I was fortunate to be able to fire off some questions to Ben Goodger, Lead Engineer of Mozilla Firefox by email, for this week’s column on browsers in the Asian Wall Street Journal/WSJ.com (subscription only). Here’s a full transcript of the interview.
1) How different has it been, getting Firefox into shape, than if the operation were run as a commercial operation?
It’s been an enormous challenge for a huge number of people. Over the years, hundreds of engineers have contributed code, hundreds and thousands more testing and other types of materials, probably millions of man-hours spent. The major difference and biggest benefit to the Open Source process is that we get the benefit of those thousands of people for whom an internet of free and open standards is important. That community includes some of the brightest minds in the business, committed to improving security and user experience. Some important contributions from the volunteer effort include our visual identity (iconography, theme design, website etc), much of our distributed quality assurance effort (thousands of people download “nightly builds” and use them as their browser – a great way to find and report bugs as they occur), and our massive localization effort.
2) What is your response to people’s fear about something free: That it’s less secure, less likely to survive, less professional, less, well, proper?
The industry backing of the Mozilla Foundation by companies like Sun, IBM, Novell etc coupled with an increased awareness among the web development community (Hewlett Packard released guidelines on its web site recently advising its content authors to test their materials in Firefox) as well as accelerating adoption among users and organizations alike show that Firefox is more than a flash in the pan. The results are shown in the marketshare which continues to climb month over month, in our download statistics which if anything show an increase following the holiday period. We’re just getting started.
I’m aware people will be skeptical of something that’s free. Well, all I can say to that is: buying the CD from www.mozillastore.com is a great way to satisfy your urge to spend money and it also supports the Mozilla Foundation 🙂
3) It seems to me that innovation in software has been mainly in browsers, the past few years. Not just Firefox, but K-Meleon, Opera, iRider, Deepnet, Netcaptor, etc. Would you agree with that, and if so, why is this? And then, following on from that, do you think Microsoft have missed a significant opportunity by not really working on IE in the meantime?
I wouldn’t say that innovation has been mainly in browsers – a great number of new pieces of software that I couldn’t live without have risen in the past half decade, look at iTunes, Google, and next generation internet apps like Skype that make use of higher bandwidth connections. But you’re right, there have been significant developments in Web browsers in the past few years – specifically in the areas of making it easier to find and manage content (see Firefox’s Google bar, Find Toolbar, Tabbed Browsing and RSS integration – all ways in which we make it easier for people to get at stuff).
I think it’s very difficult to be in Microsoft’s position – they have a lot of customers who have written applications to work with their system and a precedent for not having changed their formula much, which makes movement in a particular direction a more involved proposition as they need to carefully determine the impact of their changes on the people who have written solutions specifically tailored to their system. I do think they will move however, it’s not a matter of if, but when. They see what’s going on, and they will react.
4) What of the role of plugins? It seems to me there’s been a fascinating movement of innovators just working on individual little features? How important has that been? How hard was it to make the software so people could do that? Is this the future of software?
This was one of the benefits of the architecture chosen by the original implementors of much of the UI architecture we use now, I have to single out Dave Hyatt and Chris Waterson here for mention – they among others back in the Netscape days had the foresight to see the value of an extensible system, one which after years of refinement has led us to where we are today.
Plugins are an important part of the ecosystem of Mozilla applications. They allow people to customize their software in nearly infinite ways, adding new innovations that we may not have thought of yet, or tailoring the experience to suit very specific audiences in ways that we cannot in the main line distribution. Plugins in web pages allow for a richer content experience. In short – these application extensions are part of the applications’ DNA which allow every user to have the software that makes sense for them.
5) Where do you see Firefox going? Will it continue to innovate? Will you continue to be a part of it?
We’re still working on our 2.0 plans, we have a lot of ideas, no final schedule yet. It will absolutely continue to be a beacon for Open Source Software innovation and usability. At this time, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else, and the talented people I work with all feel the same.
6) Where do you see the browser going? Will it replace other programs, as it seems to be replacing the RSS reader?
We will integrate services as and when they make sense, not for any other reason. At all costs we must resist the urge to go down the path of unnecessary feature creep – that’s what we have developed our extension architecture for. As for other applications, some have moved to the web such as email and photo management, and we will obviously continue to be a portal to those.
7) You’re pretty young. How easy/hard has this been for you? Did you expect Firefox to make such a big splash?
The work I’ve done on this project is the most interesting/challenging I’ve done to date, and I know I’m not alone in that feeling. By extending ourselves and setting the bar not just at the level of the competition but higher we make a statement not only in the quality of the software we create, but about the value of the Open Source model of software development. I think we expected Firefox to be more successful than the Mozilla Application Suite (currently in 1.7.x) that preceded it, but I don’t think we expected it to be quite this big. Every release for the past year things seemed to get exponentially bigger in terms of popularity and buzz. We’ve now had over 21 million downloads – that’s amazing for any piece of software.
Thanks, Ben, and good luck in your new job. (More by Ben and his new job here.)