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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.

firefox_logo.jpg

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.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  November 9, 2009; 5:49 PM ET
Categories:  The Web  
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Comments

Rob, my Firefox at work just updated to the newest version and now the WP.com front page crashes the browser as soon as it's finished loading. I can read other pages if I click to them fast enough, but the latest Firefox can't handle the whole news front.

Posted by: WmarkW | November 9, 2009 6:11 PM | Report abuse

Mine (Firefox ver 3.5.5) does just fine with the WAPO home page.

Posted by: ramgut | November 9, 2009 8:29 PM | Report abuse

I tried to resist Firefox (and Netscape) for more than a decade, but I finally gave up.
I've been supporting Windows machines since the mid-'90s. About once a year, I would encounter a PC with Internet Explorer so FUBAR that only installing a different browser would let me avoid reinstalling Windows. However, I never used anything but IE on my own computers... despite crashes, slow performance, and the two-year nightmare that was Internet Explorer 7.
The last straw for me was IE8 failing to load links in new tabs. I would click the mouse wheel, and new tabs would open, but half the time they would never load. This behavior persisted through several builds of XP, Vista and Windows 7 (it turned out to be caused by AVG Free 8.5). Before I figured out the cause, I installed Firefox 3.5.3, and it worked perfectly every day.

I hate to admit it, but it's a better browser than IE8. I wish bookmarks were individual links like IE Favorites, and there are other things they could do (much) better, but it works better overall.

Posted by: williehorton | November 9, 2009 9:41 PM | Report abuse

Admittedly Chrome/Chromium is faster (as is Opera) but no other browser offers the unparalleled flexibility of Firefox with its many add-ons. It remains my default....

Henri

Posted by: mhenriday | November 10, 2009 5:27 PM | Report abuse

Been using Firefox since it was FireBIRD v0.6. Indispensable.

BTW, the successor to the all-in-one Mozilla Suite is alive and reasonably well. It is now SeaMonkey, still overseen by the Mozilla Foundation (www.seamonkey-project.org). A few days ago, they released SeaMonkey 2.0. Upgrading from SeaMonkey 1.1.8 was not a very pleasant experience. It puts the profile folders in a different place than SeaMonkey 1.1, or Mozilla Suite; and its importation of existing user profiles, bookmarks, etc. is quite inelegant. Nor did it import the previous mail client settings at all. Switching from Mozilla to SeaMonkey 1.0, or even from bloated old Netscape to Mozilla Suite, was no problem. I have gone back to 1.1.8 until I can put together a more rigorous migration plan so I don't have to rebuild everything from scratch.

So for a new user, it might be interesting to try SeaMonkey. For upgraders, I think I would hold off for a bit. There are only a limited number of add-on themes for SeaMonkey 1.x; I could find none for SeaMonkey 2.

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | November 10, 2009 8:42 PM | Report abuse

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