Page last updated at 13:42 GMT, Thursday, 4 December 2008

Valley Girls: Mitchell Baker

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

Mitchell Baker of Mozilla
Mitchell Baker's goal is to maximise the internet as an open platform

Many people in Silicon Valley claim to be high-flyers but as an amateur trapeze artiste Mitchell Baker has a better claim than many.

In her day job Ms Baker is chair of the Mozilla Foundation that most know as the creator of the open source Firefox web browser.

According to some estimates Firefox now has just over 20% of the browser market. Much of the rest, 70%, belongs to Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

Firefox has more success to come and Ms Baker is the first to admit she is a woman with her eyes fixed on the road ahead.

"We have been through a period where you protect everything," she said, "and we have seen a lot of innovation and development of technology in particular with this 'protect as much as you can' approach.

"Now we are in an exploration of how much value can we create and how many problems can we solve and how much fun and enjoyment can we have if we actually share more?"

Mozilla's quest to "ensure the internet is developed in a way that benefits everyone" is driven by "openness, innovation and opportunity".

The open approach represents a major shift in the way many Silicon Valley companies now operate. Big players from Apple to Google to Microsoft have opened up some of their code to developers.

"I did not foresee the speed at which the open paradigm, this open idea, would transcend so many aspects of society," said Ms Baker.

But she criticised those companies who pay lip service to the idea of openness and place limits on how far the sharing of knowledge goes. "It's spreading but there are many degrees of open," she said.

Browser wars

Ms Baker is a veteran of the browser world being one of Netscape's first employees in its legal department - this despite being a speaker of Mandarin and getting her undergraduate degree in Asian Studies.

Firefox screenshot
Firefox is now a rival to Microsoft's market leading Internet Explorer

"It was pretty exciting to be at the dawn of something," Ms Baker told BBC News.

"One of the exciting things about being there at the time was that you see so much of the fundamental technology and even today people will talk about things and I remember that I saw that over a decade ago," she said adding. "Netscape was the beginning of the world wide web as we understand it."

Back in the early 1990s there was a palpable feeling that the world was changing.

"It was explosive," she said. "Everything came through Netscape for a period so it was thrilling and you knew things were changing dramatically and that you were at the centre of something and this was just explosively different in the way people operate."

Those highs were countered by some real lows which came during the fight with Microsoft to dominate the browser market.

In 1994, Netscape's newly launched browser came to dominate a market in its infancy. The company claimed that in 18 months, the Netscape Navigator was the most popular personal computer application of all time with 40 m copies distributed worldwide.

At the same time Microsoft released Windows 95 but its big failure was the lack of a browser to access the world wide web. A quick counter attack resulted in the release of Internet Explorer.

It was given away free but bundled in with Windows 95 beginning what became known as the "browser wars" as each company issued new versions to steal a march on the other.

The figures suggest Microsoft won the battle but it came at a cost. The software giant was found guilty of using anti-competitive means to thwart Netscape.

Netscape disc shot
Netscape developed the original commercial web browser

"Of course you expect your competitor to try and crush you. It's standard business practice. But when you find someone is engaging in illegal activities, that was surprising," said Ms Baker.

"This isn't about something being a better product. This isn't one of the very effective competitive strategies that we understand. This is something beyond that. Those were pretty dark days," Ms Baker added.

Microsoft successfully appealed against the judgments in the anti-trust case which overturned the initial remedies imposed by the court and in 2001 an agreement to settle the case with the US government was reached.

Career path

As a former lawyer, Ms Baker might not seem like the obvious choice to champion an open software movement - many of the passionate members of which do not always see eye to eye.

But her lawyerly skills and her father's maxim to always "look at something and find a positive path out of it and move forward" have proved invaluable.

"We are building an open source community that really has deep interactions with commercial players and is relevant to commercial players at the same time as being built on open source DNA.

"That's a very unusual thing but it so happens I am very good negotiator," she said.

Ms Baker knows that when she went to work for Mozilla as its chief lizard wrangler, or general manager, she knew many saw it as a bad career choices.

"At that point I knew that the building of the browser was a necessary step to have an internet that was worth living in," she said. "I also knew [Mozilla] was not the obvious path to build a career but it was the obvious path to do something interesting."

As someone who likes to confound expectations taking on the Mozilla post was of a piece with her controversial one-sided haircut and her taking up the trapeze.

"The trapeze gives you a feeling you get nowhere else as you fly through the air," she said. "It's hard. It's scary. It's got a lot of adrenalin and I thought my son is going to do a lot of falling and scraping himself up so it would be good if I did some of the same."

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