On September 23, 2012 Mozilla Firefox celebrated its tenth birthday. Or, more specifically, the browser project which ultimately became Firefox was released on September 23, 2002.
Phoenix, as it was then known, was an experimental browser developed by Blake Ross, Dave Hyatt, Pierre Chanial and Joe Hewitt. The amusing version 1.0 (Pescadero) release page remains live today and you can even download the installation (extract and run — no user-friendly installers here).
The 2002 Browser Market
In 2002, Internet Explorer 6.0 reigned supreme with a 90%+ market share. Microsoft’s business tactics may have been questionable, but IE had little competition:
- Opera was good and had a passionate following, but the commercial software was more expensive than the alternatives.
- Netscape 4.x was an abomination. It’s few remaining users were ditching the old browser.
- The Netscape 6+ and Mozilla 1+ suites used the same code base and were slow, buggy and bloated. Few people needed a multi-megabyte installation which contained a browser, email client, newsgroup reader, address book, chat client, web page editor, developer tools and Palm Pilot synchronization.
Despite the hassle IE6 caused in later years, the browser’s success was largely deserved.
Phoenix Rises From the Ashes
Phoenix evolved because the developers believed Netscape’s commercial requirements and Mozilla’s scope creep compromised the browser’s future. They wrapped the Gecko rendering engine in a lightweight shell, removed unnecessary features and introduced the concept of add-ons.
If you think Firefox releases appear rapidly today, Phoenix 0.2 was released within one week. Version 0.3 appeared on October 16 2002, 0.4 on October 31 and 0.5 on December 7. The browser had started to gain momentum in the developer community. Like many, I had it installed although still used IE6 as my default.
Following trademark issues with Phoenix Technologies, the browser was renamed “Firebird” and version 0.6 appeared on May 16, 2003 for Windows, Mac and Linux. Versions 0.6.1 and 0.7 appeared in July and October 2003 respectively. These editions changed everything:
- the browser had overtaken IE6 in terms of standards support, stability, speed and functionality
- a thriving set of add-ons also provided developers with tools that had been sorely lacking
- while it was still a beta release, developers spread the word and non-technical users began to install the application
- many people adopted it as their default browser
- Mozilla scrapped their browser suite to concentrate on Firefox and the Thunderbird email client (originally named Minotaur).
Fox Eats Bird
The Firebird name didn’t last long, particularly as it clashed with the open source Firebird database server. Following delays in the trademarking process, the browser was re-branded “Firefox” on February 10, 2004. Reactions were mixed — partly because it shared its name with the dire 1982 Clint Eastwood movie — but it stuck and Firefox 1.0 was launched on November 9, 2004.
The Legacy Continues
Today, Firefox usage accounts for 23% of the browser market — down from its peak of 33% in November 2009. But, without Firefox, the web would not be the same. Would Google and Apple challenged Microsoft’s domination if it were not for Mozilla’s success? Would IE6 still have a stranglehold on the web? Even if you prefer another browser, that application may not have existed had Firefox failed.
Firefox usage is slowly dropping but it still provides two major benefits:
- It is the best development browser. The competition has caught up, but the quantity and quality of add-ons created by web developers for web developers remains unsurpassed.
- Mozilla is an independent, open-source organization. No one can buy Mozilla or shut it down. Firefox is the only browser not influenced by commercial requirements or shareholder demands.
Congratulations to Mozilla and the Firefox development team for reaching double-figures. I’m sure the browser will still be around in another ten years. Are you?