff? I addressed this view in a post some time ago discussing the Tamarin project:

We’re conditioned to look for world changing, break the mold developments in technology and to dismiss merely incremental improvements. … [We] think disruptive innovations are sexy, and sustaining innovations are not.

I believe this is a serious mistake. First, the terms disruptive and sustaining aren’t indicators of the technical merit of innovations; they simply indicate … the degree to which innovations better satisfy the needs of existing customers (sustaining innovations) vs. appealing to new customers (disruptive innovations). …

Second, the cumulative impact of multiple sustaining innovations can be quite large, and can enable new disruptive innovations to take root and flourish. For example, as many people have pointed out, at least in theory Web 2.0-style applications could have been developed many years before they in fact appeared. The advent of Web 2.0 as we know it was really a function of multiple sustaining innovations that accumulated over time and interacted together …

… [The] individual innovations were relatively small: a minor cost or performance improvement made, a few more browser bugs fixed or new browser features added, …. But in toto these innovations added up to nothing less than a revolution in the way the web can be used.

In this sense everyone who contributes to the Mozilla project—fixing a Mozilla bug, making a performance improvement in Mozilla code (no matter how small), enabling Mozilla-based products to pass yet another standards compliance test, writing a Mozilla test case, creating or revising a Mozilla documentation page, and so on—helps change the future of the web and advance our goal of promoting choice and innovation on the Internet, to the ultimate benefit of everyone.

Firefox 3 is the latest example of the importance of sustaining innovation in building the Internet of the future; may there be many more!

Asymmetric competition

In previous posts I’ve discussed the theory of disruptive innovation (sometimes referred to as disruptive technology) created by Clayton Christensen and his associates, whether Firefox is a disruptive innovation in the sense Christensen uses, and the value network for Firefox. In this post I discuss potential asymmetric competition between the Mozilla project and Microsoft; much of my discussion is in the context of Firefox and IE, but my comments are meant to encompass the project as a whole.

In chapter 2 of Seeing What’s Next Christensen and his co-authors ask the following questions:

When will companies realize the full potential of their innovations and radically change an industry? How can we assess a company’s strengths? How can we observe a company’s weaknesses? Which of these strengths and weaknesses influence competitive battles? What separates circumstances in which it is prudent to bet on an incumbent versus circumstances in which entrant should have the upper hand? (p. 29)

They provide a two-part approach to answering these questions:

  • Look at the respective resources, processes, and values (RPV) of the incumbent and market entrant.
  • Based on the RPV analysis, determine whether the incumbent and entrant have asymmetric motivations that might allow the entrant to build asymmetric skills enabling it to achieve market success at the expense of the incumbent.

In the next sections I make an initial attempt to apply this approach to the competition between the Mozilla project and Microsoft in general, and between Firefox and IE in particular.

Note that this is not a feature comparison between IE7 and Firefox 1.5 or a speculation on the future market share of Firefox vs. IE; in other words, I’m not going to be discussing the things that people usually focus on in the browser wars. (And of course the very term browser wars already frames the discussion in a particular way; see my previous comments regarding the master narrative the mainstream media use when discussing Microsoft and its competitors.) My interest is rather in a higher-order analysis of the factors influencing the overall competitive landscape.

Resources, processes and values

Christensen et.al. define resources, processes, and values as follows (Seeing What’s Next, Table 2-1, p. 33):

  • resources: things a company has access to, including both tangible and intangible assets
  • processes: ways of doing business (skills), and in particular, ways an organization has developed to solve difficult problems it has faced in the past
  • values: prioritization determinant (motivation), or more simply, what business model an organization relies on and how it decides to devote resources to particular initiatives

Resources

For example, key resources for the Mozilla project include

  • an accumulated body of open source code
  • the technical infrastructure supporting a public development project for that code
  • the core group of developers, testers, technical writers, and others working directly for the Mozilla Corporation and key corporate contributors to the Mozilla project
  • the larger group of developers, testers, technical writers, evangelists, and others who contribute to the project, build applications and add-ons leveraging the project’s code, and/or promote the project in various ways
  • the Firefox and other brands and (more important) the massive goodwill that many feel towards those brands

By contrast Microsoft commands the following resources, among others:

  • insanely large amounts of money and thousands of employees
  • control of the dominant OS platform (i.e., Windows) and key dominant applications on that platform (e.g., Office)
  • an extensive distribution network over which it exerts considerable control
  • a large and effective network of developers and business partners
  • massive PR resources and a great deal of influence with the technology press, industry analysts, and other media
  • an extensive and growing set of web applications for search, email, blogging, and so on

Clearly, if measured by resources alone Microsoft is a formidable competitor for any new entrant into a market where Microsoft competes or might compete.

Processes

What about processes? What problems have either the Mozilla project or Microsoft had to solve?

The Mozilla project has had to develop processes to solve the following problems:

  • how to coordinate a large group of individuals and organizations in the context of a complex development project
  • how to develop, release, and maintain software products across a wide range of OS and hardware platforms
  • how to promote adoption of its products with minimal marketing resources, leveraging word of mouth marketing and volunteer evangelists

By contrast Microsoft has successfully solved a somewhat different set of problems:

  • how to leverage control of a software platform to overcome competitors, e.g., by continually moving more and more functionality into the OS as a bundled component with zero incremental cost to users
  • how to leverage network effects and control of key data formats (e.g., for Microsoft Word) to overcome competitors
  • how to keep users on a continuous upgrade path through both major upgrades (what Christensen would call radical sustaining innovations) and minor upgrades (e.g., through the Windows update mechanism)

Values

What about values? On what basis do the various participants in the Mozilla project make decisions on where and how to invest their attention and resources?

  • A major priority driving the Mozilla project as a whole is promoting adoption of Mozilla-based products, especially Firefox. A larger user base for Firefox, Thunderbird, etc., increases public interest in the project; this in turn leads to more potential volunteers considering joining the project, increasing the flow of volunteer talent on which the project depends for key functions such as testing, bug fixing, evangelism, etc. A larger user base also increases the overall economic value of the Mozilla commercial ecosystem; some of this value leads corporate contributors to hire full-time developers and others to do Mozilla-related work, and some of it can be leveraged by the Mozilla Corporation (through its business relationships) to build a core group of project participants, not just developers but other people whose talents, knowledge, and skills are necessary to create and distribute compelling products.
  • Following from the preceding point, the Mozilla project is motivated to port Firefox (and Mozilla-based products in general) to any hardware and operating system platform capable of running them; more platforms mean more users (or at least potential users) and (even more important) more developers (especially given that many leading edge developers use non-Windows platforms like Linux and OS X). In some cases the core Mozilla project participants support OS platforms directly (i.e., for Windows, Linux, and OS X); in other cases they encourage others to do this, and the project provides these others a basic level of support for their efforts (e.g., access to CVS, Bugzilla, etc.).
  • Finally, the Mozilla project is motivated to leverage existing standards and standards-based technologies wherever possible, and to do so in cooperation with others, including potential competitors. The project cannot do everything itself, and from its point of view the more people using standards-based technologies (even using competing products) the better the chance of widespread Firefox adoption: More developers using standards-based technologies means more compelling standards-based applications usable with Firefox, which both increases the value of Firefox to potential users and lowers the barriers to their switching to Firefox.

On what basis does Microsoft make decisions on where it should devote its energy and resources?

  • Microsoft’s major priority is to gain and retain a dominant (ideally, a monopoly or near-monopoly) position in markets that are very large or likely to become so. Microsoft’s economic engine is dependent on its ability to control the value network in a given market and generate ongoing high-margin revenue from certain participants in that network (e.g., PC vendors and enterprises in the operating systems market, and businesses of all sizes in the desktop office applications market).
  • Microsoft is most motivated to compete in markets where it exercises (or might be able to exercise) bottom up control, i.e., beginning with the underlying operating system or other base platform, and can subsequently leverage that control to achieve control at higher levels in the application stack and other points in the overall value network.

Asymmetric motivation and skills

For Christensen and his collaborators, a classic disruptive scenario is when a market entrant introduces a disruptive innovation of some sort and incumbents are motivated to ignore the innovation, for whatever reason: For example, the innovation does not meet the needs of incumbents’ existing customers, or the incumbents’ cost structures or business models are such that they would be unlikely to make money in the initial market for the innovation. As Christensen puts it, in this scenario the market entrant is protected by the shield of asymmetric motivation and has time to develop the sword of asymmetric skills that enables it to threaten and (in some cases) displace the incumbent.

The classic example discussed in Seeing What’s Next is Western Union’s neglect of the initial telephony market, which was predominantly a market for local person-to-person communications as opposed to the market for long-distance business communications (using telegraphy) that drove Western Union’s revenues and profits. The Bell companies took advantage of this neglect to build up skills in running communications networks, skills that they then applied to the long-distance market, eventually rendering Western Union irrelevant.

In an alternative scenario discussed in Seeing What’s Next, incumbents recognize the threat posed by the market entrant and move to counter that threat, typically by co-opting the disruptive innovation and incorporating it into their own product offering and business model. Again Christensen’s favorite example is from the telecommunications industry: Wireless telephony was initially a disruptive innovation introduced and promoted by new entrants (e.g., McCaw Cellular), but eventually was co-opted by incumbent telecommunications providers (primarily the baby Bells), who either acquired the new entrants or successfully competed against them.

Although Firefox as a browser is not a disruptive innovation as such (at least in my opinion), the past few years have resembled Christensen’s first scenario, at least superficially: Microsoft had overshot the needs of its perceived users and had no real reason to improve Internet Explorer further, especially since IE did not produce any revenue directly. On the other hand, the Mozilla project was serving a somewhat different set of users (as discussed in my post on the Firefox value network), and was motivated to keep improving its products, both incrementally and through the introduction of new products like Firefox and Thunderbird. Eventually the combination of good products, grass roots marketing, and Microsoft’s inattention resulted in the Firefox explosion.

That under the radar phase has now ended, and Microsoft is now motivated to try to counter the perceived competitive threat from Firefox and (to a lesser extent) other competing browsers such as Opera.

Co-opting the Web 2.0

Why would Microsoft care about Firefox, Opera, etc., given that IE is still by far the most dominant browser?

First, losing a significant (though still relatively small) amount of market share in any market damages the perception of Microsoft among investors, who have historically been willing to pay high prices for Microsoft shares based primarily on Microsoft’s perceived ability to completely dominate any markets it chose to enter and subsequently build very high margin businesses in those markets.

Second, control of the browser market in particular is key for two major Microsoft initiatives, its move into the general web applications market and its upcoming rollout of Windows Vista (formerly Longhorn).

In the web consumer space Microsoft must provide compelling alternatives to existing web-based applications and services from Google, Yahoo, and others. One straightforward way to do this is for Microsoft to tightly integrate IE and Windows itself with Microsoft’s web services, in an attempt to provide a user experience that is richer and more functional than that available from others. Success in this strategy depends on there being as many people as possible actually running IE, and in particular the most up-to-date IE versions. (Others could of course use the same Windows/IE features to enhance their own services, but then they would be dependent on Microsoft’s APIs and data formats, with all that that implies.)

Microsoft also needs to persuade customers, including in particular enterprise customers, to move to Windows Vista and stay on the continuing Windows upgrade cycle. Here again new features in IE and Vista offer the promise of rich network-based applications based on new APIs and data formats (e.g., Avalon and XAML). Some of these applications will be developed by enterprise IT staffs, others will be developed by third parties such as ISVs and providers of web-based applications (particularly applications targeted at enterprise users), and of course key applications will be developed by Microsoft itself.

Microsoft’s likely strategy is thus relatively straightforward, and leverages Microsoft’s traditional strengths:

  • Enhance IE to match and (if possible) exceed Firefox in both feature set (e.g., tabbed browsing) and other attributes important to users such as ease of use and security, with the goal of countering the defection of Windows users to Firefox and other alternative browsers. This leverages Microsoft’s traditional strengths in incrementally improving its products and effectively promoting them.
  • Use IE’s end user features (e.g., integrated search) and developer features to promote and enhance use of Microsoft’s own web-based services, with the goal of countering the growth of Microsoft’s competitors in this space. This leverages Microsoft’s traditional strengths in using control of a dominant platform to pursue competitive advantage.
  • Use new developer-oriented features of IE and Windows Vista to promote creation and adoption of new Microsoft-centric applications, particularly in the enterprise, with the goal of speeding adoption of Windows Vista and driving upgrade revenue for Windows and related applications (e.g., Office, Exchange, etc.). This leverages Microsoft’s traditional strengths in supporting a robust community of developers and business partners.

The ultimate goal for Microsoft, as it was in Web 1.0, is to co-opt new and potentially disruptive innovations associated with the web and web-based applications, and put them in the service of Microsoft’s primarily Windows-centric business model.

What would be an appropriate response to this strategy? My full thoughts on that subject will have to wait until my next post; however I’ll note here that in my opinion the best approach to creating such a strategy is one that takes into account the purpose, nature, and strengths of the Mozilla project, as opposed to simply trying to react to the actions of others, whether it be Microsoft or anyone else.

The Firefox value network

In previous posts I discussed the basics of Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation theory and considered whether Firefox is a disruptive innovation. In this post I try to describe the “value network” for Firefox, using Christensen’s definition: [a firm's] upstream suppliers; its downstream customers, retailers, and distributors; and its partners and ancillary industry players (Seeing What’s Next, p. 63). I also discuss how the Firefox value network overlaps (or not) with the value networks of Microsoft and others.

As I see it, the value network for Firefox consists of the groups described below. For each group I try to assess the degree of overlap with Microsoft’s value network (and others’ in some cases). For downstream customers I also discuss why they might use (or not use) Firefox, in accordance with the jobs-to-be-done theory that Christensen highlights as a better alternative to trying to segment markets by demographics or other characteristics: When consumers buy a product, they are really hiring the product to get a job done for themselves. … Companies are successful when they make it easier for customers to get done something they historically cared about. (Seeing What’s Next, p. 281)

  • Downstream customers. These include two major groups:
    • Intermediate to advanced individual Internet users, often with a prosumer or DIY orientation, who are either on non-Windows platforms (e.g., are Linux or Mac users) or are Windows users but are willing to use non-Microsoft alternatives to Microsoft products. The job they hire Firefox to do is to support more productive use of their time on the web, both by minimizing unwanted distractions (complicated UIs, pop-up ads, security concerns) and by providing power tools such as tabbed browsing and a wide variety of custom extensions to cope with more information and provide more capabilities when using various web sites and web applications.
    • Web developers who hire Firefox to do the job of providing a robust standards-compliant browser on which to test and debug web pages and web applications prior to porting them to IE and other browsers; note that these developers use a number of Firefox features specifically intended for developers (as opposed to end users), including the Venkman JavaScript debugger and the DOM inspector.
  • Downstream retailers and distributors. The primary members of this group are companies and organizations creating Linux distributions, including Red Hat, Novell/SuSE, Debian, etc., with some additional distributors for other non-Microsoft platforms (e.g., Sun for Solaris and IBM for OS/2). For Windows and Mac OS X the primary Firefox distribution channel is direct downloads over the Internet; Firefox does not depend on Microsoft’s or Apple’s distribution channels.
  • Upstream suppliers. The primary members of this group are the creators of the OS and related platform technologies that Firefox relies on; in particular this group includes creators of graphic libraries (GTK+, Cairo, etc.) and other system software — basically anything not in the Mozilla source tree that is needed to build and/or run Firefox, or that is brought into the Mozilla source tree from somewhere else. This group also includes creators of relevant standards that Firefox relies on (HTML, CSS, HTTP, etc.). Given Firefox’s cross-platform nature there’s not much overlap with the Microsoft value network in this group.
  • Partners: The most important members of this category are corporate supporters of the Mozilla project (Red Hat, IBM, Sun, Google, Oracle, etc.). There is minimal overlap with the Microsoft value network, as most if not all Mozilla corporate contributors are competitors of Microsoft in one way or another.
  • Ancillary industry players: This is arguably the most important group, at least in terms of Firefox’s disruptive potential. It includes Firefox extension developers, Greasemonkey script writers, web developers with Firefox-friendly sites (typically directed to the consumer market in general and to intermediate/advanced users in particular), SpreadFirefox volunteers, and open source advocates — basically anyone who adds value to Firefox and/or promotes its success in one way or another.

The following are for the most part not part of the Firefox value network, at least at present (this may change in the future); many if not most are key participants in Microsoft’s value network:

  • Typical PC users. As evidenced by market share figures, the vast majority of PC users are still using IE in its various flavors as the default browser provided on their systems; many of these users are likely casual Internet users who are not motivated to consider evaluating use of another browser.
  • PC vendors. These are Microsoft’s most important downstream customers, as they provide the main Windows distribution channel (especially for the consumer market), and Microsoft has considerable influence over PC vendors given that almost all PC buyers expect to be using Windows. It remains to be seen whether PC vendors will be interested in bundling Firefox or promoting Firefox as an alternative to IE; however it is a plus for Firefox that it can be positioned as an add-on to Windows, as opposed to requiring that vendors ship an entire non-Windows system (as with desktop Linux).
  • Medium-to-large enterprises and their IT organizations. These are downstream Microsoft customers for Windows, Office, and related products for the desktop and (in many enterprises) servers as well. The most important things to most enterprise IT shops are control, stability, and standardization; hence many if not most enterprises are likely to remain comfortable with an all-Windows/IE environment, assuming that Microsoft can adequately address Windows/IE-related security problems. Also, product decisions in enterprise IT shops tend to be made based on the union of product requirements from various parts of the enterprise, and hence favor feature-rich products from large vendors like Microsoft who can check the boxes on a large requirements checklist.

    Note that government agencies (national, regional, or local) are a special case: On the one hand they may act like other medium-to-large enterprises in their focus on control, stability, and standardization; on the other they can act as what Christensen calls nonmarket forces pursuing other goals and (at least in some cases) significantly influencing the nature and amount of innovation that occurs. In particular, many government agencies, especially outside the US, have adopted (or are considering adopting) policies encouraging the use of open source products, including Firefox. To the extent that they do so they will form yet another component in the Firefox value network.

  • Windows-centric independent software vendors. ISVs of business-related software are motivated to cater to the needs and desires of Microsoft-oriented enterprise IT shops, and hence will tend to favor Windows and IE. ISVs creating consumer software are motivated to support the standard Windows environment; supporting (or even just promoting) Firefox as an alternative to IE makes their job more complicated, and hence they will likely not do it unless/until Firefox adoption reaches a critical mass.
  • Systems integrators and value-added resellers serving small to large businesses. Systems integrators and VARs make up another major Microsoft distribution channel. Like ISVs selling business software, the worldview of most systems integrators and VARs reflects that of enterprise IT shops, and hence they will likely favor Windows and IE except in those cases when they sell to businesses with a significant non-Windows installed base.
  • Providers of web-based applications to business (e.g., WebEx, Salesforce.com, etc.). Given Microsoft’s dominance in the enterprise desktop market they have had little motivation to support non-IE browsers (especially on non-Windows platforms), although this is changing somewhat as Firefox has gained market share.
  • Major industry analysts. Analysts typically reflect the worldview of one of the two main segments of their customer base, enterprise IT shops, and also typically count Microsoft as one of the most important customers in the other main segment of their customer base, enterprise software and hardware vendors (who hire them to develop white papers, TCO studies, and the like). Their view of Firefox is likely to range from active discouragement of Firefox use to (at best) grudging acceptance of the need to consider supporting Firefox for a minority user base.
  • Mainstream IT and technical media. IT and tech media look to Microsoft as one of the main sources of news, and also depend on Microsoft as a major advertiser. Their interest in and treatment of Firefox is typically in accordance with a Microsoft-centric master narrative that provides the underlying context for their stories; in the case of Firefox (as with Netscape in the past and Linux and open source in general at present) the master narrative is Microsoft faces threat, Microsoft responds to threat, Microsoft (typically) overcomes threat. In practice that means that most media attention will likely be on the browser wars aspect of Firefox (How much will Firefox eat into IE’s market share? Will IE7 reverse Firefox’s gains?), with little attention paid to potential long-term disruptive effects associated with Firefox.
  • Operators of mainstream consumer web sites. As with providers of web applications to businesses, commcercial web site operators have been comfortable living in a world where IE was dominant, and in many cases (especially with banks and other finanical institutions) have been slow to officially support Firefox.
  • Providers of mobile devices (e.g., PDAs, cell phones, etc.) and mobile data network access (i.e., as an add-on to cellular voice service). Members of this group, most notably telcos and other communications providers, share the interest of enterprise IT shops in control, stability, and standardization; they also have stringent requirements for low memory footprint and optimal use of limited display areas. Firefox (and Mozilla in general) has traditionally not been able to match the performance of other browsers (e.g., Opera) in this space (although this may change in the future as a result of Minimo and related work).
  • ISPs. In the early days of the web ISPs were key players in distributing and promoting Netscape Navigator. I’m not that familar with what is currently going on in the ISP world, but at first glance it seems to me that more recently most ISPs have been content to assume IE as a given; whether this will change in the future is an open question. (Of course the largest US ISP, AOL, supported Mozilla development for many years, although they ultimately decided to base their strategy on IE for the most part.)

This concludes my discussion of the Firefox value network. As with my prior posts, this is a first cut at applying disruptive innovation theory to Firefox; please feel free to email me with comments and proposed corrections. In the future as I have time I’ll look at the asymmetric competition between Firefox and IE, and give my thoughts on what strategies the Mozilla project should follow with respect to Firefox.

UPDATE: I’ve updated this post slightly to reflect my own evolving thinking as well as comments from others; in particular I’m indebted to Georg Lechner for pointing out the role of government agencies as nonmarket forces promoting the use of open source in general and Firefox in particular, and for reminding me that I had forgotten to include ISPs in my discussion.

Firefox and innovation

In a previous post I discussed Clayton Christensen‘s disruptive innovation theory (as popularized in The Innovator’s Dilemma and other books) and how it applied to the rise and fall of Netscape. In this post I turn to more recent events, and attempt to answer at least some of the five questions with which I ended previously:

  • Is Firefox more of a sustaining innovation or a disruptive innovation?
  • In what sense is the Mozilla project pursuing (or could pursue) disruptive strategies, whether based on low cost or competing against nonconsumption?
  • What might competing against nonconsumption entail in the context of Firefox and the Mozilla project?
  • What is the value network for Firefox and the Mozilla project, and how does it overlap with the value network for IE and Microsoft?
  • Are the Mozilla project and Firefox potentially vulnerable to a co-optation strategy by Microsoft, as Netscape was?

Firefox: sustaining or disruptive innovation?

Let’s start with the question of whether Firefox itself is a disruptive innovation or a sustaining innovation. Before trying to answer this question, note the following points:

  • Given that disruptive innovation plays the starring role in Christensen’s theory, it’s tempting to see disruptive innovation even where it’s not present. We need to resist this temptation; Christensen uses the term disruptive innovation in a very specific sense, and we need to apply his definition very carefully if we are to use his theory to draw any reasonable conclusions.
  • Although we usually think of vendors as the key actors (the disruptors and disruptees) in the final analysis to determine whether an innovation is disruptive or sustaining we need to look at it from the perspective of the users, not from the perspective of vendors. More specifically:
    • If an innovation gives existing users better ways to do the same things they’re already doing then it’s a sustaining innovation.
    • If an innovation gives existing users cheaper ways to do the same thing they’re already doing then it’s a low-cost disruptive innovation.
    • If an innovation allows new users to do things they previously were not able to do, and/or allows existing users to do the same things but in different contexts, then it’s a new-market
      disruptive innovation.
  • Finally, Christensen’s theory of innovations (as he has evolved it) is concerned with innovations broadly defined to include not just technology innovations (e.g, Intel microprocessors or the Windows
    operating system) but also business innovations (e.g., Dell’s build-to-order direct sales model and the business processes supporting it).

Given the final point above, we have to consider both what Firefox is (i.e., as a software product) and how it is created, marketed, and used as a platform for other things.

Following on from the second point above, Firefox viewed simply as a browser (and nothing else) is best thought of as a sustaining innovation in the browser market, providing higher performance along
dimensions viewed as important by demanding Internet users: simplicity, better ease of use (including polished UI design), increased power (including features like tabbed browsing), better security, and enhanced customizability.

More specifically we can characterize Firefox the browser as a displacement, Christensen’s term for a sustaining innovation that [occurs] at a point of modularity and [targets] a specific piece of an industry’s value chain (Appendix, Seeing What’s Next). Firefox takes advantage of the fact that well-defined interfaces exist between a web client and a web server (e.g., HTTP, HTML and XML, CSS, JavaScript, etc.), as well as between a client application and the client operating system (e.g., the OS APIs for Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X). This then allows Firefox to be used as a drop-in replacement for browsers such as Internet Explorer and Safari that are distributed as part of the base OS.

Disruptive strategies for Firefox and Mozilla

Are there aspects of Firefox that constitute a disruptive innovation? Again, looking at it as a browser product Firefox does not appear to be a low-cost disruptive innovation in the traditional sense. The cost in low-cost is cost to the user; this includes price in the monetary sense but other things as well, including for software ease of downloading and installation. In this sense Internet Explorer (at least for Windows) is and will always be the lowest-cost product, since in addition to being free as in beer it will either just be there to begin with or will be auto-added and -upgraded as a side effect of turning on Windows auto-update.

However while not necessarily a low-cost disruptive innovation itself, Firefox is closely linked with and made possible by the low-cost disruptive innovation represented by the open source development model. In the case of Firefox the open source development model does not make the product cheaper than competitive products (as, for example, MySQL is cheaper than Oracle); however it does enable Firefox to be developed and maintained on a relative shoestring compared to traditional proprietary products in its space (for example, Netscape Navigator and Communicator).

(Note that the open source development model doesn’t really reduce the amount of development work necessary to build a product like Firefox; rather it enables that work to be spread across multiple organizations and groups of individuals, as opposed to being concentrated in a single vendor, and also allows development to be cumulative over time, since the source code and associated developer expertise is less likely to be lost due to the vicissitudes of that single vendor.)

The Firefox team has also leveraged another major disruptive innovation, namely blogging, to support grassroots product marketing and evangelism, for example with the SpreadFirefox effort. Just as blogging in general has provided people a way to self-publish their thoughts and comments independently of traditional media outlets, the blogosphere has provided a medium by which Firefox has been publicized at relatively low cost and without depending on the mainstream IT/computing media. This campaign has been so successful that — at least in the context of the Internet — Firefox now has very high brand recognition and loyalty, achieved at minimal expense compared to traditional approaches to marketing.

Are there ways in which Firefox competes against nonconsumption (i.e., constitutes a new-market disruption)? Again, Firefox as browser doesn’t really fit this description, given that almost everyone using Firefox was already browsing the web using some other product.

However just as it leveraged the low-cost disruptive innovation that is the open source development model, Firefox has also leveraged the new-market disruptive innovation represented by web-based application development as an alternative to traditional client-server application development. More specifically, Firefox’s strong support for web standards has made it popular as a development platform for web developers (who then port their applications to older browsers such as IE 5 and 6), while its support for the bundle of technologies newly termed “AJAX” puts it in the forefront of current trends in advanced web applications.

In addition, the Firefox extension mechanism extends this story by enabling web developers to take their knowledge of web technologies (HTML/XML, CSS, DOM, JavaScript, etc.) and apply that knowledge to customization and extension of Firefox itself, a task that in the past required knowledge of C++ and Mozilla internals.

The Firefox extension mechanism and the applications built using it are in my opinion where the most possibilities lie for Firefox evolving into a true new market disruptive innovation. To take perhaps the most interesting example, the Greasemonkey extension enables individuals to customize their own views of their favorite web sites (e.g., to rearrange or remove page elements, add additional content and functions, etc.), either by writing Greasemonkey user scripts (again using the tools in the standard web developer’s toolkit) or by downloading scripts written by others.

The Platypus extension takes this a step further by trying to provide an easy way for people to simply specify the changes they want made to a web site (using an interface within the browser itself) and then automatically generate a Greasemonkey user script implementing those changes. This works better in theory than in practice, at least for me (I couldn’t quite get it to work in my first attempt), but that’s not necessarily a problem.

As Christensen notes, at their inception disruptive innovations are almost always sub-optimal in one or more aspects; however users accept these blemishes because the disruptive innovations allow them to do something that they previously could not do, or could do only at great expense. If the disruptive innovation is truly worthwhile then over time it will be improved (through sustaining innovations) to remove the blemishes and provide a much improved experience for users.

In summary, although not necessarily in and of itself a disruptive innovation considered simply as a browser, Firefox considered as a project leverages three of the most important disruptive innovations of the past few years — the open source development model, web application technologies, and the blogging phenomenon — and Firefox considered as a platform supports true new market disruptive innovations.

These various disruptive innovations are in turn synergistic, and the combination of them in a single context in my opinion accounts for much of the impact of Firefox. In contrast, consider the cases of Internet Explorer and Thunderbird:

IE also offers support for the key AJAX technologies, and in fact pioneered the key XMLHttpRequest feature several years ago, well before it was included in Firefox. IE also introduced the idea of browser extensions and browser-based desktop applications (HTML Applications or HTAs) developed using HTML, JavaScript, etc., again several years before the advent of Firefox.

Why then is Firefox getting credit instead of IE for what some might claim as IE’s innovations? Part of the reason may be limitations in IE’s implementations of extensions, HTAs, etc., and/or Microsoft’s failure to more agressively promote innovative uses of IE technologies (a failure perhaps prompted by web-based applications posing a threat to traditional Windows-based applications). However I’d argue that Firefox has succeeded (where IE did not) in large part because it leverages both a vibrant open source development community and an effective blog-enabled volunteer evangelist community, neither of which IE has had.

(Microsoft of course has traditionally done an excellent job of attracting developers, but in the case of IE — as with other Microsoft products–this community seems to have been mainly focused on intranet applications and/or proprietary commercial applications. As for evangelism, the last versions of IE predate the blogging explosion; for IE7 Microsoft appears to be trying to put together a team of non-Microsoft bloggers to promote the product, a more top-down approach as opposed to leveraging true grassroots enthusiasm.)

IE was thus able to leverage the disruptive innovation of web-based applications but not the disruptive innovations of the open source development model and the blogosphere. Thunderbird in my opinion has the opposite problem: It can leverage the open source development model, and perhaps someday may have a SpreadThunderbird in emulation of SpreadFirefox; however unlike Firefox (and even with a similar extension mechanism to Firefox) Thunderird cannot fully leverage the disruptive innovation of web-based applications — at the end of the day Thunderbird is just a desktop email client (no matter how good), at a time when the very idea of a desktop email client, especially for the consumer market, has been under sustained attack by web-based email applications beginning with Hotmail and culminating (at least thus far) in Gmail.

That concludes my attempt to answer the first three questions I posed above. When I next have time to post I’ll try to address the final two questions: What is Firefox’s value network (especially as compared to Microsoft’s), and how might the competition between Firefox and IE play out?

Update: I’ve revised the article to reflect comments from Daniel Glazman, who believes I didn’t emphasize enough the disruptive nature of Firefox’s extensibility. I’ve tried to correct this lack; however I still believe that for the vast majority of its users Firefox is mainly relevant as a sustaining innovation, given that the use of Firefox extensions (and especially truly disruptive extensions like Greasemonkey and Platypus) still seems to be confined to a relatively small subset of Firefox users.

UPDATE: Subsequent posts in this series discuss the value network for Firefox and potential “asymmetric competition” between the Mozilla project and Microsoft.