IceWeasel – Why proprietary software will always win out
Recently I came across a news article that made me stop and check the source — I was sure I must have stumbled on to the Onion or BBSpot. But no, this is really happening. FireFox isn’t “open source” enough, and thus IceWeasel was born, a separate version of the geek-popular web browser with a different name and logo.
(Open source is a software programming movement that wants the source code of a program to be freely available so that anyone can contribute, modify or improve the program. Unlike copyright law, it recognizes that innovation comes from standing on the shoulders of giants. Usually the only restriction is that whatever you produce using their source code must also be open source and any relevant trademark notices must be respected.)
I thought this would be another blip that would quickly disappear but it seems to be getting more attention.
- Brian McKenna wrote a fluffy five point list on Reasons to Support IceWeasel.
- A more rational list of Reasons to Abort or Support IceWeasel can be found at ForeverGeek.
- Ben takes the pessimistic approach with Five Reasons to Kill Ice Weasel.
- Me? I think this is a bad idea.
Anyone who thinks IceWeasel is a good idea has drunken too much of the open source Kool aid. Firefox is the flagship example of open source software, and is the only one “normal” people use. You’re more likely to convince your mom to use tabbed browsing than to start using Ubuntu (although, getting relatives to switch to Ubuntu can easily be the easiest way to remove tech support stress from your life and get away from all of those Stupid Windows Features).
- Is this necessary?
- The reasons for the split are weak at best: security fixes that will eventually become part of FireFox and disagreement over logo/trademark restrictions that Debian and Mozilla can’t reach a compromise on.
- Do we need to fragment the FireFox user base at a time when FF is meeting it’s first real challenge – - Internet Explorer 7?
- It was easy for FireFox to gain so much market share when they had no competition from Microsoft for over two years.
- Do we need more browser fragmentation?
- Web design is hard enough with the browsers that are already out there. IceWeasel may start off being functionally identical to FireFox, but give it time and they will drift.
(These are exaggerated possibilities of the future, at the moment IceWeasel only applies to Debian Linux)
This is the fundamental flaw with open source software. It is very easy to go off in a different direction. Having more choices and market competition leads to better products for the consumer, but it reaches a point where it becomes confusing to users. Linux is a perfect example — how many people have avoided switching from Windows because they don’t know which distribution to start with? Or because the user interface looks like it was cobbled together by different parts? 
Proprietary software will always win out because it can have a single-minded purpose and direction. Engineers and programmers have a tendency to reinvent the wheel at the drop of a hat, because “reinventing wheels” is what they enjoy. Even when reinventing the wheel will keep them from getting where they want to go. 
Is this a real issue? Not if it stays within the Linux community. If IceWeasel starts replacing FireFox on Windows machines then it’ll divide the user base that same way having two equally strong Left-wing candidates can insure a Right-wing victory.
No matter who is responsible, the result is the same. Fragmentation where no fragmentation is necessary over a disagreement with a trademarked name and a logo. I think Bill sums it up best when he says “I think mozilla and debian are both following good ideas to a bad end, in latin reductio ad absurdum.”
 “normal” being people who don’t know what Open Source is, don’t know a programming language. Not you or me.
 And also it’s strength. I’m not a complete idiot :)
 Which is thankfully starting to improve.
 This is even a problem at pro-developer environments like Google where management is finally starting to realize they have too many “hey, why I don’t I build this” under-developed applications compared to their strengths like Google Search and Gmail.
Best of Comments
Excellent comment from Alex Roitman to explain what is going on:
“Was it the matter of choice?
Let’s see: Debian cannot ship FireFox without its official logo. But Debian is not allowed to redistribute its official logo, because it is trademarked and the trademark law prohibits debian from allowing people to redistribute and sell the logo.So the choices were:
1. Debian has no firefox at all: I am sure this is waaaay better than renaming it. Right.
2. Debian violates the law and redistributes the logo.
3. Debian changes its policy and places additional restrictions on the use of a logo image shipped with Firefox. Then other packages will require the same. Before long, Debian is not longer a free software outlet as we know it.
4. Do what they did and call it IceWeasel.
Mattl has an excellent comment with:
“The problem with this seems to lie with Mozilla on this one: All the likes of Ubuntu and Debian want to do is ship a browser, right? Now, they are happy enough to ship a browser called Firefox that doesn’t have the little Firefox icon, because the icon is, rightly so, a copyrighted image.
However, Mozilla seems to have changed their mind on this and is now insisting that anything called Firefox must go through some QA process at their end – never mind that Debian and Ubuntu (and free software in general) is putting the Firefox browser in front of millions of people, and yes, millions – those One Laptop Per Child machines are going to come with this browser – so, let’s get Mozilla, quite simply, to allow browsers from the Firefox source tree to be called Firefox, and the problem goes away.
This isn’t about free software people complaining, this is about Mozilla complaining as I see it.”
Finite chimes in with another great comment as well:
“This is undoubtedly a Bad Thing for everyone involved, but it is not nearly as bad as this blog entry makes it out to be. For one thing, browser marketshare has long been calculated by rendering engine as well as the UA’s UI, and there has always been a significant variety of Gecko-based browsers available. If IceWeasel significantly diverges their rendering engine from gecko proper they’d be making a huge mistake, and they surely know that (and hence won’t).
I think it is important to note that while the Debian project are certainly Free software extremists, this is not a case of their extremism harming them. This problem was entirely caused by Mozilla’s unprecedented trademark policy. Debian could not continue to maintain and ship security updates for old versions Firefox if they had to get every patch approved at MozCo’s lesuire, as MozCo now requires. If GNOME or OpenOffice wanted to impose this kind of trademark usage requirements, distros would be put in the same renaming position (but, understanding free software better, these projects would be very unlikely to do that, even though they do both own trademarks on their names).
So MozCo has certainly fucked up real bad here, but the strength of open source is that no matter how bad they fuck up people can still use and improve the software they’ve created. This is not a flaw at all, but is is of course the fundamental strength of the open source model.
The only reason volunteers are willing to spend their time improving firefox for MozCo even when they disagree with lots of MozCo’s practices is because they know that their contributions can be useful to people regardless of mistakes made by the company.”
“Ok. So I’m a bit confused here. According to what all the posters are saying: No fork. So I did some googling and ran into wikipedia:
“Mozilla proprietary artwork controversy
In September 2006, Mozilla backed out of their trademark agreement with the Debian Project, telling them that it must use both the name and logo together, or use neither.
This Iceweasel is a full fork of Firefox, rather than a renamed package, allowing free software distributions a single point upstream for development, but intends to remain synchronized to the Mozilla Foundation’s Firefox releases.”
I have no idea what really is going on anymore.
@Joe (40) like @Deek (51) said:
Both sides so hard driven by their ideals that none of them want to budge or compromise. So good for them for sticking with their policies, but bad because it created IceWeasel, something that doesn’t need to exist in the first place. Both parties are guilty. There has to be another solution.
Btw, I am a Debian user, and a Firefox user for a long time. So I still like both of them, and will continue to use both, I just think this situation could’ve been handled differently.
I think this whole think just “annoys” me and at the end of the day, I don’t care that much.”
“At this point Ice Weasel’s strategy would probably only hurt open source, by creating a divide within the community. Firefox, whether it is truly open source or not is reprasentative of open source, and that’s something that I think hasn’t been considered in great detail by the Ice Weasel crew – that their project may fail in itself AND hurt Firefox.”
“*sigh* This is what happens when you let zealots drive the bus.
Why wouldn’t Debian just build into the distro a mechanism to _download_ (optionally, of course) from official sources and run the Firefox install post-install, upon first connection to the internet? A two- or three-line script is about all that would be necessary to do it. That way, Debian isn’t officially “distributing” the logo or whathaveyou, and we can avoid the whole freaking pointless debate. ”
“I don’t see how it’s a bad idea. I personally won’t use Ice Weasel, but the whole *point* of open source is that others can take the code and use it how they like. Fighting to protect users’ rights to the code and then telling them, “…but only for projects that we approve of” is nonsense. Should we only to use vanilla kernel source because it’s the most known and we don’t want to promote branching when the kernel is facing a new competitor, Vista? Ice Weasel may be a silly idea, but using branching as an argument against OSS (when it is arguably one of the greater strengths of OSS) is even sillier.”
Bill Davidsen said:
“Competition is good. People have many preferences, and browser use is not a zero sum process. I personally use SeaMonkey, because I want an all-in-one suite rather than having to load browser, mail, news, RSS, chat, etc, as parts. Other people want to select the exact features of each function, and therefore are better off to pick and choose.
I think mozilla and debian are both following good ideas to a bad end, in latin reductio ad absurdum.”
2006/10/12 5:45PM — changed last sentance of first paragraph, added insightful user comments.
2006/10/12 6:25 PM — added footnote for “normal” people, added finite’s comment to the body of the post.
2006/10/13 1:25 AM — added an aside clarifying that this only applies to Debian Linux, not Windows. Reorganized comments I included in the post to make it clearer who said them.
2006/10/13 8:30 AM — added more user comments from both sides of the debate, made more of a distinction with the article.