While most people will (and should) think of today as the anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall (who can forget Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall“?), if you go back a mere five years (rather than 20), today was another fateful day for the Internet: the formal birthday of my favorite browser: Firefox.
Before that day, it was a time of great woe in the “interwebz”, as it was a world where Microsoft’s standards uncompliant browser had completely trounced Netscape’s attempts to penetrate the market, leaving web developers everywhere the horrible task of designing their websites for Microsoft’s backwards browser. But out of the disaster that was Netscape’s original business model of attempting to make money off of packaged browser software sales emerged a new take on how the browser could be done. Instead of trying to sell copies of the browser (and lose in the war for user share because Microsoft’s was free), the Netscape browser was turned over to an open source effort run by Mozilla. The Mozilla suite itself never quite took off, as it was perceived to be “bloatware” that tried to satisfy everyone but succeeded at satisfying no one (this user included), but it spawned an effort to create a browser code-named Phoenix (symbolizing the rise of the Netscape codebase from death, I suppose?).
Flash forward a little bit and Phoenix is renamed Firebird (which was around the time I started using the product — ironically because I was wondering if Mozilla had gone the way of the dodo) and then re-christened Firefox before finally making its public (non-preview release) debut as Firefox 1.0 on November 9, 2004.
So, 5 years later, looking back – what do we see?
The most obvious change in the internet space was Firefox’s key role in re-igniting the browser wars. Microsoft’s browser development, which had almost all but ignored W3C-standards compliance and aggressive feature development, has been greatly accelerated (Internet Explorer 7 is a quantum leap above the disaster that is Internet Explorer 6, and Internet Explorer 8 is even a tall leap above Internet Explorer 7), and even Microsoft’s tone with the standards bodies and web developer community has taken on a new level of humility. The availability of a popular, alternative browser with a different user interface, new features, and real extensibility shattered the ability of Microsoft to ignore its browser development and dictate its own standards on the web space, and was probably a major galvanizing force in the adoption of newer web technologies (i.e. CSS, AJAX, etc) as the market share of open source/standards-compliant browsers increased.
While much harder to gauge, its also hard to deny the role of Firefox in raising awareness about open source as an alternative software paradigm and increasing desire of software users for software extensibility (i.e. extensions/plugins), or even in the development of new projects like Google’s Chrome browser (which is being built by many of the same engineers who had once worked on Firefox).
Happy birthday, Firefox!
For more information: Lifehacker has a great overview of Firefox’s history.