Firefox 4 is out, and among its other improvements, it is noticeably faster than before. It’s no exaggeration to say that the speed increase, when compared to Firefox 3, could save the casual web user one minute per day. As of this writing, the new version had already been downloaded by 3.3 million users. If these early adopters save 1 minute a day, that’s a productivity improvement of 55,000 hours per day, which is a little like adding an extra city of people to the Internet. By the end of the year, the boost from Firefox 4 will easily have saved its users 1 billion hours.
It is fair to look at Firefox 4 as a community service project, since it is predominantly the work of volunteer programmers and testers. If you evaluate Firefox 4 this way, it is a highly efficient investment. I have to imagine it took a fraction of a billion hours, perhaps just 1 or 2 million, to put Firefox 4 together, so the effort is paying itself back, by this one improvement alone, in a matter of days.
In the money-oriented, capitalistic culture of the United States, it can seem strange to evaluate the efficiency of a product that’s given away free and created mostly by unpaid volunteers. Money can’t be used as the measure, yet volunteers need to have a way to assess the value of their efforts. It is the highly efficient investments that create the biggest changes in the world, and Firefox 4 shows that not all of these world-changing investments are made with money.