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.

2 thoughts on “The Firefox value network

  1. Pingback: Firefox and innovation « Frank Hecker

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