Blake Ross

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THOMAS BROENING FOR TIME

Blake Ross, FireFox creator.

When Blake Ross was 15, he moved from Florida to California to take an internship with Netscape. This was a rather quixotic thing for a 15-year-old to do, because Netscape was on life support at the time—its Web browser was getting the stuffing beat out of it by Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

Netscape had one thing going for it: it was open source. Most software is developed exactly the way you think it is: you pay a bunch of geeks in cubicles to write it. Open-source software works differently. You release a rough draft onto the Internet, and anybody can open the hood and go to work on it—streamline it, fix bugs, suggest features, pretty up the interface, whatever. The people who write open-source software "aren't necessarily professionals," Ross says. "It gives you a breadth of experience outside of just computer geeks. It also means the people are truly dedicated because there's no payday." Open source is as much a community, even a subculture, as it is an approach to creating software.

In 2002 Ross and some colleagues decided to start up a new version of Netscape, one that would chuck all the fancy features and go for simplicity, stability and speed. They called the new browser Firefox, and it was a monster hit. When Firefox 2.0 appeared this October, it clocked 2 million downloads in the first 24 hours. Web surfers are switching to Firefox at the rate of 7 million a month.

There's something both very American and very anticapitalist about the open-source approach. It's about including everyone in the process, democratically, but it's also about giving away the product and sharing your trade secrets with the world; the more people who have access to your intellectual property the better. "I'm not in this for the money. I truly love it," Ross says. "I could never see myself sitting in a cubicle." Right now Ross, a world-weary 21, is taking time off from Stanford to work on a new project called Parakey. Parakey is top secret for now, but it will be an open-source project too. So Ross will make sure you hear about it.

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—Reported by Jeremy Caplan and Kathleen Kingsbury/New York, Susan Jakes/Beijing, Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles, Grant Rosenberg/Paris and Bryan Walsh/Seoul