Firefox turns five
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (watching that happen on TV remains one of my favorite memories from college). But Nov. 9 also marks the anniversary of a different sort of opening--five years ago, a Web browser called Mozilla Firefox began chipping away at Microsoft's near-total monopoly of the browser market.
At the time, there was little reason to think that a program with a name more likely to evoke memories of a Clint Eastwood Cold War flick would do any better against Microsoft's aging Internet Explorer than other competitors. But while such IE rivals as the browser-plus-e-mail-plus-Web-authoring Mozilla Suite and Opera Software's self-titled browser emphasized features and configurability, Firefox put simplicity and security first. You didn't have to "get" tabbed browsing, play around with add-on software or tinker with configuration settings to get a browser that was fast, blocked pop-up ads and didn't fall victim to the same drive-by-download attacks as IE.
I had already been using beta versions of Firefox for months when the 1.0 release arrived. So I had no problem giving Firefox 1.0 an early endorsement in a review that featured one of my least ambiguous ledes ever:
Internet Explorer, you're fired.
Five years later, I have some company in that view. Firefox's various versions now account for just over 24 percent of the browser market and IE's share has shrunk from the high 90s to just under 67 percent, according to Net Applications' data for September (the latest available).
Breaking a monopoly that once seemed permanent--only geeks would bother downloading and installing some strange program to replace what comes free with Windows, right?--would be a decent achievement in itself. But Firefox's success has accomplished two other worthy goals.
One, it's forced Web developers to stop writing Web sites that only look right in Internet Explorer. That might have been a justifiable business decision when 95-plus percent a business's customers ran the same browser--but no sane company will turn away a fifth of its audience. And because of Firefox's historically strong support for Web standards, a page that works in Firefox should work in any other standards-compliant browser--an immensely important characteristic as more everyday applications migrate to the Web.
Two, Firefox made open-source software an everyday reality in home computing. The concept of a program that isn't just free to use, but which offers free access to its source code, can be a little hard to explain to the uninitiated. Firefox, however, offered an easy example of how quickly a program can improve when any interested programmer can help find and fix bugs. That, in turn, can make it a little easier for people accustomed to closed-source software to try other open-source applications--or an entire open-source operating system.
That's not to say Firefox has reached anything close to perfection after five years. Google's Chrome is faster and more stable; Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 provides more useful tabbed-browsing options; its Mac version doesn't integrate with Mac OS X as well as Apple's Safari (though Safari's performance issues are taxing my patience).
Maybe Firefox's developers won't be able to keep up with their better-funded competitors over the next five years. But even if they can't, this program has earned a spot in computing history.
November 9, 2009; 5:49 PM ET
Categories: The Web
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