Those toiling on a skunkworks project called Phoenix had no idea in 1997 that it would be them putting the pressure on Microsoft instead of Netscape, which at the time had the browser market locked up.

Fast forward a dozen years and Phoenix, now Firefox, has turned 5, Netscape's mushroom cloud of implosion is long gone and even though Firefox has earned only a quarter of the browser market there is no doubt that leader Microsoft is looking over its shoulder.

And much of that reason is because Firefox never looked at Microsoft as the target, what it wanted was to build a better browser.

Four years ago Blake Ross, one of the co-creators of Firefox, told us, "Firefox is not a war on Microsoft, it is a war on complexity. I never look at this as a 'browser war.'"

As Microsoft let Internet Explorer rest on its laurels, Firefox sat down to innovate with features such as tabbed browsing, session restore and antiphishing capabilities that were once a Google supplied addon. Now the next level is the goal.

"The browsers that are on the horizon aren't just incremental changes - they represent the pieces to build the next-generation web - rich with standards-based graphics, new JavaScript libraries and full blown applications," wrote Christopher Blizzard, an open source evangelist with Mozilla, on Mozilla's Hacks blog.

"Over the next five years everyone can expect that the browser should take part in a few new areas -- to act as the user agent it should be," Blizzard wrote. "Issues around data, privacy and identity loom large. You will see the values of Mozilla's public benefit mission reflected in our product choices in these areas to make users safer and help them understand what it means to share data with Web sites. "It's a prediction for a lofty position on the technology landscape considering Firefox 1.0 was released on Nov. 9, 2004, and had earned a barely detectable slice of the browser market.

The second version came in 2006, in 2008 Version 3 was released and this year Version 3.5 brought a host of under-the-cover features including a new JavaScript engine that juiced performance, support for new Cascading Stylesheet innovations, video and audio support as defined by HTML 5, and a fresh new logo.

The 3.6 version is in its testing phase and is slated for release next month with its Gecko 1.9.2 rendering engine. The future holds a mobile version, offline support and a multiprocess project called "Electrolysis" similar to features of Google's Chrome and Internet Explorer 8, according to the development team at Mozilla, which develops the browser.

And now, five years since its introduction, Microsoft looks to be nearing an end to its battle with the European Commission over bundling Windows and IE. On Friday, consumers, OEMs, developers and "other interested parties" will get a forum to speak about Microsoft's revised "browser ballot" in Windows that lets users pick the browser of their choice.

If the ballot technology passes muster, it likely will start the next chapter in the history of the browser.

And dare anyone say it, a new round of browser wars.