File Under: Software & Tools

Mozilla Execs on Firefox 3, iPhone and Ten Years of Growth

Mozillablogger

Mozilla invited a handful of technology bloggers to come down to its office on Wednesday for a roundtable discussion. Wired.com was asked to participate, so Jim, our photo editor, and I drove down to the nondescript Mountain View, California office park (just around the corner from Google, by the way) to meet with a couple of Mozilla’s executives and members of the Firefox development team.

Our discussion mostly centered around the current state of Firefox’s growth, the impending release of Firefox 3 and a tour of the new features that will show up in the next version of the open source browser.

The meeting occurred just days before the tenth anniversary of the creation of the Mozilla Foundation, so spirits were high. Various developers wandered in from their outlying offices and desks upstairs to join us in the common area, listening from the couches at the back and occasionally jumping up to help answer a question or to offer an amusing comment.

I’ve posted some photos from the session below, as well as my notes from the open, informal discussion.

Lilly

Mozilla CEO John Lilly, pictured above, began by citing some stats:

  • Firefox currently has 160 million users, according to Mozilla.
  • Russia and China are the two fastest growing locales. China has seen 6x growth since one year ago.
  • 40% to 50% of the code for Firefox is written by people who don’t work at Mozilla Corporation. This was surprising to me.
  • The company employs about 150 people in 20 countries around the world. There are major offices in Paris and Tokyo, as well as smaller offices in China, Denmark and elsewhere.
  • The Mozilla Corporation’s last posted revenue 2006 was $5 million per month. That’s mostly, but not all, from Google search revenue.

Lilly says the company is not trying to maximize revenue, just trying to "keep the internet open and participatory." Mozilla is actually making some changes in Firefox 3 that will end up being "revenue negative," he notes. Lilly is referring to the new address bar that searches the browser’s history to find cached or recently visited pages. He expects this feature will cause users to search the web less.

Schrep

Mozilla VP of engineering Mike Schroepfer (above) told some tales of Firefox’s past. In 2005, for example, he says the Firefox team was "mostly trying to keep the wheels on the cart." The code base was in a bit of disarray and the community wasn’t as organized as it is today.By now, Schroepfer says they’ve learned how to get people to work on Firefox efficiently and without catastrophic problems. But they had a recurring incident in 2005 that came to be known as "The hour of terror." Due to a programming misstep, all of the Firefox clients on the internet would check for updates at the same time. The first few times this happened, the millions of simultaneous requests would threaten to crash their servers. Everyone would wait for the event with bated breath, praying for their servers’ survival.

Schroepfer then gave an update on Firefox 3: Release Candidate 1 will ship in May, followed by final code in June.

Firefox 3 was originally expected to ship during the summer of 2007. Why the delay? "We spent a lot of time completely rewriting code on the back end," he says. "That’s why it took three years."

Many of the enhancements — the new Places database, graphics rendering, user interface changes — are evident of these behind the scenes optimizations. "When you use the new browser, you’re really just seeing the tip of the iceberg with regards to these new features," he says.

Schroepfer also identified the "little things" the team has done to address what they’ve found to be the three biggest complaints about the browser’s usability.

  • Places and the "Awesomebar" — Firefox 3 searches the URLs of previously visited pages as you type into the address bar. "Search is the new paradigm," says Schroepfer. "The new history and bookmark management system harnesses that."
  • Password management — Unlike previous versions, the browser asks you if you want it to remember your password only after you’ve successfully logged in. This eliminates the "my browser saved the wrong password and now i can’t log in" problem.
  • Performance — Aside from rewriting much of the code in order to reduce Firefox’s memory-hogging tendencies, the team also spent extra time further optimizing performance — tuning image handling, caching non-secure images and JavaScripts on SSL sites — little tweaks that result in real-world gains. In their own tests, Firefox 3 beta 5 is about ten times faster than Internet Explorer 7 and about three times faster than Firefox 2.0.0.12.

The two execs also spoke about Firefox’s future on mobile devices.

Everyone wanted to know: Will Firefox be coming to the iPhone anytime soon? According to the two men at the head of the table, no — Apple’s software requirements for the device are too restrictive.

Lilly: "Apple has not written a license which allows Firefox to run on the iPhone."

Schroepfer: "Android and iPhone are closed platforms. There are carriers and device manufacturers who are more open with their platform, and we’ll do well there — the Nokia N810 internet tablet, for example."

Schroepfer: "People can just take the (Firefox) code and run with it, so there’s a lot happening that we don’t even see until it shows up… XUL (the language in which Firefox’s user interface is written) makes it easy to experiment on mobile devices. That’s our main advantage on mobile platforms."

Photos: Jim Merithew/Wired