Blake Ross is nervous. It’s a muggy May day in New York City, and the 20-year-old has to rent a tux for a big soiree where he’ll be hobnobbing with celebrities at one of his firstâ''ever black-tie events—a dinner for Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year. And he’s not very practiced with bow ties. ”I never made it to my prom,” says Ross, who has thick eyebrows and pronounced ears, making him look like a young Franz Kafka.
No wonder he projects such intensity: Ross has been busy. While still a teenager, this self-taught coder cofounded the Mozilla Firefox project, a spin-off of Netscape’s Mozilla Web browser, sparking a global phenomenon. Firefox has since been downloaded by more than 200 million people worldwide, threatening the supremacy of even Microsoft’s browser, Internet Explorer. Although Firefox was ultimately wrought from the work of thousands of programmers in the free-software community—the hive of coders who share and collaborate online—Ross has become a poster boy for the revolution, a role he neither expected nor is comfortable with. People are switching to Firefox at the rate of 7 million per month—most of them from Internet Explorer—because the new browser makes surfing the Web safer and easier. Some call him ”Microsoft’s worst nightmare.” Ross just says, ”I’m more on the side of mom and dad.”
With his newest venture, he’s doing mom and dad their biggest favor yet. Two days before the black-tie event, dressed in Tâ''shirt and jeans in an Italian restaurant owned by his uncle, Ross plugged in his laptop and prepared to unveil, for the first time to any member of the press, his next big thing. Just as with Firefox, Ross began this project by asking himself one simple question: What’s bad about today’s software?
The answer, he and his programming partner, Joe Hewitt, decided, resided in the gap between the desktop and the Web. ”Right now, people want to shuffle around content,” he says, ”but the world’s fused together by a collection of hacks.” Something that should be simple, say, getting photos from a digital camera onto the Web, is a Sisyphean task for most people. ”Step back and ask, ’What’s wrong with this picture?’” Ross says.
The problem, according to Ross, is there’s no simple, cohesive tool to help people store and share their creations online. Currently, the steps involved depend on the medium. If you want to upload photos, for example, you have to dump your images into one folder, then transfer them to an image-sharing site such as Flickr. The process for moving videos to YouTube or a similar site is completely different. If you want to make a personal Web page within an online community, you have to join a social network, say, MySpace or Friendster. If you intend to rant about politics or movies, you launch a blog and link up to it from your other pages. The mess of the Web, in other words, leaves you trapped in one big tangle of actions, service providers, and applications.
Ross’s answer is named Parakey. As he describes it, from a user’s point of view, Parakey is ”a Web operating system that can do everything an OS can do.” Translation: it makes it really easy to store your stuff and share it with the world. Most or all of Parakey will be open source, under a license similar to Firefox’s. There are differences between the two projects, however. Although Ross plans to incorporate the talents and passions of the free-software community, he’s building Parakey around a for-profit business model. And he’s leading the charge with a simple battle cry: ”One interface, not two!”
Today, something like e-mail can involve two completely different experiences, depending on whether or not you’re using the Web—Outlook versus Hotmail, for example. A Parakey e-mail program, on the other hand, provides a single access point for your mail, ”unifying the desktop and the Web,” in Ross’s words. Parakey is intended to be a platform for tools that can manipulate just about anything on your hard drive—e-mail, photos, videos, recipes, calendars. In fact, it looks like a fairly ordinary Web site, which you can edit. You can go online, click through your files and view the contents, even tweak them. You can also check off the stuff you want the rest of the world to be able to see. Others can do so by visiting your Parakey site, just as they would surf anywhere else on the Web. Best of all, the part of Parakey that’s online communicates with the part of Parakey running on your home computer, synchronizing the contents of your Parakey pages with their latest versions on your computer. That means you can do the work of updating your site off-line, too. Friends and relatives—and hackers—do not have direct access to your computer; they’re just visiting a site that reflects only the portion of your stuff that you want them to be able to see.
Parakey isn’t MySpace 2.0. The enormously popular MySpace, by comparison, is a sort of bulletin board, a place to post a limited number of selected things (photos, videos, blogs) that you’d like anyone in the world to see. You upload a few party pictures, post a message, maybe instant-message a friend, and then split—making MySpace a pub in which you’d spend a friendly evening, whereas Parakey is the apartment you go home to.
”It’s a nice way to create and store all your stuff,” Ross says, ”and know where it is.”