Happy Birthday: A Look Back At Five Years Of Firefox

Happy Birthday: A Look Back At Five Years Of Firefox

Five years ago, an open-source browser, one that didn’t come with your computer, was available as a 1.0 download. To say it’s changed the world’s web experience is an understatement. Let’s take a look back at five years of the ‘fox.

The Prelude: Netscape

  • April 22, 1993: Following five months of development, version 1.0 of Mosaic, one of the very first web browsers that can display graphics next to text, is released. It was developed at the National Centre for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), in the University of Illinois complex at Urbana, Ill., by a team led by future brand-name entrepreneurs Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark, who had both also worked at high-performance computer firm Silicon Graphics. Windows and Macintosh ports are released in December 1993.
  • April 4, 1994: Clark and Andreessen leave NCSA and found Mosaic Communications Corp., which then changes its name and flagship product to Netscape. The company gets a Godzilla-style dragon as a mascot, and the development code names their browser “Mozilla”, after the creature.
  • October 1994 – August 1996: Internet providers, computer makers and geeky friends spread Netscape Navigator’s market share greatly, as the browser rolls in first-time features like cookies, frames and JavaScript support — all with their share of initial controversy.
  • August 1996 – March 1998: Navigator becomes just a part of the Netscape “Communicator” package with the 3.0 “Gold” release and 4.0, and also fairly crash-prone, bug-addled and slow. Microsoft, meanwhile, has won over PC vendors with its custom-branded, deeply-embedded Internet Explorer installations, which by the 5.0 release, is generally faster than Communicator’s 4 versions.

Mozilla is born

  • Jan – March 1998: Netscape announces it will release its application suite’s source code, and forms the Mozilla organisation. It was initially intended as a testing ground for new features — much like Google’s open-source Chromium and end-user Chrome projects of today.
  • March 1998 – August 2001: Netscape misses a 5.0 release entirely and dedicates its engineers to a rebuild using Mozilla’s code base for 6.0. Internet Explorer continues to gain market share. Netscape 6, rushed out in pre-beta shape by corporate parent AOL, doesn’t run reliably on anything but the most powerful PCs due to its heft. IE’s market share is approaching 90 per cent, and the writing, as they say, is on the wall for Netscape.

  • June 5, 2002: The Mozilla project releases a 1.0 version of its browser, well past original deadlines. While criticised for being overly stuffed and slow, the suite is the birthplace of things that later become Mozilla staples: the first implementation of the Gecko layout engine; versions for Windows, Mac OS, Linux and Solaris; and an extensible user interface, XUL, that can be customised with add-ons and built out for other web-facing applications.
  • September 23, 2002: Dave Hyatt and Blake Ross break off from the main Mozilla suite to develop a stand-alone browser, first appearing as Phoenix. Between versions 0.1 and 0.9, it changes names three more times (to Firebird, then Mozilla Firebird, then finally Firefox) and gets a whole new look. That’s due in large part to a branding criticism by Steven Garrity, who then heads up Mozilla’s identity team.
  • July 15, 2003: AOL no longer wants to manage the Mozilla organisation, so it sets up the Mozilla Foundation, a not-for-profit that gets Mozilla’s intellectual property and transition support.

Just prior to Firefox 1.0 arriving, Mozilla’s Scott Collins, a veteran of Netscape and evangelist for the Mozilla team, said this to Ars:

“I have hope that we will be a mainstream browser and that people will use Mozilla. That’s the thing I learned to lust after as a programmer. It’s not my ability to solve one problem, to plow this field, but the ability to build a plow that every farmer uses. The ability to make something that touches not ten people, not a hundred people, not a thousand people but a hundred million people. I want Mozilla to be there again. IE is a browser with no soul. I want it to be Mozilla because I think that people who care deserve a browser with a soul.”

Firefox rising: 1.0 & 1.5

  • November 9, 2004: Firefox 1.0 is released. In about four months, WindowsITPro reports a 6 per cent browser share. What’s really new and worth noting? First off, tabbed browsing, which, at the time, was fairly unique for a mainstream browser. A password manager, extensions and a site listing approved add-ons and themes, automatic and smooth scrolling, and native support for RSS/Atom feeds. Oh, and the size: 4.5 MB.
  • January 22, 2005: What’s that French expression about things that change? During the run-up to Lifehacker US’s launch on January 31, 2005, Gina writes a little ode/how-to mashup about Firefox:

    If you aren’t already using Mozilla’s Firefox browser, drop everything immediately and make the switch. We could start listing all the reasons why it’s a superior web browser – pop-up blocking, tabs, enhanced security, the plethora of custom extensions – but then we’d melt into a heap of gushy software rapture. And that would be a little creepy. Even for us.

    Then again:

    Here’s some tweaking you can do to make your browsing even faster … 1.Type “about:config” into the address bar …

    There you have it. Even when we thought Firefox was a heaven-sent gift from the software heavens, we wanted you to rip it open and make it faster. This dual-threaded thought is still running, of course, this very minute.

  • November 14, 2005: Firefox 1.5 is released, originally intended as Firefox 1.1. It’s a roadmap for how future .5 releases would arrive — with some new features, perhaps, but not as a major retooling. We make our first joke about what “Clear Private Data” might be best used for while noting the tighter Mac look, better pop-up blocker, automatic updating and drag-and-drop tab ordering. We didn’t exactly dig the unresponsive script dialog though, and offered our first look at making extensions work with a new version. (Original Firefox 1.5 post)
  • March 2005: Somewhere around this time, developer Aaron Boodman releases the first version of the Greasemonkey add-on, allowing for custom bits of “DHTML” called user scripts that, according to CNET, allow for secure Gmail connections, remove ads, auto-insert printable New York Times links and other neat tweaks. The makers of the Opera browser almost immediately integrate user scripts into their next builds.
  • Oct. 2005: Gina details one of the little nerdy perks that makes Firefox indispensable to many serious web geeks: quick keyword searches. Adam later expands on the power of Firefox’s bookmarking to jump inside structured web directories and quickly launch bookmarklets with a master list of about:config tweaks, many of which still work in modern Firefox browsers.
  • October – November 2006: Internet Explorer 7 was released less than a week before Firefox 2.0, and in a shock heard ’round the geek world, it wasn’t somehow worse than 6 — in fact, it had a few notable bragging points. It handles feeds better, it’s better with memory and it’s not drastically worse at fighting phishing scams. That said, it’s still a web designer’s worst nightmare and complied to no standards but Redmond’s own.


Firefox 3, 3.5 and beyond

What are your earliest memories of Firefox? How have you worked with, switched from, or switched back to it over the years? We’d love to hear your reminiscences of the browser born from Netscape in the comments.


  • While I like open source software and firefox, something should be stated about its memory gobbling nature, particularly on version 2x when mentioning its history. Also, to give credit where its due, the ‘unique’ features of tabbed browsing and pop up blocking were already present in Opera long before firefox came up with them.

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