Firefox man plans to double Kiwi developer team

Staff to increase two-fold, says Robert O'Callahan

Leading Firefox expert Robert O’Callahan is planning to double the size of his Mozilla Firefox development team in New Zealand.

Currently, there are two coders, developing the open source web browser out of a central Auckland office, but by the middle of March, O’Callahan expects the team to have grown to four. While there are many individual Firefox developers around the globe, the Auckland group will be only the second development team outside of Japan

The open-source Mozilla project started 1998. O’Callahan has been involved in the project since 1999 — initially in his spare time while working at IBM Research in the US.

“I started writing some code for Mozilla just for fun really,” he says. “I stuck with it and got more and more involved.”

At the end of 2004 O’Callahan and his family decided to move back to New Zealand because they wanted to be closer to family but also because he wanted to make a contribution to New Zealand.

“I wasn’t going to be happy with myself just being one of those people that takes off overseas and never comes back,” he says.

Meanwhile, he realised that Firefox was becoming increasingly important to the internet and also to himself, and he wanted to put more time into developing it. He also wanted to work full-time on Firefox from New Zealand, and when he started working for Novell, he was able to do just that. Firefox is a key part of Novell’s Linux desktop product.

O’Callahan worked as a Firefox developer for Novell for two years until Mozilla Corporation asked if he wanted to work for it directly. It turned out that Mozilla was willing to give him exactly what he wanted, which was a whole team of Firefox developers, right here in New Zealand.

One of O’Callahan’s goals is to help create interesting jobs in New Zealand, the “sort of jobs that would have lured me back earlier,” he says.

When he was overseas he met many talented tech-people that said they would love to come and live in New Zealand if only there were jobs here.

“I would like to make a dent in that problem — a tiny dent,” he says. “But there are other cool companies here, for example Massive and Weta. If we can build up some momentum, it would be great.”

In creating a bigger team he also wants to stimulate human interaction.

“There is this large open-source community but you only interact with them online,” he says. “I’ve been doing that for many years but I thought it would be more fun if I could have some real people, face to face.”

O’Callahan started working for Mozilla in the beginning of 2007 and has since recruited “a couple of guys”. It’s hard to find the right people, he says, because the project is challenging. In mid-March the team will consist of four developers and O’Callahan hopes that Mozilla’s New Zealand office will keep growing from there.

“As I find the right people, or the right people find me, I’ll keep asking Mozilla if they want to hire them, and as long as they say yes, we’ll keep growing.”

O’Callahan is one of the Firefox old-timers. He has been heavily involved for nearly ten years, and has seen many other developers come and go.

“A lot of people left the project in the “dark days” around 2000-2001,” he says.

Mozilla has grown in the last couple of years and that has brought in a lot of new people, but not many have been around since the beginning.

That has put O’Callahan in a position to call the shots. Ever since he was a volunteer Firefox developer he has worked on what he felt was important for the browser.

“I’m still doing that,” he says. “So far, I think people [have] kind of trusted me to work on the right things. And hopefully it will stay that way,” he says.

O’Callahan works primarily on the new Gecko 1.9 engine which the Firefox 3 application is built on top of. The Firefox 3 application uses the Gecko engine to render web pages and it also uses it as the engine for the user interface, he says.

A lot of the work on the new Gecko engine to date has been around fixing bugs, improving performance and becoming more compliant with website standards, he says. The compliance work that Mozilla has done so far has enabled the browser to pass Acid2, an international test for compliance with web standards.

Among the new features are enhanced graphics, based on the open-source project Cairo, which enables better graphics all around the browser but also better support for high-resolution screens — 200 dpi or more, he says.

“We are scaling the web page up, so the web page will look the same size [on a high resolution screen] as it does on a normal screen,” he says.

Another new facility is the offline cache feature, which enables users to use web applications without having to be constantly connected to the internet.

“This is one of the most exciting [features] I think. [And] it is actually one of the easiest things to [develop],” he says.

The browser pre-fetches and stores the resources that the application needs so they are available offline, he says. Basically, the browser downloads the resources while the user is online and when offline, the user is still able to use the browser.

“You can fire up the browser, type in URLs or go to a bookmark as you would if you were online,” he says. “Everything looks and feels the same.”

The only difference is that when you are offline the server can’t be contacted to send or receive information, he says. For example, you can read your emails offline, because the application would have downloaded the emails when you were online. You can compose emails offline, and when you go back online the web application detects that and automatically sends the emails, he says.

The data created when the user is offline is saved in a local storage, says O’Callahan.

“[The offline feature] removes the last barriers to adopting web applications instead of desktop applications,” he says. “Who ever does implement [this feature] in their applications first will get a big boost out of it.”

If Google, for example, were to implement it, Google Docs & Spreadsheets would be available offline.

Mozilla has released the second alpha version of what will become Firefox 3.0. The preview, called “Gran Paradiso”, is aimed at web application developers. Many of the features of what will become Firefox 3 are still not finalised, says O’Callahan.

The browser is expected to be released to users in the second half of the year.

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