There’s a good chance you are reading this in Google’s Chrome web browser, which commands 65% of the global market (and about 50% in the U.S.), according to Statcounter. Only about 4% to 5% of web surfers now go online through Firefox, the open-source browser from the California-based Mozilla foundation. But the web was much different when Firefox launched 15 years ago on November 9, 2004, and the browser began a fast rise to prominence.
When Firefox hit the scene, Internet Explorer had more than 90% market share, having felled Netscape Navigator. Given that it was the default browser on Windows, which commanded a similar share of the operating system market, its monopoly seemed like it could be permanent. But Firefox quickly caught on, and eventually grew to command about a third of the market at its height in 2009. While it’s unlikely to recapture such former glory, Firefox has been experiencing something of a renaissance, not just by improving speed and features, but by putting user control over privacy front and center.
Fifteen years on, it’s hard to imagine how radical Firefox was at the time of its debut. Instead of coming from a megacorporation like Microsoft (or today, Google), Firefox was built by volunteers around the world who gave their code away for free. “Open source was well known for developers,” says Mitchell Baker, who cofounded the Mozilla Project back in 1998 and is today the chairwoman of the Mozilla Corporation and Mozilla Foundation. “But the common wisdom of the time was that open source was only for the geeks. You could build [tools] for developers but not consumer products out of it.”
Firefox offered more than techno-utopian ideals. It was built with security in mind and emerged just as Internet Explorer 6, the browser bundled with Windows XP, was in a security crisis. “The browser that most people were using at the time was a security risk,” says Baker. The U.S. government even warned consumers about security risks in IE, which created the perfect opportunity for Firefox to grow.
“There’s probably some alternate world in which Firefox didn’t come along, IE’s market share is still monopolistic, and the Web is a much less interesting place,” wrote my colleague Harry McCracken back on Firefox’s fifth anniversary in 2009.
Firefox’s plucky, nonprofit character belies corporate roots. It emerged from Netscape—the once-dominant browser maker that was the first great IPO of the internet era (back in 1995). Netscape, in turn, came from the creators of Mosaic, the first major web browser. In 1998 Netscape announced that the code for its browser would be open source, under a project called Mozilla, a portmanteau of Mosaic and Godzilla. (Its original red dinosaur logo was designed by street artist Shepard Fairey of later Obama “Hope” poster fame.)
In 1999, internet giant AOL purchased Netscape and set it on the kind of slow death spiral that follows so many corporate acquisitions. But thanks to the Mozilla Project, the technology outlived the company. The project originally made a browser under the name Mozilla. The version eventually known as Firefox was spearheaded by Joe Hewitt, Dave Hyatt, and Blake Ross and initially known as Phoenix and then Firebird before trademark issues led to it being released as Firefox in 2004.
2009 marks that highpoint from which Firefox took a precipitous fall and has yet to recover. The decline can be summed up in one word: Chrome. Google’s browser burst on the scene in 2008, offering a slicker and, above all, faster experience.
“Those first few versions of Chrome were better. I have to admit it,” says Baker.
Google invested heavily in new technology for the core of its browser, called the engine, that made it far more efficient. Meanwhile Firefox was built on an aging code base that just couldn’t keep up. (I’d been a Firefox user from the beginning, and I remember quickly abandoning the browser after Chrome emerged.)
It didn’t hurt that Google had a huge budget for development and marketing. And as modern smartphones emerged in the late aughts, Google found itself owning the largest mobile platform—giving Chrome the kind of built-in advantage that Internet Explorer had with PCs in the 1990s. Apple had a similar advantage with the iPhone, iPad, and Mac, which has allowed the Safari browser to become the world’s second most popular (with about 16% of the market). And unlike Microsoft 15 years ago, Google and Apple didn’t get complacent and stop improving their browsers after grabbing big market share.
(In pre-Chrome days, Google had been so enthusiastic about Firefox that it promoted the browser on its search engine’s home page. Even after introducing Chrome in 2008, the company continued to boost Firefox’s fortunes via a deal that made Google the default search engine in Firefox, with ad revenues shared with Mozilla. In 2017, Mozilla made more than $500 million from such advertising, for which Google is again the primary partner after a period when Yahoo had the business.)
Firefox’s crash came amid a litany of failed products for Mozilla. In 2004 it also launched an email client called Thunderbird that never made a dent in the industry juggernaut Microsoft Outlook. In 2013, Mozilla challenged the Android/iOS duopoly with a lightweight mobile operating system called Firefox OS. A handful of phones emerged that failed to capture public interest, and Firefox OS was scrapped in 2017.
Some specialty Mozilla applications survived, such as a software bug tracking app called Bugzilla. But increasingly the foundation was focused on making a web browser—and not a very good one at that.
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