The Story of Firefox: from Underdog to Superhero

How Firefox became our very favorite browser.
The Making of Mozilla: 1998–2002

It took some time for Mozilla to come of age post-Netscape. Although Netscape Communicator's source code was released in early 1998, the Mozilla 1.0 suite, or applications framework as it is technically called, was not finished until June 5, 2002. Despite Mozilla's Netscape-like look and feel during this period, much was changing under the hood. In November 2000, Linux Journal writer Mike Angelo commented that “if you have any notions that Mozilla, the browser suite, is an upgrade from Netscape Communicator 4.x, please lose them. Picture Mozilla as a browser suite that is new from the ground up, but just looks and feels lots like the Netscape 4.x browser suite, thanks to its skin”.

In spite of the overhaul, Mozilla retained Netscape's “all-in-one” suite orientation, which was later to be shed by the self-standing Firefox. Mozilla consisted of the applications Mozilla Navigator, Mozilla Composer, Mozilla E-Mail, Mozilla News and ChatZilla.

During this period, in March 1999, Netscape went off to become part of America Online. Nevertheless, the two organizations retained close ties—for instance, many of Mozilla's developers were inside Netscape/AOL, and Netscape/AOL continued to assist Mozilla financially. Furthermore, while Netscape/AOL utilized the Mozilla code as a base for its own Netscape 6, the company added its own proprietary features, such as AIM.

Development-wise, these six interim years were productive. Most important, the Mozilla development team built the Gecko browser layout engine from scratch and ensured full W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) standards compliance. In addition, changing skins on the fly, security features and the plugin model were expanded and improved significantly.

Mozilla 1.0: Worth the Wait

After four long years of development, Mozilla 1.0, mostly free of its Netscape Communicator past, was at last released on June 4, 2002. CNET.com's Rex Baldazo raved that “The four-and-a-half-year wait is over—Mozilla 1.0 has gone gold, and from what we've seen, it's been worth the delay.” Immediately, users were impressed with Mozilla's speed, stability and features, such as tabbed browsing, pop-up blocking and custom skins.

Mozilla's features caught the surfing public's attention and re-ignited the browser wars of yore. Several different Web analytics firms reported that Microsoft's Internet Explorer dropped from a 97% market share in 2002 to 93% in late 2004. During the same period, Mozilla went from a 2% market share with Netscape to more than 5% with all of its open-source browser offerings.

Firefox Grows in the Shadow of the Mozilla Suite

While the Mozilla browser was out in the world making Web surfers everywhere gleeful, the development team at mozilla.org, led by Chief Technology Officer Brendan Eich, already was laying the foundation for a much better browser. On September 23, 2002, the Mozilla team released Phoenix 0.1 (Pescadero), the first official version of a standalone browser that would later be named Firebird and, eventually, Firefox. Phoenix was a redesign of Mozilla's browser component but written using the XUL user interface language and designed to be cross-platform. Phoenix's developers stated that “Phoenix is not your father's Mozilla browser. It's a lean and fast browser that doesn't skimp on features”, loading pages in half the time as Mozilla 1.1. Furthermore, they added, “Not only does Phoenix aim to match the feature set of Mozilla—subtracting features deemed geeky and better offered as add-ons—but it extends it. We also believe Mozilla, in general, is going in the wrong direction in terms of bloat and UI, and see no reason for our releases to carry those connotations.”

On April 3, 2003, Mozilla announced its 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.

Mozilla's Eich summarized the new browser's philosophy in its development road map as follows:

[Firefox] is simply smaller, faster, and better—especially better not because it has every conflicting feature wanted by each segment of the Mozilla community, but because it has a strong “add-on” extension mechanism....Attempting to “hard-wire” all these features to the integrated application suite is not legitimate; it's neither technically nor socially scalable.

Firefox 1.0 Arrives

Six years, seven months and nine days after the birth of mozilla.org, Firefox 1.0 was born on November 9, 2004. Looking back to the earliest days of Firefox 1.0 with three and a half years of perspective and comfortable browsing, it's easy to forget how exciting the post-release vibe was. Firefox saw more than 100,000 downloads in the first few hours and nearly 10 million per month shortly after the release. Toward the end of its run, Firefox 1.0 reached 100 million downloads in October 2005. This success translated into a market share of around 5%. By early December 2004, according to OnStat.com, Internet Explorer's market share dropped yet again to below 90%.

There was a palpable hunger for an alternative. As part of the Spread Firefox campaign, 10,000 Firefox supporters coughed up some of their hard-earned money to show support for their browser by contributing to fund a full-spread advertisement in the New York Times. Spread Firefox is the nexus of global community volunteerism to promote Firefox via guerrilla marketing activities.

The left page of the masterful New York Times ad features the names of all 10,000 contributors over a shadowed Firefox logo. The ad asks the reader, “Are you fed up with your Web browser? You're not alone. We want you to know there is an alternative.” On the right page, it featured, “Introducing Mozilla Firefox 1.0” in bold type, followed by quotes from satisfied users and the advantages of Firefox, such as speed and browsing free of pop-ups and spyware. “Find out what 10 million users from around the world already know: there is an alternative.” Unfortunately, the Times ad is not printable in this space due to size constraints, although you can see it at the Spread Firefox Web site.

There also was hunger for better security. On the Windows side, it seemed that IE was once invincible. However, IE's security problems pushed millions of users and countless organizations out to the far edge of the plank; Firefox was the nudge that made them jump ship in droves.

For most people, however, the reason to move to Firefox was its features. They ate up the tabbed browsing, better standards support, integrated search, a user-friendly plugin management system, easy installation and removal procedures and, of course, better security. The latter was possible, because Firefox lacks the deep hooks into the operating system as is the situation with IE, which therefore suffers greater impact from flaws.

______________________

James Gray is Products Editor for Linux Journal

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