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Web prodigy takes on new challenge

First it was Netscape. Now Firefox benefits from teenager's skills.

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- By age 10, Blake Ross was designing Web pages on America Online. By 14, after mastering complex programming languages such as C++, he was fixing bugs in Netscape's Web browser from home, a hobby that landed him a job offer.

"What, at the local store or something?" David Ross remembered thinking when his son told him.

No, at Netscape Communications Corp.

Ross, now 19, a sophomore computer science major at Stanford University, has an even more impressive resume than most of his peers. Before graduating from high school, he helped develop Firefox.

Colleagues who worked with Ross only online were surprised when they met him to find "a scrawny 15-year-old kid," recalled Chris Hofmann, engineering director at the Mozilla Foundation.

To take an internship at Netscape during the summer of 2001, Ross moved with his mother to a rented apartment near Netscape's offices in Mountain View, Calif. She drove him to work each morning.

He continued working on the browser on contract after returning to Florida to attend Gulliver Preparatory School. He breezed through computer classes, finishing projects in a day that took others two weeks, said Dean Morell, a former teacher and chairman of the school's computer science department.

Ross soon took on a much more demanding project. America Online Inc., which bought Netscape in 1999, was trying to resurrect the once-mighty Netscape browser. AOL added features, but they bogged down the software and reduced performance, Ross said in recent interviews by e-mail and at his parents' condo in Key Biscayne, a Miami suburb.

At 17, Ross and another Netscape programmer, David Hyatt, started a side project that became Firefox. They wanted to strip down Netscape and the Mozilla suite on which it is based. By reducing the software to its browsing basics, they figured it would run more efficiently.

Ross and Hyatt created an early version of the browser. Because the project was open-source, thousands of volunteers could examine the programming code and suggest ways to improve performance and fix bugs.

"I have fond memories of long nights spent at Netscape poring over all the feedback people submitted about our programs," Ross said.

Hofmann, the Mozilla executive, said Ross dealt with the pressures of Silicon Valley quite well for his age.

"I don't think he was intimidated or awe-struck," he said. "With open-source projects you rise to a level based on skills. It is really a meritocracy. Anyone who has the skills rises quickly and Blake had all those skills."

AOL ultimately spun off the project and created the not-for-profit Mozilla Foundation to develop Firefox and related software.

Hyatt left to design Apple Computer Inc.'s Safari Web browser, but Ross stayed and helped fix Firefox bugs from college.

Firefox was released Nov. 9. It was used by 4.6 percent of Web surfers in early January, and that number could reach 10 percent by mid-2005, according to analysts. Microsoft's Internet Explorer has dropped to 90.6 percent this month from 95.5 percent in June. Security experts like Firefox, saying it isn't as vulnerable as Internet Explorer to viruses, spyware, and other malicious programs.

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