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Mozilla's chief is fired up about making a better Web browser

HOW I MADE IT: JOHN LILLY

Lilly's company, which makes the open-source Firefox software, depends for its success on thousands of devoted volunteers.

January 04, 2009|Jessica Guynn

SAN FRANCISCO — The gig: Chief executive of Mozilla Corp., maker of the Firefox Web browser, which broke Microsoft Corp.'s hold on the market so that it couldn't dominate the Internet the way it does computer operating systems. About 95% of Web surfers used Microsoft's Internet Explorer in 2004; now 20% use Firefox, and other companies are offering browsers that are smarter and faster than ever before. But don't call it a browser war. "We all want the Web to be good. I am glad for the innovation and all the big brands working on it."

Education: Stanford University-trained computer scientist

Background: Lilly, 37, grew up playing with technology. His father, a physics major and Air Force officer, built the family's first television and computer from kits and taught him binary and hexidecimal numeric systems. His grandfather was a rocket engineer. While in college, Lilly got his first real job, working on an atom smasher. Being a short-order cook for a Chinese fast-food restaurant and a game monitor at a playground didn't help him figure out what the world was made of in quite the same way.

Not your typical company: With 200 employees and a $50-million budget, Mozilla is the for-profit subsidiary of the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation. Firefox is "open source," meaning users everywhere are encouraged to improve it. Its success depends largely on thousands of devoted volunteers -- 40% of the code is written by people who don't clock in.

"If people participate in the construction of the Web, it will be better and more robust." For example, Mozilla produced Firefox in one language: English. Volunteers translated it into 61 other languages and also made it accessible to the blind and deaf and others with physical limitations. Next up: Firefox for mobile phones. Consumers appreciate the Mozilla mission: "It's like organic food. When you tell people about the values that go into building the product, it builds loyalty."

The Web changed his life: After getting his master's degree, Lilly moved to Austin, Texas, to work for a software firm. But he couldn't resist the pull of Silicon Valley, where he could connect with the people and ideas fueling the Internet. He rode the boom and the bust, going from research work at Apple Inc. to boot-strapping his own venture, which was later sold to Cisco Systems Inc. While serving on the board of the Open Source Applications Foundation, Lilly met Mozilla Chairwoman Mitchell Baker in 2004, just as Firefox was taking off. He wanted to help. Baker asked, "When can you start?" The challenge: to make the Web as powerful as the desktop. "It's not very often that you get a chance to do something this meaningful. The Web is the most profound and fundamental invention of our lives."

Why you should care about your browser: Its speed, security and other capabilities can improve your Internet experience. "I spend more time in my browser than I do in my car. You should spend at least as much time choosing which browser you use as which car you drive. It's your lens onto the Web. Just like the lenses in your glasses, it affects the way the Web looks to you. As we see more and more of the world through the Web, the characteristics of the lens matter more than ever."

Where to find Lilly on the Web: On his blog at john.jubjubs.net or on Twitter at twitter.com/johnolilly.

Personal: Lives in Sunnyvale, Calif., with wife Kathy, an educator, and their 3-year-old son.

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jessica.guynn@latimes.com

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