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Firefox: On the front lines of the Internet wars

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Mitchell Baker has long been on the front lines of the Internet wars. As a lawyer at Netscape, she watched Microsoft steal market share (illegally, a federal court ruled) from the first software program that gave people easy access to the Internet. Since 1998, she's been at the forefront of the Mozilla project, which started out as a volunteer effort to build a better browser. (Mozilla was a nickname for the Mosaic Killer project started by Netscape founder Marc Andreessen to replace his first browser program.)

Since its formal launch in 2004, Mozilla's free Firefox browser has won plaudits from industry and academic experts, who say it is safer and more user friendly than Microsoft's Internet Explorer. IE has suffered from vulnerabilities to home-page hijackers, pop-up advertisers, and hacker programs that collect personal information from home PCs or turn home computers into "zombies" that obey hackers' commands. The endorsements and security improvements have helped Firefox eat into Microsoft's near monopoly. Industry analyst WebSideStory says 9 percent of all American Web surfers are now using Firefox, and IE's market share has fallen from a 2003 high of 96 percent to 87 percent today.

That success pushed Mozilla to turn professional. Baker is now chief executive officer of the for-profit Mozilla Corp., which uses revenue from search commissions to pay the 42 staffers who oversee the volunteers who still tweak and test the software. The leftover profits go to the firm's owner, the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation.

In the heart of Silicon Valley, Baker leaned back on the headquarters' beanbag chairs and explained how a tiny business, offering a free software program and helped by a bunch of volunteers, hopes to compete with the single most successful business in history.

U.S.News: With the recent controversy over false entries in Wikipedia, an open-source encyclopedia, how can you assure Web users that Firefox won't be vandalized?

Baker: A lot of people don't understand that. They think it is chaotic.

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