Firefox at 5: The Fall and Rise of Mozilla

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Today is the fifth anniversay of the first official release of Firefox:

November 9, 2004 - The Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving choice and promoting innovation on the Internet, today announced the worldwide availability of the Mozilla Firefox 1.0 web browser.

Development of Firefox has been driven by a desire for a more robust, user-friendly and trustworthy web experience. Mozilla Firefox 1.0 arrives on the heels of last month's highly successful Preview Release that over eight million people downloaded, contributing significantly to the final phase of its open source development.

Today's announcement marks the worldwide launch of Mozilla Firefox-with immediate availability for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux-as a free download from mozilla.org and by CD from the Mozilla Store. Firefox is now available in over a dozen languages, with many more on the way.

If you want an excellent discussion of what exactly has happened in the browser sector during the last five years, I doubt you'll do better than this fine post from Chris Blizzard, who rejoices in the splendid job title of “Director of Evangelism at Mozilla”.

Since plenty of other people will be picking over that action-packed half-decade, I though I'd do something different: a look at the history leading up to that launch.

Firefox's roots go back even further than the Mozilla project, to the browser Mosaic. This was released in 1993, and was written by a bunch of academics led by a certain Mark Andreessen at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was notable in several important respects.

First, it was free – not just as in beer, which might have been expected for a research project, but also as in freedom. Actually, this wasn't full free software, since the source code was only available for “research and education purposes on a request basis”, but it was a start.

Another innovation was the fact that in addition to the original Unix versions, there was one for both Windows – more specifically, for Windows 3.1 – and the Apple Macintosh. This move began to address the needs of the general user – and thus foreshadowed an important strand in Firefox's development.

Mosaic was a huge success – so much so, that when Microsoft realised belatedly that it needed to enter the nascent Internet market, it decided to license the underlying code in order speed up the development of what became Internet Explorer 1.0.

Indeed, probably not many people will have noticed that all iterations of Internet Explorer before version 7 carried the notice that it was “Based on NCSA Mosaic”.

Mosaic's success also prompted to the founding of Mosaic Communications, which not only stole the name, but also the NCSA's top developers. No wonder it was soon forced to become Netscape Communications, named after its first, epochal product: Netscape Navigator, released on 13 October 1994.

This, too has strong links with Firefox. For example, the code-name for Netscape was “Mozilla”, which came from a combination of “Mosaic” and “Godzilla”: Mozilla was meant to be a monster version of Mosaic.

And just as Mosaic was released for general users, so Netscape was optimised for 14.4 Kbit/s modems to allow business and home users to access the Internet using dial-up rather than a dedicated connection of the kind available to universities and larger companies.

Most surprisingly, perhaps, for a commercial product, Netscape was free, as the press release trumpted:

Mosaic Communications Corporation today announced that it is offering its newly introduced Netscape network navigator free to users via the Internet. The new Internet navigator, developed by the six-month-old Silicon Valley company led by Silicon Graphics founder Jim Clark and NCSA Mosaic creator Marc Andreessen, is available immediately for free downloading by individual, academic and research users.

By making Netscape available free to individuals for personal use, the company builds on the tradition of software products for the Internet being offered free of charge.

As well as building “on the tradition of software products for the Internet being offered free of charge” - not a commercial tradition, but one found in the world of hackers – Netscape even gave a nod in the direction of Linus' Law, "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow":

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