Interview with Firefox developer Blake Ross


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Even before its release, Firefox has become a real contender for the browser of choice. In the most simplified terms, Mac users could think of it as a Safari for both Mac and PC. But Safari it is not. Allowing developers to plug in their own extensions and themes, Firefox offers a high-level of customization that any user can appreciate.

Version 1.0 was released today after extensive public testing. Even the most diehard Safari users should be keenly interested in the launch of Firefox. Not only does it share roots with Safari, through Chimera's developer David Hyatt, who now works on Apple's Safari, but Firefox is a serious contender to break up the Microsoft Internet Explorer stranglehold. A variety of browers will mean developers will cater to browsers other than Microsoft's, and will go a long way to improving security issues on the Web.

With over 7.1 million downloads even before its official release, Firefox looks to put more than a dent in Internet Explorer's reported 93% market share. Can the 19-year-old Stanford David take on the Redmond Goliath?

Q: How many downloads to date of Firefox?

A: There have been approximately 7.1 million downloads of the preview release of 1.0 to date.

Q: Business 2.0 reports Firefox already has about 2% of the browser market share. IE has over 93%. Word of mouth and press attention will certainly help, but invading into Microsoft's territory is an uphill battle. Other than word of mouth, what is the plan to get people to give Firefox a try?

A: First, I wouldn't downplay the value of word of mouth -- it's amazingly effective. Recommendations from trusted friends and family members are more influential than any marketing campaign we could ever hope to launch, and people also listen to authority figures (e.g. ISPs that recommend Firefox, corporate IT departments who mandate its usage, etc.). Word of mouth is particularly effective among the younger crowd; look at how quickly Napster spread around college campuses.

Q: Beyond word of mouth that occurs naturally, we have all kinds of ideas and campaigns lined up to spread the buzz about Firefox.

A: Most of these ideas are being prepared and launched at our new community marketing headquarters, SpreadFirefox. Our baseline goal is to saturate the web with Firefox buttons, but we have plenty of initiatives designed tor each outside the tech audience. Rather than try to market Firefox in a way that appeals to everyone, we're targeting a variety of different groups with very specific messages.

For example, we're currently in the midst of organizing a college marketing team that will mobilize hundreds of students around the world to partake in campaigns to spread the word on college campuses. We're looking at what kinds of things are hot among students right now (like the animated Strong Bad cartoons and the social networking site TheFacebook.com) and making sure we're got Firefox's name there.

Beyond college students, we're looking into how we can reach the home desktop crowd. Many people currently use Internet Explorer simply because it's the browser that came with their computer or because their ISP provided it, so deals with vendors and ISPs and other such strategic initiatives are all on the table.

There is both anecdotal and tangible evidence to suggest that we are already making significant inroads into the marketing -- and not just into the tech market. Stay tuned as we roll out a variety of exciting campaigns on SpreadFirefox over the coming months.

Q: About the New York Times ad: How do you see this as helping you? Can you tell me how many names will be in the ad as of today?

A: The New York Times ad kills a number of birds with one very large stone. It serves as a statement to many different groups. It's a statement to the world that Firefox 1.0 has arrived, that it's ready for them to try, that it's not some small fry alternative browser which only advertises on Slashdot. It's a statement to our community that we're proud of their accomplishments and that we want to show off their names to the world. It's a statement to the industry that you don't need an enormous marketing budget and unlimited resources to advertise in people's living rooms; all you need is a solid product, which will lead to a passionate community, and the rest will follow. And finally, it's a statement to the open-source world that open-source software and end-user software are not diametrically opposed, that an open-source program can be directly marketed to over one million NYT readers

Q: How many users participated in the New York Times ad?

A: Approximately 10,000

Q: IE has created a homogenized Internet platform. We've seen the security alerts. While Mac users are not directly effected, many still use PCs and have to deal with the problems. What makes Firefox better than IE? How can it better combat all the malware out there? Lets say a year from now, Firefox claims 51% of the browser market. It's now #1 target for malware. Will Firefox stand up better than IE?

A: What makes Firefox better than IE is that we've designed the product with security in mind from the very beginning. 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. A study by Earthlink revealed that the average user has 28 (!) spy ware programs installed on his machine, and this is largely due to technologies such as ActiveX. Firefox does not support ActiveX because the costs far outweigh the gains.

Even so, "what makes Firefox is more secure?" is not the pertinent question. 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 within24 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.

There is no substance to the argument that Firefox is only more secure because it's not a target. We have the world's foremost security experts working to find exploits in Firefox, we don't support harmful technologies like ActiveX, and when security vulnerabilities are found, we work to patch them with tenacity and alacrity.

Q: Why should someone give Firefox a try?

A: People need to give Firefox a try because they need to see the web they're missing out on. It pains me to see people make assumptions about the web in general on the basis of the poor lens they're using to view it. They need to know that there are people out there who are passionate about making the web better and that are eager for feedback. Try Firefox and join 7 million others in a world free of spy ware and other nuisances. Try tabbed browsing and see if it doesn't change the way you use the Internet every day. And tell us what else you need to make the web work for you. We're listening.

Q: What advantages are there for large institutions, such as universities and corporations?

A: When over 30,000 users come to you and say "We want to help you spread the word about this thing," you know you're doing something right. These people come to us because they love their new online experience. Firefox was designed from the ground-up to be easier to use than any other browser on the market. We want to make the web easier for people of all backgrounds. Happier users reduce problems and thus reduce headaches among university and corporate IT departments. Dozens of universities and corporations have already come to us to thank us for the time our product saves them downloading new security patches and cleaning spyware and viruses off users' computers.

Q: At age 14, you interned at Netscape. What's the road that brought you from there to here?

A: Firefox began life as a partial fork of the Mozilla code base. Since the forked directory was called "mozilla/browser", it was originally called "m/b" ("embee"). Aren't programmers clever? I began the project with David Hyatt, who's now at Apple working on Safari. Both of us were still at Netscape when we created the fork, and the project was largely the result of growing disillusionment at what we perceived to be crucial mistakes at the organization. Since Internet Explorer was languishing, we knew there was a precious opportunity to produce a new end-user browser that would begin to gain market share, but neither Netscape nor Mozilla was making the right moves at the time. Enter Firefox, a mean and lean browser with a laser-sharp focus on the end-user. It was to be managed and engineered by a small team of dedicated and passionate hackers to avoid the too-many-cooks syndrome that plagued Netscape's and Mozilla's development model.

We released 0.1 of the product in late September 2002. It was renamed "Phoenix" since the project was born of the Mozilla code base. A few trademark squabbles later, we ended up at the name "Firefox". We released new milestones quickly at the beginning, but they tapered off over time. The product grew smaller and faster yet picked up more features with each iteration, and new converts came aboard each time. Today I still help develop the browser but find myself more involved in issues of marketing (I help run SpreadFirefox.com) and project management.

Q: What would you say are the top three features of Firefox that will get people to pay notice? (Mac users in Mind)

A: We have many compelling features, and in fact, some of our most attractive "features" are what we don't have (spyware, etc.). But I would have to say(1) tabbed browsing, which is just an enlightening experience that you never go back from; (2) our new find bar, which improves on the decade-only find window by speeding it up immensely; and (3) our fantastic extensions support. There are now over 200 extensions that our users can pick and choose from to build the browser of their dreams. Even between our official releases, our users will always be on the cutting edge because we have a vibrant community of extension authors who are always pushing the limits of the web.

Q: What are your thoughts on Apple's Safari? Why would a Safari user want to move over to Firefox?

A: Safari is a fantastic browser, and it shares a deep-seated focus on the end-user with Firefox (perhaps no surprisingly, since as I said earlier, David Hyatt is now one of the leads on it). But Safari is still lacking in a few key areas compared to Firefox. First, Firefox sports vastly superior website compatibility; many websites that just don't render properly in Safari work fine in Firefox. Second, Safari does not offer the wide array of extensions that Firefox does. Users that aren't satisfied with Safari out of the box are pretty limited in terms of the way they can customize and extend it.

Q: How does Firefox compare or relate to Mozilla? Netscape 7.2? Chimera?

A: Mozilla is an integrated suite of web applications -- browser, mail &newsgroups, webpage composer and chat client. We also sometimes joke that it includes the kitchen sink. Mozilla is older technology geared toward advanced users.

Netscape 7.2 is based on Mozilla, so it's also geared toward a more advanced audience. It also includes an instant messaging client. Firefox is smaller and faster (according to the numbers) than both Mozilla and Netscape, and we believe it's easier to use as well.

Chimera is a great, fast little Mac browser but it lacks many of the features that Firefox offers.

Q: What are the top/best add-ons for Firefox?

A: Our users' preferences match up well with my own. Personally, I like AdBlock, which lets you block banner ads, Flash ads and other annoyances with ease; the Googlebar, which offers all the great functionality of the Google Toolbar for IE; Foxylicious, which works with the del.icio.us service to let you share your bookmarks with ease; and FoxyTunes, which integrates a number of different music players right into Firefox so the lazy don't have to switch windows to play and manage their music. All extensions are available from http://update.mozilla.org/.