2002: Mozilla 1.0 is released. The first major milestone for the open source browser doesn’t do much to impress users or shake loose Microsoft’s crown. However, it proves to the world that free software can succeed not just in the server room, but also on the desktop.
The first browser wars effectively ended in 1998 when Microsoft Internet Explorer toppled Netscape Navigator.
Throughout the the mid-1990s, the makers of the two most popular web browsers battled tooth and nail to capture the largest share of users among the web’s early adopters. Even though the geeks tended to favor Navigator, every new Windows computer shipped with IE on the desktop, giving Microsoft a significant advantage.
Despite its best efforts, Netscape couldn’t compete with that kind of blanket distribution. Realizing it had nothing left to lose, the company took a nod from the burgeoning free software culture, spearheaded by the Linux operating system, and released the bulk of its web browser code under an open source license in March, 1998.
The plan was laid out: Netscape’s browser would continue to be developed under the guidance of the newly formed Mozilla project, which would distribute the code base from its website, organize the community development efforts and work alongside Netscape to create the next version of the company’s browser.
“By giving away the source code for future versions (of Navigator), we can ignite the creative energies of the entire net community and fuel unprecedented levels of innovation in the browser market,” said Netscape president and CEO Jim Barksdale in a press release announcing the transition.
Within months, the Mozilla crew decided to alter its strategy. Mozilla was getting nowhere with the old, bloated Navigator code, so it chose to throw most of it away and write a new browser from scratch, complete with a new rendering engine called Gecko. The team, largely funded by Netscape and, later, new parent company AOL, tinkered away for years, pushing back deadlines and delaying releases while Internet Explorer’s dominance continued to grow.
“When Mozilla opened source code in 1998, everyone expected things to happen overnight. But it took a few years for the project to catalyze,” Netscape founder Marc Andreessen told Wired.com in 2003.
Eventually, the grand plan got off the ground. The team released Netscape 6, the first major browser built on Mozilla’s open source code base, at the end of 2000. It was a huge milestone, but many of Mozilla’s contributors felt the browser was far too bloated. Others felt it was compromised by AOL/Netscape’s insistence on adding features that would boost its business.
“We came to the conclusion that Netscape couldn’t ship a good browser as long as the business of Netscape was getting in the way of creating a product that people actually wanted to use,” Mozilla director of community development Asa Dotzler told Wired.com last year. “We realized somebody else needed to do it.”
Mozilla set out to build its own browser, free of influence from its corporate overlords. A year and a half later, the team had created Mozilla 1.0. It was released on June 5, 2002, for Windows, Mac and Linux.
It had some killer features like pop-up blocking, tabbed browsing, full web-standards compliance and protections against the latest security threats.
Free software advocates praised the release, but Mozilla’s geek cred only went so far. Users it found it slow, buggy and weighed down by unnecessary features like a built-in e-mail client. Plus, it was difficult to use – it was a product built by geeks, for geeks, and it smelled like it.
Months after launch, the browser had only captured a minuscule percentage of the market. The goal was to beat Microsoft with open source. Netscape couldn’t do it. And, according to Dotzler, “we realized Mozilla couldn’t do it, either.”
While Mozilla 1.0 wasn’t a success, what followed certainly was. Two Mozilla contributors, Ben Goodger and Blake Ross, proposed taking things back to basics. The Mozilla source code was stripped down and rewritten once again, and all of the extraneous features were canned.
In late 2004, a faster, slimmer and easier-to-use browser emerged: Mozilla Firefox.
By every measure, Firefox was a huge success. The browser has grown to capture a full quarter of the browser market, and it’s still winning new users today. Firefox also stands as one of the exemplars of the free and open source software movement – proof that software developed publicly and transparently, then given away, can compete with commercial applications written in proprietary code.
And it was that original gamble by a few true believers at Netscape – the ones who argued, even when their backs were against the wall, that opening up the code to its flagship product was a good idea – which eventually led to Firefox’s success.
As former Mozilla contributor Jamie Zawinski says in the 2000 documentary Code Rush, the company’s strategy guaranteed Netscape’s browser would stick around even after the AOL acquisition, the dot-com bust, the continuing dominance of Microsoft and whatever other forces threatened to kill it off.
“The nature of what Netscape did meant that the code belongs to the community now,” he says.
Image: Mozilla Foundation chairwoman Mitchell Baker is an accomplished quilter. This highly detailed rendering of the Mozilla logo hangs in her office.
Mozilla at 10: A Photo Tour of the Lizard’s Lair
Wired Q&A With Marc Andreessen
Mozilla’s Asa Dotzler on Firefox, Fighting Bloat and the Problem With Democracy
June 5, 1833: Ms. Software, Meet Mr. Hardware
June 5, 1977: From a Little Apple a Mighty Industry Grows