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Stephen Shankland

Staff Writer, CNET

Google has hired the lead programmer of the Firefox Web browser, the newest step in the search engine powerhouse’s encroachment on Microsoft’s turf.

Ben Goodger announced Monday on his blog that he took a job with Google on Jan. 10. The move is the latest of several that are fueling speculation that Google plans its own Web browser.

Ben Goodger

Firefox, which has cut into the dominant market share enjoyed by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser, is a variant of the open-source Mozilla browser project begun in 1998 by Netscape Communications. Despite no longer being employed by the Mozilla Foundation, “my role with Firefox and the Mozilla project will remain largely unchanged,” Goodger said on his blog.

At Google, Goodger will continue work on the browser. Since the release of Firefox 1.0 in 2004, he’s been focusing on “successful 1.1, 1.5 and 2.0 releases,” he said on the blog.

Among other clues pointing to browser interest at Google are the registration of the Internet address, the hiring of some key programmers, and sponsorship of a Mozilla programmer meeting.

Even without a browser, Google is involved in significant competition with Microsoft. Both companies are working on desktop search tools, and Microsoft is pushing its MSN Search service as an alternative to Google.

Firefox also has a built-in search box that offers Google’s search engine as its default option.

Goodger himself complained about Microsoft’s software in a December posting on his blog.

“I’ve set up a new personal e-mail address, and as soon as I can figure out how, I will make it so that it cannot receive e-mail from Microsoft Outlook users. Why? Because Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express are the unsung security hole in most people’s systems,” the posting said. “Microsoft would like you to continue not to think about your software and continue to use theirs, paying what amounts to extortion fees on ISP filtering solutions.”

Goodger’s hiring at Google this month explains a Jan. 22 blog posting in which he said he had just returned to Firefox 1.1 development after being “incredibly busy this past two weeks taking care of some important matters.” He indicated earlier in the month that he hoped the version would be released in March.

According to the plans published on the Firefox Wiki page, version 1.1 is called Deer Park. Plans for that new version include tools to help users of several Mac OS X browsers move their settings to Firefox. Also being discussed are localization ideas to make Firefox better able to work in multiple languages.

Version 1.5, called The Ocho, is slated to get improvements in accessibility and for use on large groups of computers.

Planned version 2.0 features include improvements to tabbed browsing, password management, software updates, software downloads and performance on Apple Computer systems.