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Sued Opera designer fingers Mozilla's 'Search Tabs' as root of $3.4M claim

Gregg Keizer | May 2, 2013
Noted browser designer denies charges

The former Opera Software designer accused of leaking trade secrets to Mozilla denied the charges yesterday, but confirmed that the lawsuit takes aim at a search revamp he worked on while a consultant for the maker of Firefox.

In a post to his Tumblr account, Trond Werner Hansen said he had been wrongly accused by his former employer and "that I can prove my case."

Opera Software has sued Hansen in a Norwegian court, asking for $3.4 million in damages, claiming he shared confidential information with rival Mozilla, where he worked as a contractor in 2012. "Among other things, we claim that he is in breach of the duty of loyalty and his contractual and statutory confidentiality obligations," Opera's lawyer said Monday in an email.

A Monday report by the Norwegian newspaper Dagens Naeringsliv (DN) said that Opera's lawsuit stemmed from a presentation Hansen did last June at Mozilla, when he showed a prototype for a new browser, code named "Junior," that was meant for Apple's iPad.

Hansen denied that Junior was the issue. "This prototype has nothing to do with the lawsuit now filed by Opera," he wrote on Tumblr. Instead, he pointed to a project dubbed "Search Tabs," which was outlined in the same June 2012 presentation by Alex Limi, who heads product design strategy at Mozilla.

Several times during that presentation, Limi said that he and Hansen had collaborated on design initiatives which would help Mozilla reclaim the momentum it lost to Google's Chrome, which debuted in 2008 and by some measurements, now has surpassed Firefox in usage share. Among the designs the two conceived was Search Tabs.

"This is all Trond's redesign," said Limi of Search Tabs. Later in the presentation, Hansen was credited as the tool's lead designer.

The feature, which Limi touted as groundbreaking, allows users to refine searches using multiple search engines. After entering a search phrase in the address bar -- in Firefox, like other browsers, users can use the address bar both for typing in URLs and search queries -- they can click icons along the left side of the Firefox window to call up results for the same search from different engines, such as Google, Yahoo, Bing, Amazon, eBay and even Twitter.

According to Limi, tests of Search Tabs resulted in users accessing more search engines. "People started changing their [search] habits," said Limi. Two-thirds of the testers said they would rather have Firefox with the feature than without it, a much higher percentage than usual for a new tool.

The feature "flattens the search market," said Limi, giving smaller engines a chance to compete against Google, and users more opportunities to discover relevant results. "The big surprise was Twitter," Limi said, claiming that nearly every tester eventually started using Twitter to search alongside the usual selections.


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