Issue #3 January 2005

Firefox rising

Firefox rising

On January 22, 1998, Netscape Communications, Inc. announced their intention to release the source code to Netscape Communicator, their flagship product. The new project was code-named Mozilla. Netscape's intention in creating Mozilla, as they stated in that day's press release, was "to harness the creative power of thousands of programmers on the Internet by incorporating their best enhancements into future versions of Netscape's software."

Netscape, the company, never lived to see that vision fulfilled. Unable to compete with Microsoft's ability to distribute Internet Explorer for free with every copy of Windows, Netscape watched their own market share and revenues diminish. By the time they were acquired by America Online in November 1998, Internet Explorer was the undisputed leader in the browser market—for good, it seemed.

Mozilla, the project, struggled to find its way. Mozilla was the first project of its size to be opened all at once, and the sheer amount of code made it difficult for outside developers to contribute immediately in meaningful ways. In those first few months, it was a challenge to make the new Mozilla codebase work at all. Project lead Jamie Zawinski resigned in frustration in early 1999, and in his legendary open resignation letter, he enumerated the many lessons that the Mozilla team had learned the hard way. "Open source does work," he concluded, "but it is most definitely not a panacea."

On November 9, 2004, six years after Netscape's acquisition by AOL, the not-for-profit Mozilla Foundation announced the release of the Mozilla Firefox 1.0 web browser. In the three months since, Firefox has been downloaded over 17 million times. At the same time, persistent security problems with Internet Explorer have led the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to recommend against the use of IE entirely. For the first time in years, it appears as though Microsoft may not have won the browser war after all.

Chris Blizzard has been with Red Hat since 1998. He also sits on the board of the Mozilla Foundation. We asked him to share some of his insights about Mozilla's remarkable return to prominence.

Red Hat Magazine: What's your role with Red Hat?

Chris Blizzard: Right now I work in Red Hat's desktop group supporting and promoting our web browser solutions. This involves helping Red Hat understand the role and importance of the web browser in its product offerings as well as directly supporting the product as part of Red Hat's releases. It also means that I do software development from time to time, filling in important integration pieces in the browser to make sure that Red Hat users have the best possible experience when using it on our platform.

RHM: How are you involved with mozilla.org?

CB: I've been working on the Mozilla project longer than I've been at Red Hat. Back in 1998, as soon as Netscape released the source code for the browser, I was looking at it, trying to work on it because I understood how important a browser was to an open source desktop.

In the process I had to learn C++, the X Window System, motif, and gtk in order to port the windowing system to a more modern toolkit. As a result of that work and the work of a couple of other people, we ended up getting Mozilla to work pretty well on Linux as part of the desktop.

RHM: Is that why Red Hat hired you?

CB:Red Hat ended up hiring me to work in their support department, helping to build their next generation of support tools—completely unrelated to the Mozilla work that I had done.

Eventually Red Hat moved me from one of the internal support departments into their engineering organization as part of the Red Hat Advanced Development Labs to work full time on the Mozilla browser. While I was there I continued to work on the browser, helping to manage upstream releases and building Red Hat's packages of the browser.

RHM: How are you currently involved with mozilla.org?

CB: I don't code as much as I used to or manage releases, but I do sit on the board of the Mozilla Foundation. The Mozilla Foundation is a non-profit company that was set up to nourish the Mozilla project and its offshoots.

I also have close ties to many of the current developers and managers who work at the Mozilla Foundation.

RHM: Did you manage releases for mozilla.org?

CB: The releases at mozilla.org have never really been run by a single person, although some people have more influence than others. There was a group put together to drive the releases called "drivers" who managed the releases. They would track the bug counts and make sure that critical bugs were fixed and make sure that the bits would end up in the right places.

RHM: Briefly, what are the differences between the Mozilla browsers and the Firefox browser? How is Firefox better equipped to compete against Internet Explorer?

CB: The underlying technology for Firefox is largely the same as the original Mozilla Suite was, but it's been refined to give a much better user experience than Mozilla ever did. It has a clearly driven focus on security, simplicity, and making the web friendly again.

RHM: So Firefox is largely from the same code base?

CB: Parts of Firefox are largely the same, yes. The core rendering engine for webpages is the same, as well as the underlying technologies that deal with networking and most web features. Where there is divergence is how certain features of the web (like popups or webpages being able to resize windows) are handled. Also, the UI has been rebuilt from the ground up with a focus on ease of use.

RHM: Is that why the browser project was renamed to Firefox?

CB: I think there was a lot of pressure to make sure that people understood that there was a pretty clear difference between what Mozilla was and what Firefox had become. It's not just a fresh name on an old face, but a new proposition to our users that states what we believe in and how good we feel the web can be with the right technology.

RHM: What was Mozilla then, in your eyes, and why was this "new proposition" necessary?

CB: In reality, Mozilla was a reincarnation of the old Netscape 4.x suite. It hadn't changed much in a few years, and many people considered it a mess from a user interface perspective. The Firefox project (originally named the Phoenix project) started as an effort to get rid of all of the things in the user interface that were probably not needed by 99% of end users.

It was also seen as ground to experiment with technology and try to innovate in the browser space, something that hasn't really happened in a long time. In the end, I think that the Firefox project was needed to prove that we could still make positive changes on the web.

RHM: Give us an example of where Firefox has served as that "ground to experiment."

CB: Firefox's popup blocking was derived from previous code found in the Mozilla project, but only in Firefox was it possible to make the changes required to turn it on by default and refine it to the point where it works as well as it does today.

It's also important to note that Firefox as a browser is also a platform for a huge list of "extensions." These extensions have two purposes. One, power users can still add all the functionality they want without requiring everyone to have the same feature set. Two, it means that developer's experiments can be tried out. From time to time an extension will be pulled back into the project and made part of the product.

The extensions system in Firefox is largely based on the one that was available in Mozilla, but it's easier to use and has tools to manipulate those extensions. What made it possible to install or not install the Mail component of the old Mozilla browser is largely the same technology that is used to install extensions in Firefox today. It's just much better refined.

RHM: What are Red Hat's plans for integration of the Firefox browser?

CB: We know that Firefox is one of the most successful open source projects to date, and we also know that the Firefox people take the user experience seriously. We will continue to bundle Firefox for our users because we understand that a great user experience is crucial to our own success as well.

RHM: Now that 1.0 is released and wildly successful, what's next? What does the roadmap look like?

CB: I think that Ben [Goodger, lead engineer for Firefox] has posted some stuff about the 1.1 release on his blog.

RHM: Once upon a time, people were proclaiming that Netscape would be the basis for an entire application platform. Do you see anything like that in Firefox's future?

CB: Firefox is a browser, so no. But there might be a larger platform from the Mozilla project. We're working on that, so we'll see how it pans out, but I hate to talk about incomplete, unshippable stuff.

RHM: Is there anything that mozilla.org has done with Firefox that other projects should learn from, in your opinion?

CB: Try to build a community around your project that can support and promote it. Make your product as usable as possible for normal people. Think of your mom or your grandmother as your target audience.

RHM: A lot of Microsoft apologists say that their security vulnerabilities are a direct result of their market dominance. Anything to say to the people who claim, "just wait, one day you'll have your own exploits to deal with?"

CB: We do have our own exploits to deal with, but so far the huge variety and depth that target IE haven't arrived. We'll see down the road how things pan out, but our focus on security and the flexibility of our ability to deliver updates will pay off with fewer security problems for our users down the road.

About the author

Greg DeKoenigsberg is the Community Relations Manager for Red Hat.