03 November, 2006

'Firefox Kid' - The Blake Ross Story..

This is an excerpt from an article about Blake Ross, a 20 yr. old developer who played a key role in the development of the Mozilla Firefox Browser. It gives a peek into Blake's view of Firefox's Birth.

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To understand where Blake Ross is going (...), you have to understand where he’s been. As part of the first generation to grow up with the Internet, Ross discovered early how geek culture was conspiring against his parents. Although his mom, a psychologist, and his dad, a lawyer, hold graduate degrees, they were stymied when they tried to do just about anything online. Ross recalls his mother frequently yelling across the house to him, asking for tech support. She couldn’t find her Internet Explorer bookmarks. She was getting besieged with pop-up ads. She didn’t know how to protect herself from viruses.

While his peers might relish such power over their parents, Ross is squeakily earnest and really wanted to help out. So he went off to slay the dragons haunting the Internet. Late into the night, he sat under his shelves of Archie toys and taught himself to code, first HTML, the Web programming language, and then Microsoft Visual Basic, a popular tool for creating simple applications. Even back then, Ross made a habit of keeping his family and friends in the dark. “I don’t like telling people what I’m doing until I have something to show them,” he says.

“My friends would say, ‘How can you leave him in his bedroom for so many hours?’” his mother, Abby, recalls. “We didn’t know what was going on in there.” When their son would request programming books for his birthday, they began to get an idea. “Everyone started to tell me he was going to be the next Bill Gates,” Abby says. In fact, the young Ross had another target in mind: Netscape’s embattled Mozilla browser. Netscape had ushered in the dot-com era, but by 1998 its pioneering browser had been almost completely superseded by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. So that year the company made the bold—or desperate—move of releasing the code for its software to the world of open source. “It was a way to touch a product used by a couple million people,” Ross says. And it was something that could help his mom.

After many long nights online, Ross became well enough known in the Mozilla community to get offered a position with Netscape (by then owned by AOL). Yet when the 15-year-old Florida native, accompanied by his mom, arrived at the Silicon Valley office in 2000, he was less than impressed. “It was the bloody remains of battle,” Ross says. “I didn’t feel like anyone in management thought we had a chance of winning this thing.”

But there were others in the cubicle trenches who hadn’t conceded the browser war to Microsoft. Late one night in the summer of 2002, at a nearby Denny’s restaurant, Ross fell into an impassioned discussion with Dave Hyatt, a senior engineer at Netscape who shared his vision for a leaner but more flexible browser for the masses. Rather than starting from scratch, the two took the Mozilla browser, which they thought was bloated with super­fluous features such as chat rooms and an e-mail client, and began stripping it to the bare essentials. They felt they were raising the Netscape browser from the ashes and so named their stripped-down version Phoenix. But the rebel project became anathema to some Mozilla diehards. “I don’t see the need for Phoenix,” posted one detractor at the time. Another was more succinct: “Phoenix sucks,” he blogged.

Enrolling in Stanford for the fall of 2002, Ross decided to have a go at being an ordinary college kid. He lifted weights. He started dating. He discovered the rock band Coldplay. But his geek legacy was also alive and well. Before long, his vision of a lean mean Web browser caught on in a major way. Phoenix—later named Firebird, then Firefox—gathered momentum. Ben Goodger, a 23-year-old engineer from New Zealand, had been shepherding it along with the growing support of other open-source enthusiasts. Chris Messina, a 22-year-old programmer who was a key player in the development of Deanspace, the influential Web site Howard Dean used to attract support for his bid at the Democratic nomination, joined the Firefox team for the same reasons. “It was all about empowering people through technology,” he says.

Drawing on the viral marketing strategies of the Dean campaign, legions rallied behind the alternative browser. They got a snappy logo, an Earth-hugging fox, and they launched a community hub called SpreadFirefox. Supporters around the world posted digital photos of their efforts at guerrilla marketing. They dropped a Firefox banner on the Danish Parliament building in Copenhagen, carried “Get Firefox” placards at an anti-Bush rally in London, plastered posters around Taiwan. In a mere 10 days, they raised US $200 000 to take out a full-page ad in The New York Times.

Firefox went prime time in June 2005, after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a warning about the “vulnerability” of Internet Explorer and suggested using alternative browsers. Even Slate magazine, owned by Microsoft, threw in the towel. “I’ve been using [Firefox] for a week now,” trumpeted a Slate scribe, “and I’ve all but forgotten about Explorer.”

The success of Firefox put the spotlight on Ross, whose young age and puckish charm made him a media icon—much to the consternation of Ross and the open-source community. But Ross’s ability to articulate Firefox’s goals and challenges in his blog earned him a following. He was a coder who could talk the talk. And people listened. Soon even members of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer team sought Ross out. One night after he addressed a Silicon Valley technology group, they invited him for dinner. “I thought they were going to take me out in the parking lot and beat the crap out of me,” Ross says. Instead, they gave him a company sweatshirt with the Explorer’s familiar “e” icon grafted under the bones of a Jolly Roger. It was tongue-in-cheek but symbolic nonetheless. Ross had raided their kingdom.

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Read the full article @ IEEE Spectrum Website