Thursday, March 15, 2007
The Business Case For Firefox
The incredibly good software development book Peopleware documents something extraordinary: hard numerical evidence that normal office environments have a powerful negative effect on productivity, both as measured by lines of code written and by number of defects. Cubicles considered harmful. While the anecdotal evidence which the open source movement provides in favor of this conclusion is obvious, Peopleware takes it to the next level by providing actual proof. It forces you to realize, this thing which conventional thinking would label a self-indulgent luxury is no luxury at all: it's a powerful competitive advantage.
At my job, we're fortunate enough to have the luxury of requiring our clients, in some cases, to use Firefox, and refusing to support Internet Explorer at all. But the reality is, it isn't a luxury either. This, also, is a powerful competitive advantage -- and more so for our clients than for us.
Here's why. Many of our clients need us to develop enterprise software for them; software they use to run their businesses. It's not at all unrealistic to imagine this software still running a decade from now. So on the one hand, you have a standards-compliant browser which will remain backwards-compatible for as long as Web standards themselves do. Ten years probably fits within that time frame. And on the other hand, you have a notoriously quirky browser which may some day become standards-compliant, and which will remain backwards-compatible for only as long as Microsoft feels like it. And remember, Microsoft has the single worst track record for security and effortless upgrade paths of any software company still in business.
We charge our clients extra for Internet Explorer compatibility. This makes it obvious in the short term that there's a cost associated with Internet Explorer. But as awesome as it is, there's a downside, and the downside is, charging extra for Explorer compatibility is easily dismissed as developer caprice -- as a quirk, as a necessary evil or irritating side effect when you're dealing with a bunch of strange people who care more about science fiction than business reality. (Remember, that's often what Joe Suit sees when he looks at a software developer.)
The way to translate things for Joe Suit is to get him to do the math. Your initial expense to build the software is going to be X; your ongoing expense to add new features falls in the range of Y. However, if you're asking us to develop Microsoft-specific code, your upfront costs will increase by alpha; and if you're maintaining that code, your ongoing costs will increase by beta. Be honest, make alpha a lot but not too much, but beta is going to be huge. Firstly because any developer in their right mind hates Explorer, and should be compensated simply for even going near that toilet in the first place; second because bad design costs money. Maintaining for Firefox is simply less work than maintaining for Explorer. Less work means less cost.
Also, be sure to indicate that your estimate is much more uncertain with Explorer than it is with Firefox, because Microsoft has total control over Explorer and can do any crazy thing they want at any given moment. They have a very consistent track record, when it comes to Explorer version upgrades, of breaking sites that worked perfectly well under previous versions. Under those circumstances, it's hard to say how much more expensive maintaining for Explorer will be; all you know for sure is that it'll cost more. Possibly a lot more.
Joe Suit is used to the idea that Microsoft is a no-brainer over the long term, but it's not a no-brainer in this case. Even though the words are almost identical, there's a huge difference between a decision which is a no-brainer and a decision which is brainless. Developing for a platform Microsoft controls made sense in the world of Windows, but in the case of Explorer, it's nothing but madness, and I say this not only from a developer perspective, but from a business perspective as well. Your long-term costs go through the roof and the security of your investment disappears.
It's that simple. If your clients don't know that, well, that's why they hire consultants in the first place. Educate them, show them how much money they'll save by switching to Firefox, and they'll say, "wow, you saved us a ton of money already, and this is just the sales meeting."
Posted by Giles Bowkett at 11:15 PM