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Outfoxing Microsoft

As Blake Ross watches another glorious sunset from the balcony of his parents' Key Biscayne condo, life feels pretty good.

At 19, Ross has already helped change life as we know it _ at least for the computer-literate world.

It was back-breaking work, involving months _ make that years, according to his mother _ spent locked away in his bedroom in front of a computer screen.

Ross is one of the creators of Firefox, a new Internet browser that is kicking down the mighty doors of Microsoft, which once held a virtual monopoly on Web surfing.

Computer analysts say Firefox is a faster, more versatile browser that also offers better protection from viruses and unwanted advertising.

Not only that, the system is offered as a public service with "open source" technology that can be downloaded for free.

Industry experts have already dubbed the new software "Microsoft's worst nightmare," according to the tech magazine Business 2.0. It hailed Ross as a "software prodigy."

Ross, who attended the private Gulliver Preparatory School in Miami, doesn't fit the techie stereotype. There is only a hint of geekiness about his skinny and pale appearance. His gelled hair and the tiny goatee on his lower lip attest to a regular teen. So do his baggy pants with unbuttoned shirt hanging loose over a T-shirt.

He's more the overachiever type. Several sports trophies on top of his computer table indicate a life spent at least partly outdoors. He's also a talented pianist and "an unbelievable creative writer," according to his mother, Abby Ross, a clinical psychologist and avid marathoner.

Like any good mother, she doesn't try to hide her pride. "Anything he does, he does well," she said.

But Ross does meet the techie profile in other ways.

Born into the Internet generation, as a 7-year-old he got hooked by the the popular computer game SimCity, designing and budgeting his own virtual city.

Less drawn by the action-packed video games, he prefered the more educationally challenging ones. By 10, he had created his own Web site. "I thought that was very cool," he said. He conducted online polls, posing questions such as, "Are you excited about going back to school?"

His mother gave him typing lessons "to avoid the pecking thing," she says.

Things began to get serious when he delved deeper into the Web, creating his own computer applications and online text games involving scrambled words.

Soon he was reporting computer software flaws to manufacturers online.

At age 14 he was offered an internship at Netscape. "He came in and said, "I got a job for the summer,' " his mother recalled. "I'm thinking McDonald's, Burger King," she said, before her son informed her he'd be going to Silicon Valley.

His mother drove him out to California for three summers in a row. His age was a surprise to his co-workers. Ross had always introduced himself online as still being "at school." He let people think college, not high school.

Netscape was trying to promote its own browser to compete with Microsoft. The effort failed. Instead, Netscape made its browser code available to the public. Meanwhile, Microsoft _ like Coca-Cola _ continued to dominate the market by keeping its formula a tightly guarded secret.

At Netscape, Ross was introduced to the Mozilla Foundation, a nonprofit venture that promotes "choice and innovation on the Web."

Mozilla was already trying to develop an open-source alternative browser to Explorer, which many analysts felt had grown clumsy and outdated.

"They never bothered to update it because they had a monopoly," Ross said. Over the years, Microsoft's software became slowed down by the baggage of old software, what Ross now calls the "legacy" or "spaghetti" codes. "It got all tangled up," he said.

Ross and his friend David Hyatt began working on a small, user-focused browser.

"It was kind of an experimental side-project at first," he said. "But we persuaded Mozilla to turn it into something bigger."

It became Firefox.

Ross is quick to point out that he was one of a large team at Mozilla who worked on the project for five years. "It's a big volunteer effort," he said.

Hyatt and Ross left before the work was completed, but Mozilla credits them with making the breakthrough. After he left to go to college, Ross continued to be a "significant contributor," according to the foundation.

The task involved throwing out all the old codes and rewriting the entire system so it would support all Web sites on the Internet.

While Firefox still has a long way to go to catch Microsoft, it seems to be catching on.

Since its November launch it has reportedly been downloaded by more than 10-million users during the first weeks, making it already the world's second-most used browser.

Microsoft professes to be unfazed.

"We're seeing the natural ebb and flow of a competitive marketplace with new products being introduced," Windows executive Gary Schare told the St. Paul Pioneer-Press. "It's not surprising to see curious early adopters checking them out."

Firefox has received dazzling reviews from industry analysts. Recently some 10,000 Firefox fans, including the entire Ross family, raised $250,000 to take out a two-page ad in the New York Times. Published Dec. 16, it announced the release of the program and listed thousands of Firefox users who helped pay for the ad.

It's not just individual users who are taking interest. In December, the information technology department at Pennsylvania State University sent a note to college deans recommending that the entire 100,000-strong staff, faculty and student body switch to Firefox.

Now a sophomore at Stanford studying computer science, Ross is taking it in stride.

What next after Firefox? As a volunteer on an open-source product, there was no financial reward. Ross is fine with that. He's happy to have been part of breaking Microsoft's hold on the Web.

He wants to concentrate on his studies, but he's also working on a little startup company with a friend.

He figures there should be a way to capitalize on his role in Firefox. But he hasn't worked out how yet.

"My mother keeps asking when is Bill Gates going to call," he joked.