The Story of Firefox: from Underdog to Superhero
It took many years for Firefox to be an overnight success. Who would have thought back in March 1998, when the struggling Netscape released the source code for its Communicator Suite, that Firefox would be the favorite browser on the Linux platform and a formidable insurgent challenger to Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) on Windows.
Gradually over the past ten years, Netscape morphed into the Mozilla browser, which in turn gave rise to Firefox. Today, Firefox owns a market share of around 20% worldwide (and much higher in certain places). How was Firefox able to accomplish this rise from the ashes of Netscape and go from underdog to hero?
The story of Firefox also is a story of the coming of age of open source, of opportunities presented by Microsoft failing its users of IE, of Internet users hungering for something new and of cutting-edge innovation that blew our socks off.
January 23, 1998—Netscape announces the release of the source code for Netscape Navigator 5.0.
February 23, 1998—Netscape announces the mozilla.org Project.
March 31, 1998—The first Mozilla code (for Netscape Communicator 5.0) became publicly available under the terms of an official open-source license and a governing body for the project, the Mozilla Organization, began its public work.
March 18, 1999—America Online acquires Netscape.
June 5, 2002—The Mozilla 1.0 suite, the open-source progeny of the proprietary Netscape Communicator, is released.
September 23, 2002—Phoenix 0.1 (Pescadero) is released, the first official version of a standalone browser that will later be renamed Firefox.
April 2, 2003—Mozilla announces intent to develop what would become Firefox (code-named Firebird at the time) as a standalone application rather than as part of an integrated suite.
June 30, 2003—Mozilla 1.4 is released with pop-up blocking.
July 2003—The not-for-profit Mozilla foundation is spun off from AOL.
August and November 2003—Mozilla wins the Linux Journal Editors' Choice Award for Best Web Browser and Readers' Choice Award for Favorite Browser for the first time.
February 8, 2004—The new release Firefox 0.8 (Royal Oak), leaves behind the old name Mozilla Firebird.
June 17, 2004—Mozilla 1.7 is released with speed improvements and better standards support.
November 9, 2004—Firefox 1.0 is released.
December 2004—The Mozilla Foundation places a full-page ad for Firefox in the New York Times with financial contributions from more than 10,000 users.
October 19, 2005—Firefox reaches milestone of 100 million downloads.
November 29, 2005—Firefox 1.5 is released.
August and November 2005—Mozilla wins the Linux Journal Editors' Choice Award for Best Web Browser and Readers' Choice Award for Favorite Browser for the second time.
October 24, 2006—Firefox 2.0 is released.
November 19, 2007—Firefox 3.0 beta1 is released.
March 31, 2008—The Mozilla Project celebrates its 10th anniversary.
June 17, 2008—Firefox 3.0 is released (projected at the time of this writing), with Download Day to set the Guinness World Record for Most Software Downloaded in 24 Hours.
Certainly you remember the browser wars of the mid- to late-1990s—the ones that Netscape lost handily. Although we were fortunate that Netscape cared enough to maintain a Linux version, we used the Communicator out of necessity, not passion.
Little did we know at the time, but the seeds of change (and the beginnings of the Firefox browser) would be planted on January 23, 1998, when Netscape announced the release of source code for Netscape Navigator 5.0. Recall that back in 1998, the open-source model still was viewed with widespread skepticism. At that time, Eric S. Raymond had written the on-line version of The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which made open source tangible to more people. Raymond, who guided Netscape through its open-source strategy, noted that his contacts at the company had such a huge sense of relief, or even gratitude, because market conditions had become so bad, they could justify doing what they wanted to do anyway.
Netscape's Vice President of Products, Marc Andreessen, said his company open-sourced Netscape because, “we're at an inflection point, a trigger point, when there's an alignment with the energy of growth. Linux is hot. The technologists have adopted it, and it's growing fast all through the Open Source community. This gives us the confidence that we couldn't screw it up if we tried.”
Raymond also called Netscape's decision, “the long-awaited breakout of free software into the commercial world”. Little did he know the prescience of his words at the time.
A few months later, in March 1998, mozilla.org was founded, the source code for Netscape Communicator 4.0 was released and the community went to work.
James Gray is Products Editor for Linux Journal.
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