The history of Firefox

Wired posted a really good article about Firefox and its development and as a self-proclaimed Firefox nut, it was a pleasure to read all three pages of the article.  The article is titled "The Firefox Explosion" and if you are interested in the background to Firefox as well as some more about its recent successes, check it out.

I have pasted a chunk of the article to whet your appetite:

For Rob Davis, the final straw came during a beautiful

weekend last summer, which he spent holed up in his Minneapolis

apartment killing a zombie. The week before, a malicious software

program had invaded Davis’ PC through his browser, Internet Explorer,

using a technique called the DSO exploit. His computer had been

repurposed as a "zombie box" – its CPU and bandwidth co-opted to pump

reams of spam onto the Internet. Furious, Davis dropped out of a

planned Lake Superior camping trip to instead back up his computer and

reformat his crippled hard drive. Then he vowed never to open IE again.

Lucky for Davis, a new browser had just appeared on the scene –

Firefox, a fast, simple, and secure piece of software that was winning

acclaim from others who also had grown frustrated with Internet

Explorer. A programmer friend told Davis about Firefox. He didn’t know

that the browser was an open source project and a descendant of

Netscape Navigator now poised to avenge Netscape’s defeat at the hands

of Microsoft. He just knew that he didn’t want to waste another weekend

cursing at his machine. So Davis drove to the friend’s house and copied

Firefox onto his battered laptop. He hasn’t had a problem since – and

now he’s telling anybody who will listen about Firefox’s virtues. "I’m

no anti-Microsoft zealot, but it’s unconscionable that they make 98

percent of the operating systems in the world and they let things like

this happen to people," says Davis, a PR man by day who liked Firefox

so much that he initiated a fundraising campaign to help promote the

browser. "There’s a lot of pain out there."

Firefox couldn’t have arrived at a better time for people like Davis

– or at a worse time for Microsoft. Ever since Internet Explorer

toppled Netscape in 1998, browser innovation has been more or less

limited to pop-up ads, spyware, and viruses. Over the past six years,

IE has become a third world bus depot, the gathering point for a crush

of hawkers, con artists, and pickpockets. The recent outbreak of

malware – from the spyware on Davis’ machine to the .ject Trojan, which

uses a bug in IE to snatch sensitive data from an infected PC – has

prompted early adopters to look for an alternate Web browser. Even in

beta, Firefox’s clean, intuitive interface, quick page-loading, and

ability to elude intruders elicited a thunderous response. In the month

following its official November launch, more than 10 million people

downloaded Firefox, taking the first noticeable bite out of IE’s market

share since the browser wars of the mid-’90s.

Firefox the browser is an impressive piece of

software. It’s easy to use, easy on the eyes, and safer than IE –

partly because it’s too new to have amassed a following of evil

hackers. Firefox the phenomenon is something much bigger. It’s a

combination of innovations in engineering, developer politics, and

consumer marketing.

Computer users embraced the browser almost immediately. Mark

Fletcher, founder of Bloglines, a weblog-aggregation service, reports

that Firefox rocketed from 5 percent of Bloglines’ server traffic to 20

percent in the month after the beta version was released. Software

developers are on board, too – Ross and Goodger made sure that writing

Firefox add-ons would be simple. Coders have created more than 175

extensions that perform specific, sometimes delightful functions, like

incorporating an iTunes controller in the browser’s border or a

three-day weather forecast that pulls data from and

displays sun, cloud, and rain icons in the Firefox status bar. Two

popular extensions make it easier to subscribe to RSS feeds through

Bloglines. "Anyone can write programs that work with this browser,"

Fletcher says. "I look at the fanfare and excitement that Firefox is

causing – even my parents are using it and loving it." Based on what

his server logs are telling him, Fletcher predicts that Firefox will

represent close to 50 percent of Bloglines’ traffic by the time

Longhorn, Microsoft’s long-awaited browserless operating system, is

ready in 2006. At BoingBoing, nearly half of all visitors are already

using Mozilla browsers.

Whatever success Firefox sees, it will come from social engineering

as much as software engineering. Firefox has been the product of a

massive get-out-the-vote effort. While Goodger was refining Firefox

code, Ross started Spread Firefox, a community site that hosts Firefox

blogs and gives points to a volunteer army of operatives for converting

the masses. functions as a clearinghouse for

marketing and recruiting strategies, a coordination center for coders,

banner designers, and evangelists. The site was built on Civic Space,

software developed by Carnegie Mellon grad Chris Messina for the Howard

Dean online campaign. "Software development is a political process,"

says Messina.

A few of the faithful have been working on what has become the

Firefox code for nearly a decade. They signed on with Netscape just

after Marc Andreessen made his way west from the University of

Illinois’ National Center for Supercomputing Applications to start the

browser company. Netscape, of course, introduced the Web to the masses,

took Wall Street by storm, and was then crushed by Microsoft. In 1998,

a battered Netscape sold out to AOL for $4.2 billion. The release of

IE4 that year made it clear that Netscape had lost. Explorer was

faster, slicker, preloaded on every new PC, and, though the

anti-Microsoft crowd hated to admit it, just plain better than Netscape

Communicator, a slow-moving, unwieldy clump of programs. Even AOL

wouldn’t touch Communicator, choosing to stay with IE as its default

browser. In what Netscape veterans now refer to as "the reset,"

Netscape released the Communicator source code to the world in March

1998 and renamed it Mozilla.

Around this time, Blake Ross, a Florida ninth grader whose coding

experience consisted of piecing together a couple of rudimentary

videogames, started hacking away at Mozilla. "It was incredible – just

realizing that you can touch something that so many people use," says

Ross. "It’s a great feeling to make a little change to the code and

then actually see the change in the window of a big, famous product.

You’ve caused something to happen in an application that’s being used

all over the world."

In 2000, as Ross was getting comfortable with the nooks and crannies

of Mozilla’s million-odd lines of code, AOL released Netscape Navigator

6 to a chorus of raspberries from reviewers and users. Inside Netscape,

agonized Mozilla programmers tried to clean up the sprawling mess of a

product with version 6.1 and 6.2.

Then Ross, known to the Mozilla Foundation as just another

precocious, diligent bug fixer, teamed up with Dave Hyatt, a former

Netscape user interface programmer who now works for Apple Computer. In

2002, they announced they had "forked" the Mozilla code base, pulling

out Mozilla’s layout engine, called Gecko, and using a new user

interface language, XUL. They posted a short manifesto proposing a

tightly written piece of software called mozilla/browser. The goal was

modest: no bloat. Inspired by Google’s simple interface, they set out

to build a stripped-down, stand-alone browser, a refutation of the

feature creep that had grounded Netscape. "Lots of Mozilla people

didn’t get it," Ross recalls. "They’d say, ‘This is just the product we

have now, but with less features.’ Meanwhile, the Mozilla product at

the time had about 10,000 options. You basically needed to know the

secret handshake to get anything done. It sounds corny, but it was

important to make something that Mom and Dad could use."

"Our aim was a browser that could reach the mainstream and get

people away from using IE," Hyatt remembers. "There was tension over

the way we were coming in and taking control."

Goodger, who was working for Netscape from New Zealand, loved the

idea. Like Ross, Goodger had started tinkering with Mozilla code in the

late ’90s, fixing bugs and submitting hacks that were impressive enough

to earn him a job at Mozilla, paid for by Netscape.

Mozilla/browser became Phoenix, then Firebird, then Firefox, all the

while winning converts among the Mozilla crowd. But the two core

developers – Ross and Hyatt – got distracted. Hyatt left for Apple in

late 2002 to work on the Safari browser. Ross started his freshman year

at Stanford the following fall. "The project was bogging down," Hyatt

remembers. "Somebody needed to step in and finish the thing." Goodger,

a car enthusiast with a blog that goes into exquisite detail about

subjects like engine placement and torque, took over. "When I look at

cars, I’m looking at how well they are put together, from the panel

gaps to the interior fabrics. I suppose I’m very obsessive about detail

and style. It helps me make software that looks good and works well."

As the project’s lead engineer, Goodger began a frenzied six-month

stint of reviewing the code patches and bug fixes forwarded to him by

his team and grafting the approved changes onto the growing body of

code that made up Firefox. He finished a serviceable beta version just

ahead of last summer’s rash of IE attacks, setting the stage for

Firefox’s explosive debut.






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