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Mozilla offering limited live chat support for Firefox

Emphasis on limited so far, our reporter finds

By Eric Lai
February 12, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Mozilla Corp. 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 Corp.'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 U.S. working hours.

"The hours of operation are currently very conservative," acknowledged David Tenser, who runs Mozilla's support programs, in an e-mail.

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).



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