For Rob Davis, the final straw came during a beautiful weekend last summer, which he spent holed up in his Minneapolis apartment killing a zombie. The week before, a malicious software program had invaded Davis' PC through his browser, Internet Explorer, using a technique called the DSO exploit. His computer had been repurposed as a "zombie box" - its CPU and bandwidth co-opted to pump reams of spam onto the Internet. Furious, Davis dropped out of a planned Lake Superior camping trip to instead back up his computer and reformat his crippled hard drive. Then he vowed never to open IE again.
Lucky for Davis, a new browser had just appeared on the scene - Firefox, a fast, simple, and secure piece of software that was winning acclaim from others who also had grown frustrated with Internet Explorer. A programmer friend told Davis about Firefox. He didn't know that the browser was an open source project and a descendant of Netscape Navigator now poised to avenge Netscape's defeat at the hands of Microsoft. He just knew that he didn't want to waste another weekend cursing at his machine. So Davis drove to the friend's house and copied Firefox onto his battered laptop. He hasn't had a problem since - and now he's telling anybody who will listen about Firefox's virtues. "I'm no anti-Microsoft zealot, but it's unconscionable that they make 98 percent of the operating systems in the world and they let things like this happen to people," says Davis, a PR man by day who liked Firefox so much that he initiated a fundraising campaign to help promote the browser. "There's a lot of pain out there."
Firefox couldn't have arrived at a better time for people like Davis - or at a worse time for Microsoft. Ever since Internet Explorer toppled Netscape in 1998, browser innovation has been more or less limited to pop-up ads, spyware, and viruses. Over the past six years, IE has become a third world bus depot, the gathering point for a crush of hawkers, con artists, and pickpockets. The recent outbreak of malware - from the spyware on Davis' machine to the .ject Trojan, which uses a bug in IE to snatch sensitive data from an infected PC - has prompted early adopters to look for an alternate Web browser. Even in beta, Firefox's clean, intuitive interface, quick page-loading, and ability to elude intruders elicited a thunderous response. In the month following its official November launch, more than 10 million people downloaded Firefox, taking the first noticeable bite out of IE's market share since the browser wars of the mid-'90s.
Like most open source software, Firefox is forever a work in progress, the product of continual tweaking by thousands of programmers all over the world. But two people in particular are most responsible for the browser's success: Blake Ross, an angular, hyperkinetic 19-year-old Stanford sophomore with spiky black hair, and Ben Goodger, a stout, soft-spoken 24-year-old New Zealander. At age 14, Ross, logging on to his family's America Online account, started fixing bugs for the Mozilla Group, a cadre of programmers responsible for maintaining the source code of Netscape's browsers. Ross quickly became disenchanted with Netscape's feature creep and in 2002 brashly decided to splinter off and develop a pared-down, fast, easy-to-use browser. Goodger, who plays the David Filo or Larry Page to Ross' frontman, took the reins when Ross became a full-time college student in 2003. Goodger pulled the project's loose ends together and whipped the browser into shape for the release of Firefox 1.0 late last year.
What makes Firefox different from other open source projects is its consumer appeal. Until now, the open source community has been very good at creating useful software but lousy at finding nontechnical users. By liberating Firefox from the "by geeks, for geeks" ethos, Ross and Goodger have moved open source out of server rooms and onto Microsoft's turf: the desktop. Borrowing from the Net-based grassroots techniques of the recent political season, the Firefox inner circle has turned satisfied users into foot soldiers and missionaries. How's this for a marketer's dream: In the weeks following the debut, Firefox contributors and fans threw their own launch parties in 392 cities around the world.
"People thought the browser wars were over," Ross says, relishing the giant-killer role. "But now there's a widespread perception that IE is not secure - and here we are." What started out as one schoolboy's exercise in minimalism, with a nod to Google's back-to-basics obsession, has tapped into a growing desire for simplicity among ordinary computer users. "The success of this thing has totally surprised us," Goodger adds. "Firefox has really touched a nerve."
Firefox the browser is an impressive piece of software. It's easy to use, easy on the eyes, and safer than IE - partly because it's too new to have amassed a following of evil hackers. Firefox the phenomenon is something much bigger. It's a combination of innovations in engineering, developer politics, and consumer marketing.
Computer users embraced the browser almost immediately. Mark Fletcher, founder of Bloglines, a weblog-aggregation service, reports that Firefox rocketed from 5 percent of Bloglines' server traffic to 20 percent in the month after the beta version was released. Software developers are on board, too - Ross and Goodger made sure that writing Firefox add-ons would be simple. Coders have created more than 175 extensions that perform specific, sometimes delightful functions, like incorporating an iTunes controller in the browser's border or a three-day weather forecast that pulls data from Weather.com and displays sun, cloud, and rain icons in the Firefox status bar. Two popular extensions make it easier to subscribe to RSS feeds through Bloglines. "Anyone can write programs that work with this browser," Fletcher says. "I look at the fanfare and excitement that Firefox is causing - even my parents are using it and loving it." Based on what his server logs are telling him, Fletcher predicts that Firefox will represent close to 50 percent of Bloglines' traffic by the time Longhorn, Microsoft's long-awaited browserless operating system, is ready in 2006. At BoingBoing, nearly half of all visitors are already using Mozilla browsers.
Whatever success Firefox sees, it will come from social engineering as much as software engineering. Firefox has been the product of a massive get-out-the-vote effort. While Goodger was refining Firefox code, Ross started Spread Firefox, a community site that hosts Firefox blogs and gives points to a volunteer army of operatives for converting the masses. SpreadFirefox.com functions as a clearinghouse for marketing and recruiting strategies, a coordination center for coders, banner designers, and evangelists. The site was built on Civic Space, software developed by Carnegie Mellon grad Chris Messina for the Howard Dean online campaign. "Software development is a political process," says Messina.
Spread Firefox has served as the engine of an impressive fundraising campaign put together by zombie victim Rob Davis. In July, Davis, an account director with PR firm Haberman & Associates, contacted Ross and pitched an idea: Raise enough money from Firefox fans to run an ad in The New York Times. Over 10 days in October, more than 10,000 donors visited the Spread Firefox site and kicked in an average of $25 a piece, enough to pay for a two-page spread. The Firefox ad ran in the Times on December 16, featuring the name of every donor in barely readable, 4.5-point type, prompting another deluge of downloads.
OK, time for a reality check. Explorer is still the choice of 90 percent of Internet users. As user-friendly as Firefox may be, most of its current users are early-adopter types, bloggers, people with an ideological aversion to Microsoft. Almost every PC sold since September includes IE and the latest browser security patches. The number of Firefox downloads will surely slow, maybe even plateau, when the supply of easy converts runs dry.
But Firefox doesn't have to overtake IE to cause havoc in Redmond. Microsoft had essentially given up on Internet Explorer development - focusing instead on its next-gen OS, Longhorn. With Longhorn, the company hopes to make the stand-alone browser obsolete by incorporating Web browsing into the desktop. As part of the transition, Microsoft has created the developer language XAML, an heir to HTML. Until a few months ago, it looked like the shift to Longhorn would give Microsoft control of the Web's de facto standards. Now, with Microsoft's share in the browser market slipping - IE has lost 5 percent in the past six months, almost all of it to Firefox - Web designers can't afford to ignore the standards of Tim Berners-Lee's W3C, which Mozilla has hewed to but which Microsoft has regarded as strictly optional. Which means Bill Gates' troops must now turn back to IE and battle the ghost of Netscape.
Officially, Microsoft addresses Firefox with a sharp-toothed smile and open arms. "Any time someone creates a new piece of software for the Windows platform, it's great," says Gary Schare, director of product management for Windows. "Occasionally, a new application competes with one of ours." In recent interviews, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has responded to questions about Firefox evasively, claiming that Microsoft hasn't abandoned browser development and that the XP Service Pack 2, Microsoft's latest security patch, was actually a major browser release. The day that the Firefox ad ran in the Times, Microsoft made a less-splashy announcement of its own - it acquired anti-spyware software maker Giant. Microsoft insists it's not changing its tack because of Firefox, but watch for the company to move more quickly to release browser updates and security patches - and to add a dash of marketing to sweeten the mix.
This browser war is different from the first go-round, when Internet Explorer came from nowhere to crush the dominant Netscape Navigator. Unlike in the past decade, Microsoft can't fight off Firefox by lowballing; both browsers are free. More important, Microsoft isn't battling a startup in round two - it's battling thousands of open source programmers and several non-Microsoft titans that have rallied around Firefox. Sun Microsystems employs a dozen Firefox coders in Beijing. IBM has two dozen coders on the case in Austin, Texas. Google has hosted a Mozilla developer conference, not to mention Firefox's default start page, and rumors of a "gbrowser," a Google-branded browser built on top of Firefox, continue to swirl.
Such teamwork is particularly effective when it comes to addressing pressing concerns, like security. It took months for Redmond to fix the hole in IE exploited by the .ject Trojan last June. A few weeks later, a programmer reported a Firefox bug that allowed a malicious Web site to spy on the information users entered into online forms. In less than 36 hours, teams of open source programmers rallied to create a patch, which was then incorporated into the current release of Firefox and also made available as an easily added extension.
It's launch day for Firefox 1.0 at the Silicon Valley offices of the Mozilla Foundation, and the Web servers are cranking. By nightfall, people around the world will download the open source browser more than a million times - swiftly earning Firefox a greater share of the browser market than anything not called Internet Explorer. Grinning engineers move from desk to desk, reading congratulatory emails aloud, trading high-fives, laughing, and cheering.
A few of the faithful have been working on what has become the Firefox code for nearly a decade. They signed on with Netscape just after Marc Andreessen made his way west from the University of Illinois' National Center for Supercomputing Applications to start the browser company. Netscape, of course, introduced the Web to the masses, took Wall Street by storm, and was then crushed by Microsoft. In 1998, a battered Netscape sold out to AOL for $4.2 billion. The release of IE4 that year made it clear that Netscape had lost. Explorer was faster, slicker, preloaded on every new PC, and, though the anti-Microsoft crowd hated to admit it, just plain better than Netscape Communicator, a slow-moving, unwieldy clump of programs. Even AOL wouldn't touch Communicator, choosing to stay with IE as its default browser. In what Netscape veterans now refer to as "the reset," Netscape released the Communicator source code to the world in March 1998 and renamed it Mozilla.
Around this time, Blake Ross, a Florida ninth grader whose coding experience consisted of piecing together a couple of rudimentary videogames, started hacking away at Mozilla. "It was incredible - just realizing that you can touch something that so many people use," says Ross. "It's a great feeling to make a little change to the code and then actually see the change in the window of a big, famous product. You've caused something to happen in an application that's being used all over the world."
In 2000, as Ross was getting comfortable with the nooks and crannies of Mozilla's million-odd lines of code, AOL released Netscape Navigator 6 to a chorus of raspberries from reviewers and users. Inside Netscape, agonized Mozilla programmers tried to clean up the sprawling mess of a product with version 6.1 and 6.2.
Then Ross, known to the Mozilla Foundation as just another precocious, diligent bug fixer, teamed up with Dave Hyatt, a former Netscape user interface programmer who now works for Apple Computer. In 2002, they announced they had "forked" the Mozilla code base, pulling out Mozilla's layout engine, called Gecko, and using a new user interface language, XUL. They posted a short manifesto proposing a tightly written piece of software called mozilla/browser. The goal was modest: no bloat. Inspired by Google's simple interface, they set out to build a stripped-down, stand-alone browser, a refutation of the feature creep that had grounded Netscape. "Lots of Mozilla people didn't get it," Ross recalls. "They'd say, 'This is just the product we have now, but with less features.' Meanwhile, the Mozilla product at the time had about 10,000 options. You basically needed to know the secret handshake to get anything done. It sounds corny, but it was important to make something that Mom and Dad could use."
"Our aim was a browser that could reach the mainstream and get people away from using IE," Hyatt remembers. "There was tension over the way we were coming in and taking control."
Goodger, who was working for Netscape from New Zealand, loved the idea. Like Ross, Goodger had started tinkering with Mozilla code in the late '90s, fixing bugs and submitting hacks that were impressive enough to earn him a job at Mozilla, paid for by Netscape.
Mozilla/browser became Phoenix, then Firebird, then Firefox, all the while winning converts among the Mozilla crowd. But the two core developers - Ross and Hyatt - got distracted. Hyatt left for Apple in late 2002 to work on the Safari browser. Ross started his freshman year at Stanford the following fall. "The project was bogging down," Hyatt remembers. "Somebody needed to step in and finish the thing." Goodger, a car enthusiast with a blog that goes into exquisite detail about subjects like engine placement and torque, took over. "When I look at cars, I'm looking at how well they are put together, from the panel gaps to the interior fabrics. I suppose I'm very obsessive about detail and style. It helps me make software that looks good and works well."
As the project's lead engineer, Goodger began a frenzied six-month stint of reviewing the code patches and bug fixes forwarded to him by his team and grafting the approved changes onto the growing body of code that made up Firefox. He finished a serviceable beta version just ahead of last summer's rash of IE attacks, setting the stage for Firefox's explosive debut.
Ross vows he has no problem with Microsoft. "If IE worked," he says, sitting at a wobbly caf� table in Key Biscayne, Florida, during a quick trip to see his family in November, "I wouldn't be against it."
Whatever their motivations, Ross and Goodger have been swept up in anti-Microsoft sentiment. All the attention has been a lot to deal with for a talented but young pair of coders trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives.
Goodger has gone from low-profile programmer to internationally beloved code fu master with a crush of job offers. To get his head sorted out, Goodger set off in December for a "mind-clearing" drive from Silicon Valley to Seattle along the Pacific Coast Highway in his beloved Caribbean blue Infiniti G35 coupe. "It's my way of resetting the brain," Goodger says. "I like to go on long drives during the transitions between big projects. If you don't take a good break, you can crash and burn."
When he returned from the open road, Goodger declared he'd stay with the Mozilla Foundation. He has already posted the development roadmap for Firefox 2.0, beginning with version 1.1, codenamed Deer Park and scheduled for release in March.
Ross' career focus is only slightly steadier than the average sophomore's. He's definitely going to do a startup. It could launch in three months and make money by charging for online Firefox support. Or maybe it'll go live in five months and sell Firefox extensions that connect social-networking sites (or render them obsolete). He wants to write screenplays. He'll probably stay involved in Firefox, depending on how much time is left after school and the startup. He might have to drop out of Stanford. He'll definitely retain the role of freelance engineering firebrand.
On November 18, nine days after the Firefox 1.0 release, Netscape announced that it was working on a new browser based on Firefox. On his blog, Ross had some tart words for the company that inspired him to start writing code. "You have a history of making unspeakably inane decisions, of waffling when the iron is hot, and of completely abusing your few remaining customers," Ross wrote. "We went off and created Firefox. In fact, we then offered you Firefox and you made another poor decision - perhaps your worst yet - in rejecting it. By all rights, a company with this record should have been relegated to the Silicon Valley recycle bin years ago. Please don't miss this final chance at redemption; deliver what your users want."
The message in Ross' rant was directed at Netscape, but it's just as relevant to Microsoft. If Gates & Co. continue to ignore both the pain of IE users and the lessons in Firefox's advance, they could find Internet Explorer on the scrap heap - next to Netscape.