By day, Alexander Vincent is a mild-mannered secretary for a Vallejo, Calif., real-estate broker. By night, he's an online crusader protecting users of a new Internet browser from...

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — By day, Alexander Vincent is a mild-mannered secretary for a Vallejo, Calif., real-estate broker. By night, he’s an online crusader protecting users of a new Internet browser from glitches and security bugs. If he were a superhero, you might call him Mozilla Man.

In fact, Vincent is part of a worldwide army of Mozilla men and women who believe in freedom, progress and the inalienable right to an open-source browser.

Their weapon of faith is Firefox, a free browser created by the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation as an alternative to Microsoft’s ubiquitous Internet Explorer. Officially released last month, Firefox is converting a growing number of Internet users — and nibbling away at Microsoft’s dominance.

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Vincent is one of roughly 2,000 volunteer evangelists who see their mission as freeing millions of computer users from the tyranny of Internet Explorer. Silicon Valley’s Mozilla — with a paid staff of 12 software developers — depends on volunteers like Vincent to help write code, fix software bugs and market the browser.

“A lot of people out there are not aware of what is possible on the Internet,” said Vincent. “Firefox is waking up a lot of people.”

Firefox missionaries promise an Internet experience that’s faster, more secure and free from pop-up ads. And that’s just the beginning of their Utopian vision. To hear many of the faithful talk, their ministry stops nothing short of changing the lives of Internet users.

“You hear a lot of tales about people having very bad online experiences. Life can be better,” said Mitchell Baker, Mozilla’s president. “Our end goal is to have real choice and innovation on the Web.”

New converts

Firefox owes its growing celebrity to new converts, many of whom become preachers themselves. Take Katie Kimball, a choreographer who got fed up with pop-up ads on Explorer. Her brother-in-law suggested Firefox — and Kimball is surfing the Internet like never before, she says. Now when others complain about their computers, she offers her own testimonial. “It was a Eureka moment for me,” said Kimball, who lives in South San Francisco. “I will never go back to Internet Explorer.”

The Mozilla mania is part of a broader movement toward free, open-source software, in which no company owns the code. Open source draws upon the strength of the collective. Anyone can add features and fix flaws. Not beholden to any commercial interests, developers argue they only have users’ interests at heart.

The Mozilla Project began under Netscape in 1998, when it publicly released the blueprint for its Navigator browser. Netscape was purchased by America Online, which in turn merged with Time Warner. Last year, Mozilla was established as a nonprofit and AOL seeded it with $2 million. The foundation is also supported by donations and partnerships from companies such as Red Hat and Sun Microsystems, which ship the free, open-source Linux operating system that rivals Microsoft’s Windows.

Aside from its team of 12 developers, many of whom are former Netscape employees, Mozilla depends on a crew of approximately 80 programmers to do heavy-duty coding. These programmers are employed by other technology companies that work on Mozilla projects because it benefits them.

About 1,000 or so other programmers work free. They have developed roughly 200 add-on features for Firefox, from a program to detect fake Web sites to a spoofed Homeland Security alert.

Grunt work

Vincent, the real-estate broker’s secretary, volunteers 20 hours a week of his time rooting out bugs and documenting code for Firefox, he said. He specializes in one task many developers hate: checking the spelling of code.

His biggest contribution, said Vincent, is finding and reporting security bug No. 259708, which “blew away my download directory and could have deleted files on my desktop.” His reward: $500 from Mozilla’s Bug Bounty program, a T-shirt and bragging rights. “My goal is to make a better browser for others to use, to make their lives better,” he said.

It’s that sense of ownership and civic participation that help fuel the success of open-source projects, said Haim Mendelson, professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Open-source advocates criticize Microsoft’s lock on technology, pointing out that a new version of Explorer has not been released since 2001.

For its part, Microsoft said it released this year a “major upgrade” to Explorer that “focused solely on security enhancements,” and reduced spyware, Gary Schare, director of product management for Windows said in an e-mail. The upgrade, however, covers only the browser that is used in the XP operating system and not older systems.

Spreading the word

In the meantime, Mozilla faithful are out proselytizing. The grass-roots marketing is done almost entirely by volunteers. A group of Canadian designers came up with the concept for the Firefox logo, an orange fox with a flaming tail curled around a globe of the world. A British graphics artist then sketched and illustrated it.

Volunteers have formed a user and marketing community of 30,000 at SpreadFirefox.com. The site also sponsored Firefox launch parties the past few weeks.

Rob Davis, who works at a public-relations company in Minneapolis, switched to Firefox last summer after his Explorer browser was attacked by a virus that crashed his computer. He became so hooked that he personally installed it on other people’s computers for them.

“I was delighted to have a virus-free, innovative and useful browser for free,” said Davis. Firefox “completely changes the way you interact with the Internet.”

Feeling “indebted” to the Mozilla Foundation, he pitched in. His experience in grass-roots organizing, most recently for Moveon.org, gave him the idea to take out an ad for Firefox, paid for by users. In less than a day, 10,000 contributors donated $250,000.

The ad, a two-page spread in The New York Times, ran last week.