Blake Ross from Firefox

Many of us have been loyal Firefox users for the past year, and stats from Tom’s Hardware server logs show an early interest in Firefox from our readers as well. With all the attention on Firefox, we took time to interview one of the program’s creators, Blake Ross. Ross is currently on leave from his studies at Stanford University (where I went to grad school in the distant past) to work on another startup and had lots to say about where he is taking the browser and his thoughts about competing with Microsoft.

1. What are the biggest differences between Firefox and IE in your mind, and where do you see any advantages that IE has these days?

There are plenty of feature comparisons on the Web, so I’ll spare readers the marketing charts. The most important difference lies in the intent of each product.

Microsoft is here to win. That’s great if you’re a shareholder, but how many users appreciated that attitude when spyware and pop-ups filled their screens four years ago, and Microsoft, having crushed Netscape, abandoned the market? The company is back now that competition has arisen, but where will it be in four more years?

The Mozilla Foundation isn’t fighting a war on competition; it’s fighting a war on complexity. Our users are our shareholders, and as long as the Internet is frustrating, we’ll be here.

2. I’ve had to update my copy of Firefox numerous times over the past year to handle security loopholes and exploits. How can you stay ahead of these issues in the future?

We have a number of safeguards in place. First, our Bug Bounty program pays security experts $500 for each exploit they uncover, provided they notify us early enough that we can protect our users. Second, our open nature allows us to test builds much more rigorously than our competitors. Hundreds of thousands of advanced users test each beta build for exploits before it reaches consumers. And finally, as strange as it sounds, the fact that you’re receiving those updates means the Firefox security team is doing its job. All browsers have security exploits; it’s just a reality of networked software. The real question is how long it takes the vendor to offer a patch, and Firefox excels here.

3. You talk about making the web easier to use. Given the growing complexity of browsers with plug ins, security settings, helper apps, etc. is there hope of having an easier to use experience?

Complex software is produced by lazy developers who aren’t willing to face the complexity themselves and instead shovel it onto the user. I can’t tell you how many hours some of our engineers have spent going above and beyond the plugin specs so Mom could watch her dancing Flash M&M’s without being bothered. Every additional hour you spend at the office is another hour you’re saving her down the road.

4. How do you manage your source code with a global development team?

We use CVS for source control, LXR for code cross-referencing, and blogs, mailing lists and newsgroups for team coordination.

5. What percent of the code in Firefox do you personally touch and work with on a regular basis?

Firefox is enormous, so like most of our developers, I work with a small fraction. Most of my development time now is spent on a software company I recently cofounded with another Firefox engineer. We’re always looking for talented developers.

6. What is the main development machine and OS that you use on a daily basis? Have you ever overclocked or water cooled any of your gear?

I mainly use a 19” Compaq laptop, P4 3.4 GHz with 2 GB of RAM. It’s a “laptop” in the sense that Manhattan is a suburb.

7. When I was at Stanford many years ago, CroMem was the nerd dorm (I was in the engineering grad school). Is it still that way, or have nerds taken over campus?

Stanford has plenty of nerds, but they’re cool nerds. You can change the topic to music and they won’t start singing a MIDI version of Super Mario Brothers. I wasn’t in CroMem, so I guess that means they’re everywhere now.

8. I persevere and use Firefox as my main browser, even though we run an Intranet here that uses Sharepoint and works better in IE. What can you do to be more IE-compatible in the future?

We used to have a full evangelism team that worked with IE-only companies to support Web standards. Fortunately, we’ve reached the tipping point in terms of market share where companies are now forced to open up or risk losing 10% of their clientele. So while we still make evangelism efforts, these kinds of problems are beginning to disappear naturally.

We also have a special rendering mode called “Quirks” that we use to support some IE-only programming features. Because we prefer to stick to the standards, however, this is a last resort.

9. Are there any non-open source products that you use on a regular basis?

Sure. Development model doesn’t factor into my choice of software. I use Microsoft Word, Trillian, Visual Studio, iTunes. There aren’t too many consumer-friendly open-source products, unfortunately.

10. What are some lessons learned from developing Firefox that you can share with my readers who are working on their own projects?

The things you never think about are the ones driving users nuts. For example, a developer making an e-mail client might spend 6 hours designing the compose window, and 5 minutes hooking up the “Attach” button to the Windows Browse dialog. But it’s that Browse dialog that’ll give people gray hair over time.

The fact that the dialog is a standard part of the OS is no excuse. In fact, software is often weakest where its developer settled for something prepackaged. Consistency is important, of course, and should always be a factor. But it’s your responsibility to make the best software you can, and if you’re delegating to the OS without question, your competitors already have a leg up on you. In Firefox, we threw out the Find mechanism applications have used for decades because, frankly, it sucked.

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