Blake Ross, the 19-year-old who created the Firefox Web browser in his parents' house in Miami, has done something big software companies have sought to do for years: capture market share from Microsoft Corp.
In the five months since Firefox was released, the program has snared 5 percent of the market from Microsoft's Internet Explorer, according to research firm Websidestory. Microsoft has dominated the market since surpassing Netscape Communications Corp. five years ago.
"I don't think I am Bill Gates's worst nightmare, but this is a serious pride issue for Microsoft," said Ross, a Stanford University sophomore who began work on Firefox two years ago while doing an internship at Netscape.
Firefox, like the Linux operating system, is distributed using a free, open-source model that lets anyone modify the program. The growth of Firefox is a threat to Microsoft because it could be used as the basis for programs that bypass Microsoft's Windows operating system, which generates $11.5 billion in annual sales, said Matt Rosoff, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash.
Mike Nash, a Microsoft vice president, said the company is accelerating its browser development to boost security. "If you look at the number of security vulnerabilities in Internet Explorer versus Firefox, we feel very good about where we are," said Nash, who wouldn't disclose specific features of the next version.
About 30 million users have downloaded Firefox, and Ross predicts the software will capture as much as 15 percent of the browser market in the next year.
"Six months ago, I would have said the browser wars are over," said Gary Barnett, an analyst at London-based researcher Ovum. "Now I have changed my tune. Firefox has not just cloned Internet Explorer, they have done some cool things and out-innovated Internet Explorer."
Microsoft spends about $10 million and has a few dozen people working on Internet Explorer, said Rosoff. That contrasts with Netscape's prime, when Microsoft was devoting more than $100 million a year and 1,000 workers to Internet Explorer.
"The fact is that they abandoned the browser market," Ross said of Microsoft. "We heard from customer after customer that the Internet is way too hard to use. People are tired of dealing with pop-up ads and spyware. People were tired of the Internet experience, so we wanted to reduce these headaches for them."
Firefox blocks pop-up ads and lets users quickly switch between different Web pages stored as tabs on the top of the screen.
But Firefox also has flaws. Symantec Corp., owner of Norton brand antivirus and utilities programs, found Firefox had 21 security flaws compared with 13 for Internet Explorer between July 1 and Dec. 31. However, Internet Explorer had more "high severity vulnerabilities," Symantec said.
Ross got his start at age 14 finding and fixing bugs for Netscape out of his parent's home. By age 17, he was in his second year as a Netscape intern when he began to tinker with the code in the company's Mozilla browser along with co-worker David Hyatt. The effort eventually resulted in Firefox.
Ross next met with directors from the Mozilla Foundation, a new non-profit started by former Netscape employees with the financial backing of Oracle Corp. and International Business Machines Corp. Sitting around a picnic table outside Netscape's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters, the group agreed on a plan to back and distribute Firefox.
Firefox will have to move from "evangelizing to the sandals and start evangelizing to the suits" to sustain growth, Ovum's Barnett said.
Internet Explorer's U.S. market share fell to less than 90 percent in a February survey by Websidestory, the lowest in three years, down from a high of 97 percent in March 2003. Firefox has 5.7 percent.
Mozilla marketing manager Rafael Ebron, 28, says that the word about Firefox is spreading. He said he spent the time on a flight in February to San Jose explaining Firefox to fellow passengers and handing around his "Guide to Firefox."
Ross is leading the effort to promote Firefox through the spreadfirefox.com Web site, which has organized 70,000 volunteers to spread the word on college campuses. He is enlisting Web page creators to track how many visitors to their sites use Firefox.
"We don't want to dominate. We just want enough share to make sure that there's a choice," said Ross, seated in a Starbucks Corp. coffee house a mile from his third-floor dorm room. "Anybody who thinks Microsoft will keep innovating if they quell us is silly. They won't do anything unless we push them."