Blake Ross helped make Firefox one of the biggest open-source success stories ever. Just wait until you see what he’s up to now
Photo: Timothy Archibald; Styling: Shannon Amos/Artist Untied
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 first-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 T-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.”
To understand where Blake Ross is going with Parakey, you have to understand where he’s been. As part of the first generation to grow up with the Internet, Ross discovered early how geek culture was conspiring against his parents. Although his mom, a psychologist, and his dad, a lawyer, hold graduate degrees, they were stymied when they tried to do just about anything online. Ross recalls his mother frequently yelling across the house to him, asking for tech support. She couldn’t find her Internet Explorer bookmarks. She was getting besieged with pop-up ads. She didn’t know how to protect herself from viruses.
While his peers might relish such power over their parents, Ross is squeakily earnest and really wanted to help out. So he went off to slay the dragons haunting the Internet. Late into the night, he sat under his shelves of Archie toys and taught himself to code, first HTML, the Web programming language, and then Microsoft Visual Basic, a popular tool for creating simple applications. Even back then, Ross made a habit of keeping his family and friends in the dark. “I don’t like telling people what I’m doing until I have something to show them,” he says.
“My friends would say, ‘How can you leave him in his bedroom for so many hours?’” his mother, Abby, recalls. “We didn’t know what was going on in there.” When their son would request programming books for his birthday, they began to get an idea. “Everyone started to tell me he was going to be the next Bill Gates,” Abby says. In fact, the young Ross had another target in mind: Netscape’s embattled Mozilla browser. Netscape had ushered in the dot-com era, but by 1998 its pioneering browser had been almost completely superseded by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. So that year the company made the bold—or desperate—move of releasing the code for its software to the world of open source. “It was a way to touch a product used by a couple million people,” Ross says. And it was something that could help his mom.
After many long nights online, Ross became well enough known in the Mozilla community to get offered a position with Netscape (by then owned by AOL). Yet when the 15-year-old Florida native, accompanied by his mom, arrived at the Silicon Valley office in 2000, he was less than impressed. “It was the bloody remains of battle,” Ross says. “I didn’t feel like anyone in management thought we had a chance of winning this thing.”
But there were others in the cubicle trenches who hadn’t conceded the browser war to Microsoft. Late one night in the summer of 2002, at a nearby Denny’s restaurant, Ross fell into an impassioned discussion with Dave Hyatt, a senior engineer at Netscape who shared his vision for a leaner but more flexible browser for the masses. Rather than starting from scratch, the two took the Mozilla browser, which they thought was bloated with superfluous features such as chat rooms and an e-mail client, and began stripping it to the bare essentials. They felt they were raising the Netscape browser from the ashes and so named their stripped-down version Phoenix. But the rebel project became anathema to some Mozilla diehards. “I don’t see the need for Phoenix,” posted one detractor at the time. Another was more succinct: “Phoenix sucks,” he blogged.
Enrolling in Stanford for the fall of 2002, Ross decided to have a go at being an ordinary college kid. He lifted weights. He started dating. He discovered the rock band Coldplay. But his geek legacy was also alive and well. Before long, his vision of a lean mean Web browser caught on in a major way. Phoenix—later named Firebird, then Firefox—gathered momentum. Ben Goodger, a 23-year-old engineer from New Zealand, had been shepherding it along with the growing support of other open-source enthusiasts. Chris Messina, a 22-year-old programmer who was a key player in the development of Deanspace, the influential Web site Howard Dean used to attract support for his bid at the Democratic nomination, joined the Firefox team for the same reasons. “It was all about empowering people through technology,” he says.
Drawing on the viral marketing strategies of the Dean campaign, legions rallied behind the alternative browser. They got a snappy logo, an Earth-hugging fox, and they launched a community hub called SpreadFirefox. Supporters around the world posted digital photos of their efforts at guerrilla marketing. They dropped a Firefox banner on the Danish Parliament building in Copenhagen, carried “Get Firefox” placards at an anti-Bush rally in London, plastered posters around Taiwan. In a mere 10 days, they raised US $200 000 to take out a full-page ad in The New York Times.
Firefox went prime time in June 2005, after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a warning about the “vulnerability” of Internet Explorer and suggested using alternative browsers. Even Slate magazine, owned by Microsoft, threw in the towel. “I’ve been using [Firefox] for a week now,” trumpeted a Slate scribe, “and I’ve all but forgotten about Explorer.”
The success of Firefox put the spotlight on Ross, whose young age and puckish charm made him a media icon—much to the consternation of Ross and the open-source community. But Ross’s ability to articulate Firefox’s goals and challenges in his blog earned him a following. He was a coder who could talk the talk. And people listened. Soon even members of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer team sought Ross out. One night after he addressed a Silicon Valley technology group, they invited him for dinner. “I thought they were going to take me out in the parking lot and beat the crap out of me,” Ross says. Instead, they gave him a company sweatshirt with the Explorer’s familiar “e” icon grafted under the bones of a Jolly Roger. It was tongue-in-cheek but symbolic nonetheless. Ross had raided their kingdom.
With that kind of attention, it’s no wonder Ross is feeling pressure to follow up.
Inside his uncle’s restaurant, Ross launches into a laptop demo of Parakey. This isn’t a press conference; he’s just showing his brainchild to me informally. It’s the sort of venue he prefers—low key, one on one. And it’s in these moments that he really comes to life. As developers well know, disseminating new software is not only a technical challenge, it’s also a communications task. You’re not just engineering a solution, you’re marketing it. And Ross has considerable talent in both spheres. Mitchell Baker, head of Mozilla Corp., which distributes Firefox, says, “Blake is a good spokesperson. He expresses well the many ideas that drive us. Having an individual that people and press can relate to does help sell the story.”
In explaining Parakey, Ross cuts to the chase. “We all know people…who have all this content that they are not publishing stored on their computers,” he says. “We’re trying to persuade them to live their lives online.” Why? Because online is how the world, like it or not, increasingly talks. If Ross’s mom can’t do something as basic as share her recipes or photos with her future grandchildren online, then she gets left behind. In the 21st century, this sort of information isn’t passed on at the Thanksgiving table anymore. It’s communicated through the Internet. So without something like Parakey, there’s a chance it’s not going to outlive the baby-boom generation.
Grandparents love seeing their kids and grandkids on Flickr or Snapfish, but they’re often too intimidated to put their own pictures on these sites. The reason, in part, is that they have to jump through many hoops: dragging pictures here, uploading them there. Parakey, inherently (and potentially profitably), is aimed at making it easier for them—and everyone else—to get their stuff online.
It’s not just grandparents who aren’t using the Web as much as they could—it’s everyone. Right now, Ross says, “we have two wildly advanced platforms—the desktop operating system and the Internet. That leaves users with a frustrating choice. Do you want to create content with powerful tools in an ad-free environment and bury it in a system that’s accessible anytime, but only in one place and by one person?” The alternative, he says, is weaker tools and an ad-heavy space that can be accessed by anyone anywhere, but only when you’re online. “We don’t believe people should have to make that choice,” he says.
Pointing to the screen of his laptop, Ross shows me what he calls a “family portal” for a fictional clan named the Andersons. Mom has a page with her recipes displayed. Dad has his collection of war documents. The kids have their party photos. Although it looks like a Web site—down to the Firefox-style tabs that run across the top of the page, which each family member uses to display his or her own section—it is, in fact, something much more ambitious: a universal interface. Even though Parakey works inside your Web browser, it runs locally on your home computer, which allows Parakey developers to do things inside your Parakey site that a traditional Web site could not do, such as interact with your camera. So instead of clicking between, say, the Windows desktop and a MySpace home page displayed in a Web browser, you are always operating within your Parakey site.
Take digital photos, for example. Here’s how the Parakey experience works: you plug in your camera, and your photos get stored seamlessly on your computer in such a way that you can view them quickly and easily through your Parakey site. No more digging through folders for the right image files. They’re organized and displayed as attractively as a site like Flickr might display them, as thumbnails with identifying text beneath them. Parakey allows for serious editing functions—from cutting and cropping to eliminating red-eye—all within the context of your Parakey page. But it also brings some more basic (and fun) scrapbooking habits into the digital realm. Ross clicks on an icon representing what he calls the Toy Box. Open the Toy Box and there are all sorts of accessories for dressing up the pictures: word balloons, devil horns, goofy fonts.
Now let’s say you want to share your collection of graduation photos with some select family and friends. The problem today is that there are several layers to getting that done. Many sites require users to register before seeing a photo album. With Parakey, you send a digital “key” to people whom you want to be able to access your site. The keys appear as little icons that look like, no surprise, house keys. Each one contains a unique identifier, essentially a password. When a recipient clicks on the key, he or she gets a cookie installed that contains this password—and, as a result, gains access to the stuff you’ve designated on your site.
Drag, say, a silver key onto a collection, and that action makes it for your eyes only. Drag a gold key, and you open it up to family. A bronze key opens it to friends. Right now if you have photos you want friends but not co-workers to see, and vice versa, you need two different Flickr accounts. And unlike many sites, Parakey doesn’t require your loved ones or chums to register before viewing your photos. And it makes downloading content easier, too. The idea, eventually, is to do away with the file archiving required today. Everything you encounter while surfing online—photos, videos, tunes—you can drag right onto your Parakey page, end of story.
To use Parakey, you first must download a small application. This is at the heart of the Parakey system. It contains software that essentially turns your computer into a local server. This approach has one huge built-in benefit: you can manage your content quickly and efficiently, even if you’re off-line. Again, it’s not that you’re making your hard drive’s contents available for the world; rather, you’re organizing your Parakey site, say, http://dave.parakey.com, only some of which will be open for others to view. Whether you make your changes online or off, there’s only one interface (avoiding the Outlook/Hotmail problem); everything is ultimately stored locally, your computer being synchronized with remote servers whenever you are online. “You never have to care about the uploading process,” says Ross. “That just happens transparently.”
Ross wants independent developers to create a variety of applications for Parakey. To that end, he and Hewitt have created a programming language for Parakey that they call JUL, a mashed-up acronym that stands for “Just another User interface Language.”
JUL is specially designed for the online world in which Parakey applications will reside. JUL applications are themselves comprised of other applications that come in all shapes and sizes. The interface for Mrs. Anderson’s recipe application, for instance, might include much smaller ones such as a metric-to-English-units converter or photo-goes-here. “You’re not thinking at [the HTML] level anymore,” Ross says. “You’re thinking one level up. That will make it easier to build desktop applications on the Web.” And despite Ross’s connection to Firefox, Parakey will work with any browser.
JUL applications also notice Web events that take place when someone is reading a Parakey page—an update to a sports score, for example, or a new blog entry—and instantly update the page accordingly. Users of these applications don’t have to request these updates, and neither do the JUL developers who wrote them. They simply include “formulas” behind the scenes that reference different information sources. If a source changes, JUL automatically reevaluates the formulas—much as a spreadsheet does.
What do developers think? At press time, it’s hard to say, because Ross is keeping his cards, for the time being, close to his chest. But those who know Ross say that the work on Firefox laid the foundation for his current project. Goodger, one of the key players in igniting the Firefox phenomenon, says the goal of helping ordinary folk navigate the Web, is “an ideology in and of itself.” And it’s one Ross has always taken to heart. “Blake has played a formative role in this,” Goodger says.
Naturally, Firefox is the model in Ross’s mind of how he and Hewitt—who was one of the original Firefox engineers—ought to develop Parakey. “If it were up to us, we’d open source all of it,” he says, “but it depends on how the investors want to do this.”
This statement expresses the differences between the Firefox and Parakey business models. Firefox began life as an open-source, not-for-profit experiment and recently has begun morphing into a moneymaking enterprise under the Mountain View, Calif.–based Mozilla Corp. Formed in 2005, Mozilla makes money through sources such as Google ads included on the Firefox search results page. Parakey, on the other hand, is launching with profit in mind. While many of the details remain under wraps, the idea is to roll out initially with a single application, such as the photo system, which will demonstrate how the platform can be exploited. Once all the infrastructure is in place and scalable, they’ll make a more concerted play to involve outside developers, probably around January. Ross says that advertising revenues will come in differently from the way they do in Google or other ad-dependent businesses. He can’t say more about it for now. Although market analysts have yet to probe it, some are already unsure how well Ross’s new project might do. “I’m skeptical,” says Joe Laszlo, a research director at Jupiter Research, a technology-research firm based in New York City. “The vast majority of people who want to publish content at all prefer a best-of-breed shop and don’t want to do it all in one place.”
As Ross shuts down his laptop and digs into dinner, his mind turns to other matters—like Time magazine’s big event, scheduled for the following night. With Parakey development taking up his time, he hasn’t had much left over for parties or even his Stanford education. He’s taking time off from everything until he gets this project done. But, as always, he still makes room for his original muse—his mom. When she calls him up complaining about some new technology that’s confusing her, he knows there’s more work to do—and a new opportunity on the horizon.
About the Author
DAVID KUSHNER, a journalist in New Jersey, is the author of Masters of Doom (Random House, 2003), which is being developed into a movie for Showtime. His most recent book is Johnny Magic and the Card Shark Kids (Random House, 2005). Kushner has also written for Wired, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and other publications.
To Probe Further
Blake Ross’s blog is at http://www.blakeross.com; Joe Hewitt’s is at http://www.joehewitt.com. Hewitt's web developer extension, Firebug, is available at http://www.getfirebug.com/ and also on the Mozilla site at https://addons.mozilla.org/firefox/1843/?.
While the Parakey team has been hard at work, Web development tools have also been making great strides. Some useful resources include Web Developer’s Journal (http://webdevelopersjournal.com/software/webtools.html), the Open Source Technology Group’s SourceForge (http://sourceforge.net), and Mozilla’s own page of tools for Firefox extension development by programmer Chris Pederick (https://addons.mozilla.org/firefox/60).