Firefox’s dev team: Canada’s best-kept IT secret

Although Mozilla’s Monday release of Firefox 3 Beta project, a developer preview release of its popular open source Web browser, has been a global effort, a significant portion of its core development takes place in Toronto.

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Those familiar with Mozilla and Firefox project will probably recognize names such as lead developer Mike Connor, user experience leader Mike Beltzner, and chief technology evangelist and Mozilla founding member Mike Shaver. All three Mikes work out of Mozilla’s Toronto office.

“Mozilla’s an interesting community because it’s pretty global with employees all over the place, but here in the Toronto office, it’s actually pretty sizable,” Johnathan Nightingale, Firefox’s security design lead of Toronto’s Mozilla office, said. “It’s not unusual to have eight to 10 people in the office, and for a company of about 100 employees, that’s pretty significant.”

Nightingale said the Toronto-based Firefox team does a wide range of work on the browser, including localization, back-end coding and design work. He said the proximity of all the Canadian Firefox developers was the determining factor in opening the Toronto office.

“A lot of us have sort of worked together in other parts of the Canadian tech sector and so, unsurprisingly, we crossed paths with each other from time to time,” Nightingale said. “The Mozilla community as a whole is a pretty accessible place for people who want to do cool things with the Internet and so as a lot of us discovered we were in the Toronto area; it made sense to start looking to open an office.”

In addition to the notable developers in the area, the Toronto-Firefox connection continues to grow. At Toronto’s Seneca College, a partnership with Mozilla has led students to develop notable software features that can be found in the latest incarnation of the browser.

David Humphrey, a professor at Seneca’s school of computer studies who runs open source development courses for the college, said the school’s partnership with Mozilla gives students the ability to help build software on a scale unlike anything that could be typically offered by academic institutions.

“For our students, it gives them the ability to work on world-class software and open source software at the same time,” Humphrey said. “I was trying to think of another company that would let students get involved in a shipping product like that, and yet for Mozilla, that’s really its standard because it has so many people from outside of the corporation contributing to this project.”

The statistics on Firefox 2, Nightingale said, show that almost half of the browser’s code comes from people outside of the community. Because of this, Nightingale praised Humphrey’s for his efforts in getting students involved in the project and expressed encouragement for more closely linked partnerships with schools across Canada.

“Dave Humphrey’s program is really a standout in the entire world,” Nightingale said. “What he’s done at Seneca is really unique and has accomplished great things for the school and Mozilla as well. We absolutely want to get students involved early because they’ve got a lot of passion and new ideas, which is something that we find is really important to keeping our community vital.”

One of the school’s most significant contributions to the latest Firefox Beta was developed by recent Seneca computer studies graduate Andrew Smith, who has helped implement Animated PNG (APNG), a new image format based on and compatible with the commonly used PNG format. It was developed to overcome the technical limitations of the Animated GIFs most often used in online images today.

“This really critical and has changed the way that Mozilla does its user interface with Firefox 3,” Humphrey said. “By adding these animations in, it’s now possible for them to do animations that have a full Alpha channel for transparencies and so on. This will allow the user interface be able to render animated images crisper and cleaner.”

In addition to the smoother movement, it should be noted that the maximum range of colours capable in a PNG image is 16 million, compared to the 256 colours a GIF can project.

Humphrey also cited extensive work being done by another Seneca student that included working on issues with bold and italic settings for Japanese, Chinese, and Korean fonts in the Mac OS.

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