Firefox is the result of many different efforts that grew together. Many of these were the outgrowth of innovative efforts to develop software in new ways and using open source communities of volunteers in the development and promotion of the software. In many ways, Firefox is a response to years of development of browsing software and reflects a passion to improve the software most often used by millions of people each day.
The Start of Mozilla
Firefox is a direct outgrowth of the Mozilla project, started in 1998 by Netscape to engage a volunteer engineering development community that could help Netscape with continued development of the Netscape browser and associated Internet software technology. As part of this effort, Netscape released the source for the Netscape browser under a combination of open source licenses. Later that year, efforts began to rewrite much of the Netscape code to make it easier to understand and to facilitate future development. (This was the result of substantial pressure put on Netscape by the new community that sprang up around Mozilla.) A key element was the rewrite of the Netscape browser layout engine and the creation of a cross-platform application development platform that would allow developers to create a single application for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux.
Although most of the rewrite was initially done by Netscape engineers, an engineering community composed of professors, grad students, undergrads, and even high school students began to get involved in research, code development, and testing. Between 1998 and 2003, several of the most visible and active volunteer contributors were hired by Netscape as full-time contributors and summer interns as Netscape and AOL funded a large percentage of the development work. Companies such as IBM, Sun Microsystems, Oracle, Red Hat, and Novell joined with scores of small Silicon Valley startups such as Monta Vista, OEOne, Active State, and many others to participate in the development of the code.
The early years of the project were focused not only on designing the Mozilla Suitea combined web browser, email and newsgroup client, IRC chat client, and HTML editorand creating the core technology, but also in trying to figure out how to develop software using this revolutionary model as well as building the development and testing communities.
As the project continued, daily test releases of the Mozilla Suite spurred the development of a community of thousands of Mozilla developers and testers. Bugs are reported in the project's open bug database, Bugzilla (https://bugzilla.mozilla.org). This daily testing and monitoring of feedback from testers and users has helped keep the application stable, even as new features are added.
Mozilla 1.0 was released on June 5, 2002. Mozilla 1.0 included many new features, such as popup blocking, that attracted many people interested in using the newest technology. While Mozilla 1.0 was originally intended to be a test platform for technology and features that would in turn be incorporated into Netscape Navigator and was the foundation of the Netscape 7.0 browser, and Mozilla started getting publicity in its own right.
A new community of localization experts and translators began to form around creating international releases of Mozilla. About 15 language versions were produced for Mozilla 1.0 and. Since then, the Mozilla Suite has been translated into over 100 languages.
Beyond the Mozilla Suite
Many of the engineers working on the Mozilla Suite knew there was room for substantial improvement. Because Mozilla originally was a test platform for Netscape, it had become a kitchen sink for a long list of features and had a user interface that was hard for many users to understand and operate. If a Mozilla browser was ever going to make it into the general user population, a new, streamlined application was needed.
Blake Ross and Dave Hyatt, Netscape employees at the time, with input from a few friends and colleagues, began work on some of these ideas to create a new Mozilla browser in early 2002. The goals for the project were simple: start from scratch at the user interface level and create a very small, fast, easy-to-use browser that had only the features most commonly used by the majority of users. This new Mozilla browser would also provide an extension mechanism that would let users customize the browser for particular individual needs and would provide a framework for continued experimentation and innovation. The project involved building a new user interface from scratch that would use the solid and well-tested "Gecko" core technology that shipped with the Mozilla Suite.
That summer, a small community of engineers, including Blake Ross, Ben Goodger, Asa Dotzler, Dave Hyatt, Pierre Chanial, Joe Hewitt, Brian Ryner, Ian Hickson, and several Netscape summer interns, began working to create a browser application that would eventually become Firefox. Although Hyatt left for Apple to work on the Safari browser in early 2003, Blake continued to work on the Mozilla browser.
There were a number of promising developments early in the project. The engineers found ways to drastically reduce the application's size and improve its performance. Team members also watched the browsing habits of many users to determine the most efficient ways of doing things. The team also examined hundreds of ideas and suggestions for improving the browser, resulting in a reduced number of keystrokes or mouse clicks to perform frequent browsing tasks. Ideas that had been built up over a decade of browser development and use began to be incorporated.
Using the same goals of making simple, small, fast standalone applications built from the Mozilla technology core, Seth Spitzer and Scott MacGregor started to develop a standalone email application that would eventually become Thunderbird and be a companion to the Firefox browser. Other projects were also started to develop a standalone HTML editor and a calendar application based on the components of the core Mozilla platform.
In 2003, AOL announced the shutdown of the Netscape Development team and a $2 million grant and support for the creation of an independent "Mozilla Foundation." Many engineers who had been working on Netscape releases and the underlying Mozilla technology were reassigned to other projects within AOL. With $2 million from AOL, and funding sponsorships from IBM, Sun, and Mitch Kapor (of Lotus 1-2-3 fame), the Mozilla Foundation was launched with an initial management team of Mitchell Baker, Brendan Eich, Chris Hofmann, and Bart Decrem.
One of the first things the Mozilla Foundation did was to hire a few key engineers for the Firefox and Thunderbird projects, as well as for Gecko (the browser engine), build management, tools and infrastructure, and QA, testing, and releases. The Mozilla Foundation also continued to build communities and secure funding for long-term survival of the Mozilla technology. Shortly after they set up an office in Mountain View, CA, there was a release of Mozilla Suite 1.5 and experimental versions of Firefox and Thunderbird. About 120 primary developers and thousands of QA volunteers and testers contributed to those releases.
Early in 2004, the blogging community picked up on what was happening. Word-of-mouth praise for Firefox spread quickly. Most of the early users were attracted by the simple design of Firefox and the significant improvements in usability over other browsers. Users were also excited by Firefox's adaptability: if the browser didn't do what you wanted it to do, you could create or install a simple extension to customize the browser to suit your needs. New extensions were appearing at the rate of three to five a week, and by May 2004, over 200 extensions for Firefox and Thunderbird were available.
Interest in Firefox continued to increase dramatically. In June 2004, the top websites started seeing a significant number of Firefox users, the first sign of Firefox's reaching beyond the technical community and into the mainstream browser population. The following month, the U.S. government's Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) warned web surfers to stop using Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) browser and use alternative browsers because of "significant vulnerabilities" in technologies embedded in IE. (This warning came on the heels of a sophisticated attack by malicious software (or malware) that targeted a known IE flaw.) The warning called out many security problems specific to the IE browser.
Traffic to the Mozilla website and downloads of Mozilla software began to grow dramatically with the CERT announcement, with up to 200,000 downloads a day. With Firefox still in prerelease versions, many users began trying it out as the alternative to IE. Because Firefox was being developed on top of a highly stable core browser technology developed from years of testing and use, and most of its streamlined and advanced user interface was completed, it appeared to many as a polished application not reflective of its "prerelease" version number. With its protections against the problems specified in the CERT warning, the number of people trying Firefox and sticking with it began to grow quickly.
In early August 2004, the Firefox development team began to brainstorm about how to leverage the new interest in browsers and create a grassroots effort to spread the word. Two groups working in parallelMike Homer, a former Netscape executive, and Bart Decrem, Blake Ross, and Asa Dotzlerworked out ways to build another Mozilla community around marketing and spreading the word about Firefox. Working with Bart Decrem, Chris Messina, and Daryl Houston, Spreadfirefox.com was launched. It played a key role in evangelizing the Firefox Preview Release and the 1.0 release. It also became another important promotional idea and fund-raising venue for the project: the Spreadfirefox team raised over $250,000 from 10,000 Firefox devotees in just 10 days to pay for a two-page ad in the New York Times and cover other expenses to promote the Firefox 1.0 release.
Market share of the Firefox browser started with very small numbers but grew dramatically over the second half of 2004. Over 8 million people downloaded the final prerelease version of Firefox. Within 100 days after the release of Firefox 1.0 on November 9, 2004, there were 25 million downloads and counting. (Similarly, over three million copies of Thunderbird 1.0 were downloaded in the first two months of its release in early December.) According to WebSideStory.com and OneStat.com in January 2005, IE usage had dropped by 5 to 7 percent in the preceding six months, with Firefox gaining almost the entire lost market share of IE.