The Story of Firefox: from Underdog to Superhero

How Firefox became our very favorite browser.

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.

Netscape: Firefox's Proprietary Great Uncle

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, 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.