Monday, Apr. 18, 2005

Mitchell Baker

For the past few years, almost all Web surfers have used Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser, which at its peak commanded close to 97% market share. But five months ago, a new browser, Firefox, managed by a nonprofit foundation headed by Mitchell Baker, began gaining ground. The upstart browser has been downloaded more than 40 million times by users looking for a break from spyware, pop-ups and other Web nuisances.

It's sweet success for Baker, who is in her late 40s, and her crew, particularly given the long, rocky journey of the Mozilla project that brought Firefox to life. In 1998 Netscape Communications, then still the leading provider of Web browsers, was facing aggressive competition from Microsoft. In a dramatic move, Netscape decided to release its source code, the inner workings of its namesake browser, to the public. Computer programmers from around the world were invited to contribute features and code fixes in the hopes of collectively creating the best possible browser. Baker, then a top lawyer at Netscape, created the license under which the source code was released as open-source software.

Inside the company, the effort was christened Mozilla, and Baker found herself bestowed with the title "chief lizard wrangler," heading a loose band of freewheeling computer programmers from around the world. The effort took several years to come to fruition, while Microsoft continued to entrench its Web browser dominance. In 2003 AOL, which had acquired Netscape, spun off the Mozilla project into an independent nonprofit foundation. Its mission: to create choice and innovation on the Internet by offering alternatives.

Baker stayed on to oversee the foundation; the Mozilla project tightened its focus on Firefox and other end-user products. Operating without commercial restraints, Baker and her team are free to pursue any innovation that will improve the product. Firefox is chipping away at Internet Explorer's stranglehold, but more important, it is showing that a loose collective of volunteer contributors from around the world can deliver software that can compete with any commercial effort. Much of the credit for that goes to the chief lizard wrangler.

Andreessen, chairman of Opsware, co-founded Netscape and co-authored Mosaic

From the Archive
The Browser That Roared