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04 May 2010, 09:57

Firefox and the open web

By Richard Hillesley

"We believe that the internet should be public, open and accessible" - Mozilla's statement of intent

Firefox is the most popular and widely used free software application and boasts more than a billion downloads and more than 350 million users. The H discusses its history, present and future with Mitchell Baker, chair of the Mozilla Foundation.

An origin in ashes

Firefox started life as Phoenix - named after the bird of Persian mythology - which rose from the ashes, but was later renamed Firebird because of trademark issues, and finally became Firefox in 2004 to end confusion with the Firebird open source RDBMS project that had sprung from Borland's release of Interbase in 2000.

The first release of Firefox (0.8) under the Firefox name was in February 2004, and was immediately successful because it was able to defy gravity and take Microsoft on, despite the in-built advantages that come from the Windows monopoly on the desktop.

Between 1999 and 2004 there had been no effective competition for Internet Explorer and browser development for the wider market came to a standstill. There was a crying need for a web browser that was fast and easy, standards compliant and secure, and unencumbered with the bloat and feature creep that had been inflicted on the users of Netscape and Internet Explorer (IE) during the browser wars.

Firefox filled that space with alacrity, gaining 100 million users in its first year alone, fuelled by a grass roots campaign initiated by Blake Ross to spread its uptake. This was aided and abetted by the five year gap between the release of IE 6 and IE 7 (which didn't arrive until October 2006) and an innovative approach to add-ons and extensions, which allowed users to create their own features, taking control away from the makers of the browser and putting it in the hands of the user.

A child of adversity

Born of the browser wars and the unlikely union of Netscape and AOL, Mozilla and Firefox had a long and difficult gestation, exacerbated by the pressing need to rewrite Netscape's layout engine and UI from scratch, and the conflicting demands of the business models of Netscape and AOL, from which the Mozilla project finally escaped in 2003.

The Netscape Communications Corporation had been founded in 1994 by Marc Andreessen and the founder of Silicon Graphics, Jim Clark. Netscape's browser, known as Navigator, was derived from NCSA's Mosaic, and soon claimed over 80% of the market.

Netscape and Andreessen, who had led the development of Mosaic at NCSA, were credited with popularising the browser and instigating the web revolution. Mosaic was the first browser to gain a popular market, and Netscape built on Mosaic's popularity.

Internet Explorer came later, and was Microsoft's belated response to the success of Netscape. IE was based on Spyglass Inc.'s browser, which in turn was also derived from NCSA Mosaic.

Both Netscape and Internet Explorer diverged significantly from W3C standards and from each other, creating 'innovations' and 'features' which worked with one browser or the other, but not in the best interests of web developers.

Internet Explorer rapidly gained market share, not because of its inherent virtues, but because it came free to all users of Windows, undercutting Netscape's business model, which relied on sales of Netscape to commercial users. Microsoft cut below-the-counter deals with OEMs, wouldn't share its APIs with competitors and incorporated the browser into its operating system, thus effectively "cutting off Netscape's air supply."

Netscape's response to its subsequent loss of market share and fall in revenue was to hand the development of Communicator over to the community in 1998, overseen by the Mozilla project which was run by Netscape employees.

Netscape had become clunky and unwieldy, didn't comply with web standards and suffered from stability issues, which necessitated the rewriting of the whole suite from the bottom up, resulting in the creation of the Gecko layout engine.

Subsequently, Netscape and Mozilla were acquired by AOL for the mouthwatering sum of $4.2 billion, and during the barren years between 1999 and 2004 Internet Explorer gained such dominance that it could claim around 95% of the browser market.

Next: Rising from the ashes

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