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The Young Turk of Firefox

Stanford University sophomore Blake Ross is the lead architect of the Firefox browser, which hit its long-anticipated 1.0 release in November. In its long preview release stage, Firefox—part of the Mozilla family of open source software—already ate into the dominant market share of Microsoft Internet Explorer. Ross discussed the browser and its implications with Redmond magazine Managing Editor Keith Ward.

What are the significant new features of Firefox 1.0 from previous versions?

Firefox 0.9 marked a loose feature freeze, so we've really focused our efforts in the 0.9 to 1.0 timeframe on ensuring that everything meets the high bar we've set for our first end-user release.

Still, some late-breaking features were introduced in the cycle after 0.9. Most prominent among them is the new find bar, which replaces the standard find window that we've all been using for a decade. The find bar aims to make searching for text in a page much quicker and easier by actually conducting a new search with each letter you type, allowing you to narrow the search as you go, and preventing you from having to type the entire search phrase.

Additionally, it lets you highlight all instances of a phrase on the page. We've received a lot of positive feedback about the new bar from the preview release of 1.0, and we're excited to be innovating in a space that has remained dormant for so long.

Other significant features that made it in recently include live bookmarks, which are bookmarks that automatically update and link to new entries or articles on your favorite weblog or news site, and a vastly improved plug-in installation system that makes installing Flash a one-click operation.

What are the most significant ways in which Firefox 1.0 differs from IE 6.0?

The most salient way that Firefox differs from Internet Explorer is that using the Web is fun again in Firefox. Spyware, viruses, security exploits, popup ads—the Web has lost its luster over the past decade and become something of a chore. Firefox helps prevent these problems, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Web browser by returning control of the Web to our users.

Besides simply alleviating the problems of the Web as viewed through the lens of IE, Firefox also offers a number of innovative new features. One of the most popular is tabbed browsing, which helps you reduce desktop clutter by viewing all Web sites in a single window. It's one of those things that sounds rather mundane until you try it—then you see the light and tell all your friends.

Live bookmarks, which I talked about earlier, have also been a big hit. And finally, the find bar I discussed earlier has really been motivating a mass exodus of IE users to Firefox. People didn't think something as simple and ancient as searching could be improved any further, but then, nor did they when Google arrived on the scene. We took a risk in reinventing something so familiar, and it seems to be working.

One of the most exciting ways that Firefox differs from IE is that it offers a simple yet powerful extensions architecture. We have a massive base of enthusiastic Firefox users who are passionate about the Web and want to improve it, and thanks to their efforts, we're able to offer over 200 extensions—everything from "mouse gestures," which let you do common things like go back and forward simply by moving the mouse in certain ways, to AdBlock, which lets you block annoying banner and Flash ads with ease. The variety of extensions allows anyone to literally build his or her dream browser with a point-and-click interface, and ensures that Firefox users will continue to be on the cutting edge of Web technology even between official releases. Internet Explorer does not have the simple extensions architecture that makes creating and distributing extensions so easy, and even if it did, I'm not sure it would have the passionate community of users to leverage such capabilities.

Above all, I think the most significant way that Firefox differs from IE is that it's developed by a team of people who really are passionate about moving the Web forward. IE has remained mostly stagnant for years. When you decide to use Firefox, you're getting a modern browser, and you're also getting a browser that's going to keep innovating and responding to new challenges on the Web in the coming months and years.

Is there any good reason to use IE any more?

I force myself to use IE frequently so I can see the Internet that most of the world is still struggling with. It helps motivate me to improve Firefox further.

I see no reason, however, for most people to subject themselves to it. Firefox achieved feature parity with IE way back around version 0.5 and never looked back.

Will Firefox ever have a fee attached for download or use?

Absolutely not; Firefox will be free forever. Our users understand that it costs money to develop and market the software, and help us cover those costs by donating or purchasing cool Firefox stuff from the Mozilla Store (mozillastore.com).

What kind of growth curve is Firefox on?

The Preview Release of Firefox 1.0 has been downloaded over 6.5 million times in one month. We are still enjoying nearly 150,000 downloads per day of the preview, and that trend shows no signs of weakening. Given the kind of buzz that a mere preview has generated, we really expect growth to explode when the final version of 1.0 is released.

Firefox is making strong headway among techies, but is it making inroads in the general population as well?

I see students in my classes here at Stanford using Firefox all the time. A middle-aged man sitting near me at a restaurant was wearing a Firefox t-shirt. I overhear people discussing "that Firefox thing" in line at the supermarket or in bookstores. We receive e-mails every day from dentists and lawyers and florists and other people with non-technical backgrounds thanking us for transforming their Web experience. Mainstream publications like USA Today and influential figures like [Wall Street Journal personal technology columnist] Walt Mossberg are recommending us to their audiences.

I think Firefox is really taking off, and not just among the Slashdot crowd. People have been frustrated with the Web for a long time. When you offer to solve these problems free of charge, the word gets around. We recently pioneered a site called SpreadFirefox (www.spreadfirefox.com) that's fueling a massive grassroots campaign to spread Firefox in every way imaginable. Most recently, over 8,000 people collaborated to purchase a full-page ad in The New York Times celebrating the release of 1.0. We don't need a massive budget; our users are our marketing department, and they are the best advocates we have.

Are you an open source zealot, or do you think Microsoft has a right to charge for the software it develops and markets?

Microsoft certainly has a right to charge for its software. The open-source model has worked very well for us, but that doesn't mean it's the only successful way to develop and distribute software.

If Firefox was as popular a browser as IE, would just as many security holes be found?

It's hard to say without a crystal ball, but I don't believe there's substance to the argument that Firefox is "secure" simply because it's less used and thus not a target. The IE team manager admitted (on the team blog) that security was not originally a priority when IE was developed, as other concerns like compatibility, user experience and winning the browser wars dominated the engineering cycle. We've spent years developing the solid, secure Mozilla code base upon which Firefox is built. We've finally arrived, and I think our time investment was well worth it.

Still, I think questions like this miss the point. Even though I do believe Firefox is inherently more secure, no browser is impenetrable. Thus, the more apt question is: How well does Firefox respond to vulnerabilities relative to other browser vendors? And in this regard, I think we're doing extremely well. We often manage to patch exploits within 24 hours of their discovery, whereas certain IE exploits have remained public and unpatched for months, leaving IE users completely vulnerable. We also started a bug bounty program that actually encourages renowned security experts like George Guninski to find exploits in Firefox by paying them each time they find one. I think people recognize that we care about their security and are working feverishly and proactively to protect them.

What other browsers out there do you like?

I think Opera has a lot of potential, just by virtue of the sheer amount of features it offers. But the Opera developers need to understand that implementing features is only half the battle; the other half is integrating these features into the user interface in a way that doesn't completely overwhelm the user.

Does the name "Firefox" have any special meaning as it relates to the product?

The Firefox project began life as "Phoenix," in light of the fact that it was the rebirth of the Mozilla code base. (A phoenix is a mythical bird that is consumed by fire and reborn from its ashes.) We were asked to change the name because a company called Phoenix Technologies offered a browser-like application and there was potential for confusion. Hoping to retain the spirit of the original name, we settled on "Firebird," only to be asked by the leaders of the open source database project FirebirdSQL to change again. We obliged, but since Firebird had gained a fair amount of name recognition by this point, we were reluctant to wrack our brains for yet another synonym of "Phoenix" (there aren't many, by the way). Instead, we decided we had to keep the first part of the name, and after some internal and public debates, we arrived at Firefox. We now offer free consultations on the subject of copyright law to all interested parties. Just kidding—but we did learn quite a bit.

As a side note, it's been amusing watching the media try to devise clever headlines that allude to our product name. So far, we've "ignited the Web," "set the world on fire," "outfoxed the enemy," "started a global firestorm" and "turned the browser wars into a firefight." Sounds a bit violent for a Web browser, no?

Do Stanford chicks dig 19-year-old browser developers?

Hey, I can't complain. Actually, it's been really interesting to watch how computers have become part of youth pop culture even during my short lifetime. Being the Firefox developer isn't yet the same as being captain of the football team, but all students use computers these days, and there's nothing geeky about it anymore. Plenty of students here use Firefox. Whether any of them are female remains to be seen.

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