Five Reasons to Celebrate Firefox’s Fifth Birthday

By  |  Monday, November 9, 2009 at 9:59 am

Firefox is FiveMozilla’s Firefox 1.0 officially became available on November 9th, 2004–which means that the Little Browser That Could officially turns five today. It’s not the world’s dominant browser–while market share estimates vary widely, all show that Internet Explorer still has a sizable lead–but it’s surely the most beloved browser on the planet.

(It’s definitely the dominant browser in the Technologizer community–around 40 percent of visits have been made using it this month, via 28 percent with IE, 18 percent with Safari, and nine percent with Chrome.)

In celebration of Firefox’s first half-decade, here are some quick reflections on why it’s one of the most significant software products of this or any other era:

1. It reignited the browser wars. Back in 2004, Internet Explorer had more than ninety percent of the market and seemed to be on its way to as close to 100 percent as any product could conceivably attain. Other alternative browsers, such as Opera and earlier versions of Mozilla, had market shares that looked like rounding errors. Then Firefox appeared and quickly gained traction. Its strategy for success was a clever one: It was just a good browser, period. And today, there are more significant browsers than during any period since the inception of the Web: IE, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera, and the Firefox variant I have a soft spot for, Flock. There’s probably some alternate world in which Firefox didn’t come along, IE’s market share is still monopolistic, and the Web is a much less interesting place.

2. It helped enable powerful Web apps. The leading browser of the pre-Firefox era, IE 6, was notoriously, willfully contemptuous of Web standards. Writing sophisticated Web-based applications such as e-mail clients that work with it was an exercise in frustration, albeit one which any company that wanted to write such apps had to go through. But Firefox set a good example by adhering to standards such as CSS and JavaScript that enable today’s Web apps. And Safari (which predated Firefox), Chrome, and even IE 8 all get it, too.

3. It’s the most mainstream open-source project to date. Linux is a remarkable accomplishment, but its domain remains servers and geeks who are passionate about software. Firefox showed the open-source community could build something that appealed to just about everybody–including folks who have no idea what open-source software is.

4. It’s spurned bloat. In many ways, today’s Firefox 3.5 doesn’t feel radically different from 2004’s Firefox 1.0. That’s a good thing–Mozilla has added features sparingly and avoided the temptation to lard its browser up with “improvements” that mostly add clutter. Instead, it offers one of the richest platforms for add-ons that the software world has ever known, allowing every Firefox user to build a browser that has exactly the features that he or she wants.

5. It gave the Netscape story an unexpectedly happy ending. The tale of the once-mighty Netscape Navigator was a sad one, whether you believed that its fall was due to unfair tactics by Microsoft or self-inflicted wounds (or a bit of both). By 2004, Navigator appeared to be well on its way to irrelevance. But Firefox, which exists only because of Netscape’s long-ago decision to open-source its code, is in effect the next-generation Navigator. With all due respect to F. Scott Fitzgerald, its success shows that there are indeed second acts in American lives. At least if the American in question happens to be a piece of software.

No, Firefox isn’t perfect–if I get a moment, I’ll write about five challenges it faces–but its huge influence made the world a better place. Even if you use IE or one of its other competitors.

Your thoughts, celebratory or otherwise?



5 Comments For This Post

  1. Steven Fisher Says:

    I take some issue with the idea that Firefox has spurned bloat. Firefox for Mac is a 17.6MB download that takes forever to start up.

  2. Bouke Timbermont Says:

    @Steven: check your mac. Here it takes about 7 seconds to start up after a fresh boot, 2 seconds for a restart after that and less than a blink to open up after closing the window… and that’s on a 2007 basic MBP.

  3. Harry McCracken Says:

    @Steven: Good point–I was talking about feature creep, not memory and disk footprint, but Firefox could indeed be more lithe on those fronts. One of the reasons that I’m looking forward to Chrome’s formal arrival on the Mac is because it should be more of a featherweight than Firefox.


  4. Austin Personal Injury Lawyer Says:

    I love firefox. Ever since I first downloaded it, I haven’t looked back. Every once in a while, I have to use a different browser and it always seems inferior. Happy 5th birthday!

  5. Mark Zip Says:

    When my boss was on (slow, rural) dial-up and thus unable to easily update his Win2K install, I was always pretty sanguine about his browsing security because FF was set up with AdBlock Plus, NoScript and FlashBlock. It is *really* difficult to get a nasty in this scenario.

    Speed: Using only those add-ons (and with careful hosts file management) we were able to get browsing speeds up to manageable levels compared to IE 6.
    Yes, the memory usage issues of 18 months ago were a pain, but 3.6 beta is getting back to the right place.

    Happy birthday FF! I still have that first NYTimes full-page ad somewhere, with my name proudly highlighted!