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
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 Weather.com 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. SpreadFirefox.com 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,"
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.