Mozilla has been quietly offering live Web support for the Firefox Web browser since the beginning of the year. It is one of the open-source group's experiments in improving the user experience and woo more of them from Microsoft's still-dominant Internet Explorer.
True to its open-source heritage, Firefox Live Chat is a valiant, all-volunteer effort. But the service remains in beta, buggy, and only available to users several hours a day during US working hours.
"The hours of operation are currently very conservative," acknowledged David Tenser, who runs Mozilla's support programs.
Rivaling Linux itself as most popular open-source project, Firefox has never had trouble attracting volunteers. More than 1,000 people freely contribute code, 20,000 test pre-beta versions of Firefox every night and another 500,000 test the actual betas.
But for the unglamorous job of chat-based technical support, Tenser has only been able to recruit about 20 volunteers. And during the actual 3-4 hour sessions, only about 3-5 of them are actually available answering users' questions.
"What we really need is more exposure so people can both discover how powerful this service is to users, as well as how fun it is to participate," wrote Tenser.
Officially introduced in late 2004, Firefox has been downloaded more than 400 million times. New Mozilla CEO John Lilly claims there are 150 million active users, including 50 million people that use Firefox every day.
Firefox is used by almost a third of European Net surfers, though global surveys show Firefox used by about one-sixth of Internet users, with IE still holding three-fourths of the market.
Still, Mozilla would like to improve its retention rate, which it estimated several months ago to be less than 30%.
Mozilla already offers several other forms of user support. Those include forums and newsgroups where users can post questions, knowledge base (KB) articles they can read at their leisure, and even an Internet Relay Channel (IRC) channel aimed at developers and more advanced users needing live support.
As of early February, Live Chat volunteers had answered more than 4,100 chat requests, or about 100 a day, Tenser said. Most questions have been from users who had been unable to connect to the Web, usually due to firewall issues, Tenser said, or users having problems related to Firefox extensions.
This reporter tried out Live Chat. The first time, no volunteers were available during the scheduled time. The second time, a tech support volunteer offered a fairly general fix to one problem (remove extensions one at a time to see which one was causing AJAX-heavy sites to render improperly), while suggesting I wait for Firefox 3 to fix another (occasionally missing passwords).
Mozilla released its third beta for Firefox 3 in early February. The group is expected to release a final version of Firefox 3 sometime in 2008.
Testers say that beta versions of Firefox 3 are faster and use less memory, have user interface improvements, and better security.
Microsoft offers similar free and paid support offerings for Internet Explorer users through its support.microsoft.com Web site.
IE users who have a retail copy of Windows XP or Vista are eligible for either 2 phone calls or live chats (XP), or 90 days worth of unlimited phone and chat support (Vista), according to a spokesman. After that, tech support calls or chat sessions cost $59 per incident.
Mozilla has no plans to charge for Live Chat. Nor does it plan to make it part of a formal support program, something that some large companies have said they would need before they could consider switching from IE to Firefox.
Tenser said volunteers do get questions from IT pros.
"They tend to ask about how to make changes to more than one machine without having to go in and make the changes via the user interface, or about locking down the preferences so users can't make changes," he wrote.