Wednesday, January 11, 2006; 1:20 AM
I spent Tuesday afternoon driving down to Mountain View, Calif., about 30 to 40 minutes drive south of San Francisco, to visit Mozilla Corp., the shop behind the Firefox browser and Thunderbird e-mail program that I've written about several times. I wanted to get some background about how this small firm, wholly owned by the non-profit Mozilla Foundation, goes about its business, and about what it plans to do next with its two core releases.
Here's what I learned over a couple of hours of chats at Mozilla's offices, a small, generic building set among others just like it, right off U.S. 101 and, coincidentally, around the corner from Google's immensely larger headquarters.
Who works on Firefox?
With an open-source project such as this, it's hard to come up with an exact number. Product manager Chris Beard says Mozilla employs "about 40" full-time developers. Outside of the company, "maybe 120 people ... are core and really involved." A third circle consists of "committers" -- developers who can add their code to the ongoing project without first handing it off for a higher-ranking developer to submit. Brendan Eich, a Firefox developer and director of the Mozilla Foundation, estimated that number at about 800.
(If you're interested in joining that group, Eich said one of the better ways to demonstrate your skill is to write an extension to Firefox, a plug-in that adds some useful function but isn't part of the default download.)
Have you ever had a security breach?
"I know of proof-of-concepts, but no active ones," Beard said. Both he and Eich seemed to think that Firefox would inevitably be a target of attacks; their job is to make it as difficult as possible for those to succeed.
What's with sites where Firefox doesn't work right?
The short answer is, it's probably because a site has been doing what it always has, and it hasn't gotten enough complaints from users. Although Mozilla encourages users to nag browser-exclusive sites, it doesn't have a formal program to contact them on this issue. Developer Johnny Stenback said, "It's been a while since we evangelized a site."
The long answer is, Firefox has moved increasingly towards offering support for even defective or half-baked implementations of HTML if they're in common use. "We've moved far away from what you might call early Mozilla religion," commented Eich -- but some sites still insist on doing things in ways that only permit the user of Internet Explorer.
One example is media sites that employ Microsoft Windows-only scripting software to control video and audio playback. Eich said Mozilla has developed code to allow those sites to function properly, but turning that code on would mean accepting additional security risks, and Mozilla doesn't want to buy into all that.
How can sites keep throwing pop-ups at me?
I showed the Firefox developers how one site I've been reading a lot this week (the Mac-rumors site Apple Insider) launched a pop-up window when I clicked on an article link, then asked what the site could be doing to get around Firefox's pop-up blocking. The consensus was that the site was designed to launch the pop-up ad in response to my click, not that news article loading -- and because that sort of behavior can be difficult to distinguish from normal browsing, Firefox developers had yet to find a reliable way to block those particular pop-ups.
What happens to copies of Firefox that just die?
I mentioned how I've gotten reports from readers about how Firefox had mysteriously and completely stopped working for them, despite all their efforts. The developers threw around guesses and hypotheses -- Stenback suggested it could be scrambled proxy-server settings, for instance -- but had nothing concrete to suggest.
What's next for Firefox?
The existing bookmarks and history interfaces will probably get junked. Eich said the next major release of Firefox would integrate browsing history and bookmarks in one interface, using a database to track both. Users would be able to manage bookmarks by tagging them under various categories instead of filing them in one folder apiece -- sort of like how you can put one MP3 file in multiple playlists, or arrange one digital photo in multiple albums.
How is Thunderbird going to compete with both of Microsoft's dominant mail programs -- Outlook as well as Outlook Express?
Scott MacGregor, Mozilla's "Thunderbird Guru" (going by his business card), said that users can get a level of utility roughly equivalent to Outlook by installing extensions to it.
The problem is, most of these add-ons are either in early stages of development or don't exist. One, called, Lightning, is being developed to add calendar functions to Thunderbird, but that's in a very early state. The contacts-sharing site Plaxo recently released an address-book extension of its own, but that's in beta testing.
Another problem: Lots of people won't bother with those extensions. And updates to Thunderbird's own address book may take a while. MacGregor said "we do have some new community members that are really interested in the address book" -- but added that their contributions probably wouldn't bear fruit until version 3 of the mail client, which probably won't arrive until February 2007 at the earliest.
Does the spam filter in Thunderbird really work?
Thunderbird uses a "Bayesian" spam filter that attempts to learn your definition of junk mail and non-junk mail by watching what messages you mark as junk and which you keep. MacGregor said he accelerates this process by importing a folder of about 200 spam messages into Thunderbird, then marking it all junk. He said that after this step, the filter is usually about 95 percent accurate.
Why does Thunderbird have an RSS newsfeed reader even though Firefox already includes one?
Even though I use this mail program all the time, I hadn't realized this (in retrospect) obvious answer: The Thunderbird reader lets you manage RSS feeds like mail messages -- you can move them to different folders and filter them automatically, even storing them in the same search folders as mail messages. That seems powerful, and I'll give it a try when I get back to D.C.
What's next for Thunderbird?
With Thunderbird 1.5 just now nearing release, MacGregor didn't want to talk much about plans for new releases, but he did list three priorities. One was encouraging outside developers to write more extensions to add utility to Thunderbird. Another was to bring more of this program's features to the surface, making it easier for users to discover them. And a third was to add more mail-management options -- the option of creating favorite folders, as in Outlook; the ability to open multiple messages at once, then sort among them by clicking on tabs (just like in tabbed browsers like Firefox); and quick previews of the content of new messages that would appear in pop-up balloons and tooltips.