Firefox Architect Talks IE, Future Plans

INTERVIEW Following our two-part interview with Microsoft's Internet Explorer product manager, BetaNews sat down with Firefox architect Blake Ross to discuss the recent launch of the browser that has challenged IE's reign. Ross fires back at Microsoft's claims of superiority and offers insight into the future goals of the open source Firefox.


19 year-old Blake Ross seems an unlikely foe for a company that has taken on the U.S. and European governments, but this Stanford student and his fellow Mozilla developers are adamant in their mission: Take back the Web. As downloads of Firefox 1.0 surpass 6.5 million, the new browser has garnered the attention of even Microsoft's top brass.

BetaNews: Let's start with a little background for our readers: How was the idea of Firefox born and what were the project's goals. Have you reached those goals with the release of 1.0?

Blake Ross: Firefox grew out of a desire to help the world realize the Web's potential. It was clear that, far from moving forward, the Internet was actually getting harder and harder to use as the years went by. Buoyed by the stagnation of the dominant Internet Explorer, virus makers, spyware authors and other people who spend their lives trying to ruin others' online experience had a free ride. Our goals (as outlined in the original Phoenix manifesto) were to create a small, fast browser (not a browser and email
client and kitchen sink, just a browser) that made the Internet easy to use
for all audiences. I'm confident we've achieved that with the 1.0 release,
since our users tell me as much.

BetaNews: In a recent interview with BetaNews, Microsoft's Director of Windows Product Management said Mozilla has had a "free ride" when it comes to backward compatibility because the product has been in beta. Microsoft has said that when you have "actual customers" using your products,
innovating is much harder. What are your thoughts on this - is Firefox
development going to become more constrained now that it has reached
1.0 status?


Blake Ross: I'm not sure what an "actual customer" is. We consider everyone that uses Firefox a real "customer" and work to serve their needs; perhaps the problem is that Microsoft's definition is more limited.

In any case, I think it's certainly a fair statement that we need to keep backwards compatibility in mind moving forward. Prior to 1.0, it was acceptable to break existing Firefox extensions and themes as we worked to build up the architecture for those features. Going forward, we will be careful to ensure that those continue to work or degrade gracefully.

BetaNews: Security has become top priority in the browser world today, protecting users from malicious code and spyware. Microsoft says it's not clear how Mozilla will protect its users and respond to threats once it has an "actual installed base." What is your response to this - how will Firefox keep its users safe?

Blake Ross: Again with this baffling qualifier, "actual." Firefox has an actual installed base--some sites report as high as 20 million users (not downloads). We already have a proven track record for dealing with security exploits in a timely and responsible manner, and I expect that to continue going forward.

We recently started our Bug Bounty program that pays renowned security experts to find weaknesses in Firefox; we don't want to hide anything from our users. Firefox 1.0 has an auto-update mechanism built in, so all users will be notified automatically when a security update is available and will be able to install the update immediately.

BN: One of the biggest buzzwords these days has been desktop search, with Google and Microsoft fighting for top spot. Any plans for a Firefox desktop search feature?

BR: I'm not personally aware of any such plans at this time, though we have a large and diverse community of Firefox extension authors who have created add-ons I'd never have dreamed of. Perhaps some of them will tackle desktop search. Personally, I think Google Desktop is already a great product and would rather spend my time improving the Web experience.

BN: There has been a lot of talk about Firefox as a platform for development. Netscape recently announced a new prototype browser based on Firefox and rumors about a Google browser have also circled. Although the Mozilla Foundation is a non-profit organization, do you see the Firefox platform as a business and revenue opportunity for outsiders?

BR: Certainly. There are already some early success stories (e.g.
www.mozdevgroup.com), and in fact, some other Firefox enthusiasts and myself have formed a start-up to work on extending Firefox. Amazon recently released an A9 toolbar for Firefox, and Yahoo plans to port their own toolbar to Firefox as well.

As late as last year, everyone was still claiming that the browser was a dead market. Firefox breathed life into the space, and suddenly everyone is waking up to the opportunities. The great thing about Firefox is that it's not just a browser; it truly is a platform and sports the best add-on architecture around, thanks to the work of Ben Goodger.

BN: Internet Explorer's market share has begun to erode and newcomers such as Firefox have been quick to capitalize. According to reports,
the Firefox team has said it is aiming for 10% market share by the end of 2005. What will it take to hit this mark? Will the fact that no major Internet Explorer upgrades are slated until Longhorn in 2006 help Firefox in this regard?

BR: Recent reports placed Mozilla at 7% of the market, so I think we're well on track to reach our 10% goal. Word of mouth will continue to be as crucial as it was in garnering the first 7%, and I expect it to remain vibrant as more and more people learn about Firefox and tell their friends and family
members.

A lack of Internet Explorer upgrades would probably help reach the
target, though we have to function under the assumption that Microsoft will
release a new version of IE if Firefox gets too large. Still, Internet
Explorer has earned its reputation as an outdated and difficult-to-use
browser, and I'm not sure a new release will do much to change that public
perception.

BN: Microsoft says it expects that some class of early adopters will check out Firefox, but crossing into the mainstream will be "pretty difficult." Do you agree with this sentiment?

BR: I think we're already in the midst of crossing over to the mainstream. Firefox was designed from the very beginning to appeal to a general
audience rather than the technical niche, so we've certainly got the right
product to cross over. The browser has recently enjoyed plenty of press in
such mainstream venues as USA Today, ABC News and the New York Times, so
the general public is certainly hearing about us, and I've heard and seen
plenty of anecdotal evidence to indicate that our reach already extends far
beyond the early adopters.

BN: How do you feel about Internet Explorer 6 SP2 being pushed to over 100 million users via Windows Automatic Update, while Firefox is
relegated to viral marketing and donation-sponsored advertising?

BR: I think it's irrelevant. Windows Messenger comes on every machine and is far behind AOL Instant Messenger in terms of market share. Being the default presence is powerful, but not as powerful as recommendations from trusted friends and family, and that's how Firefox is spreading. Internet Explorer does not have the passionate community of users that Firefox enjoys, and I'm not convinced that all the money or integration in the world can change
that.

BN: Any plans to get PC manufacturers to preload Firefox on their systems?

BR: I don't comment on business matters like this.

BN: The acceptance of Firefox has been spurred on by the SpreadFirefox campaign and the browser's extremely vocal community of supporters. You raised over $250,000 for a New York Times ad. Tell us a bit about your efforts. What other marketing do you have planned to get Firefox in
front of the masses?

BR: SpreadFirefox is an amazing success in its own right, independent of Firefox. It is the first grassroots open-source marketing effort, and is an important milestone in the software industry in general. We created
SpreadFirefox because we knew we had a passionate community of Firefox
enthusiasts who wanted to help us spread the word but had no way to work
together. The site serves as the Firefox marketing headquarters, where
40,000 registered users come together to share ideas, plan their own
campaigns and execute them as well as taking part in our own larger
campaigns (such as the New York Times ad). It's further proof that all you
need is a good product and the rest will follow, even if your marketing
budget is small.

BN: Does the Mozilla Foundation have any similar plans for promoting the Thunderbird e-mail client (referred to as the "perfect compliment
to Firefox") as it has Firefox?

BR: This is a good opportunity to point out that I'm not an employee of the Mozilla Foundation and don't speak on its behalf. However, I did help create SpreadFirefox, so I can speak to this question. There are no plans
right now to set up a SpreadThunderbird campaign, because we have our hands
full with spreading Firefox.

BN: What's next for the Firefox development team? What ideas are swirling for 1.1 and beyond?

BR: We are still working out the roadmap for the future, but the overarching goal will continue to be to make the Web easier to use for everyone. This means we'll probably spend a lot of time in the coming weeks continuing to
refine and redefine difficult or unwieldy organizational systems such as
bookmarks. We've also got some neat features planned based on feedback from
our users, but I'll say more about those at a later date.

BN: Lastly, Microsoft claims Internet Explorer is a better choice for Web browsing. Why do you feel Firefox is a better choice?

BR: I think few people "choose" Internet Explorer; rather, they use it because it's integrated into Windows. However, our millions of users have made the conscious choice to go out and get Firefox, so I'd rather tell you what
they have to say. Our users tell us that Firefox is the better choice because it makes their lives easier, whether by reducing headaches like spyware, viruses and popup ads, or by offering innovative and time-saving features like tabbed browsing.

People thank us for finally helping the Web live up to its original promise, and tell us that surfing the web in Firefox is like reliving their first few minutes on the Web all over again--it's fresh, it's new, and for the first time in nearly a decade, it's fun.

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