The Story of Firefox: from Underdog to Superhero

How Firefox became our very favorite browser.
Firefox 1.5

During 2005, Firefox gained 10% of global market share from its rivals, a feat that the proprietary Netscape could not muster after falling behind Internet Explorer. The success train continued to roll down the tracks, and Mozilla released Firefox 1.5 on November 29, 2005.

In Firefox 1.5, the Mozilla development team added new features, such as even speedier page loading, drag-and-drop search, integrated RSS reader, tab re-ordering, better pop-up blocking, binary patching for upgrades, clearing of personal data with a single button and partial SVG 1.1 support—not to mention all the new extensions that continue to accumulate, which leave practically no limit to what you can do with Firefox.

Despite the increased complexity of version 1.5, the Firefox development team continued to prove itself more worthy than its rivals, not only attending to serious flaws but also avoiding them in the first place.

Firefox 2.0

We need another metaphor for inertia, because Firefox 2.0 has it too. As we sit on the verge of version 3.0, we can see that Firefox 2.0 has carved out another 8% of market share to reach 18%, according to Net Applications. This translates into approximately 170 million users worldwide.

For features, the 2.0 release added Google's anti-phishing software, Live Titles for bookmarks, spell-checking, improved UI and improved support for SVG and JavaScript 1.7.

Firefox 3.0

As I finish this article, I longingly look ahead to the release date for Firefox 3.0, which looms just a few tantalizing days out at the time of this writing. The day is also Download Day, an initiative by Spread Firefox to set the Guinness World Record for Most Software Downloaded in 24 Hours. As of mid-June, the number stands at 1.1 million and growing. Clearly, now that open source has taken hold, it is possible to assert that one should never underestimate the effectiveness of disciplined bands of inspired volunteers to change the world of computing.

Figure 1. Firefox says that Version 3.0 has more than 15,000 updates. Will it keep Firefox's momentum going?

Mozilla has raised expectations for Firefox 3.0, saying that it will run double the speed of its predecessor and use much less memory. Furthermore, the browser will be much smarter, as you can simply begin typing into the location bar, or “aweome bar”, to find what you are looking for, and Firefox offers a list of options it thinks are most relevant to you.

Version 3.0 also implements the updated Gecko 1.9 layout engine, which allows it to pass the Acid2 test, a standards-compliance test for Web-page rendering.

From Underdog to Hero

Firefox's trajectory—from proprietary Netscape to Mozilla to Phoenix/Firebird and finally Firefox—is an incredible story of triumph. What began as the outdated, proprietary Netscape browser, with shrinking market share from a struggling company, was set free with open source to transform itself into a technological and organizational powerhouse. Firefox now ranks with Linux and Apache as one of the world's premier open-source applications. Although it has taken a decade, Firefox has valiantly clawed back to nearly 20% market share worldwide, with 29% in Europe and more than 40% in countries like Finland and Poland. This is quite an accomplishment, given that Firefox's main competitors, IE and Safari, have huge pre-installation advantages.

Firefox came of age with open source and, as Technetra's Alolita Sharma observed, “has helped make open source mainstream” and that “its success as a constantly evolving open-source product has validated the open-source development model”. Hats off to the pioneers like Eric S. Raymond who helped Netscape see the light in 1998 and get started on the right foot, as well as the hundreds of developers and activists who contributed to Firefox technically and promotionally. Without the army of Spread Firefox volunteers, who never would be so enthusiastic about a proprietary product, Firefox's success would be much less viral.

Many thanks also go to Microsoft for so many things—its horrible attention to security, lack of innovation and IE's overly tight integration with Windows—all of which made users so fed up and thirsty for an alternative. It helped tip so many millions to Firefox.

The past decade has been quite a run for our friend Firefox. It has matured admirably over time, and version 3.0 continues the positive, upward trend. As mentioned, however, competitors are in the wings who would love to experience similar success and grab hold of some of Google's millions that Firefox currently receives. Already there are signs that Safari is eating into some of Firefox's market share in North America. Regardless, if our fledgling hero can ride its current wave of technical innovation and popular support, we should see Firefox residing on ever more desktops of satisfied computer users.


James Gray is Products Editor for Linux Journal.