Mozilla under fire: Fighting for Firefox

There's nothing quite like Mozilla in the tech world. Over a 16-year history, it's combined a do-good philosophical ethos with Silicon Valley competitiveness. Here's its history.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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  • I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
Stephen Shankland
4 min read

Firefox logo and icon
Firefox logo Mozilla

Mozilla's tribulations today contrast sharply with the last decade's come-from-behind victory over Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser.

The unusual organization was born in 1998 as one of the first high-profile open-source projects, and it's transformed itself several times since then.

Pioneering browser maker Netscape Communications, which sparked the dot-com business frenzy with a successful initial public offering in 1995, stumbled after Microsoft responded by building its own IE browser into its Windows operating system. Mozilla's answer was to turn the Netscape Navigator browser into a cooperative code-sharing effort. It adopted Navigator's code name, Mozilla.

Netscape set the browser source code free on March 31, 1998, a radical move given that open-source software at the time was more of a counterculture novelty than the fixture of Internet operations it's since become.

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A " Book of Mozilla" Easter egg hidden in the browser's interface marked the day and the ambition with these words about Mozilla's T-rex-like mascot: "And the beast shall be made legion. Its numbers shall be increased a thousand thousand fold. The din of a million keyboards like unto a great storm shall cover the earth, and the followers of Mammon shall tremble."

The followers of Mammon -- read Microsoft -- are those in the thrall of greedy commercial interests.

Mozilla's mascot from the organization's early days Mozilla

A huge disruption came just months later in 1999 when AOL, an online giant at the time, acquired Netscape. Although AOL pledged not to unwind the Mozilla project, it flooded the marketplace with AOL installation CDs that included IE, not Netscape Navigator.

Netscape struggled within AOL, and usage slid. At the turn of the century, Microsoft's IE had won the browser market share war; it accounted for more than 90 percent of browser usage. Netscape also struggled to attract a big open-source ally: Apple snubbed Mozilla by opting to use a different open-source browser engine, KHTML, when it launched its own Safari browser project in 2003. That project became WebKit, which later would spawn Google's Chrome browser.

After AOL scrapped the Netscape project altogether, Netscape executives Brendan Eich and Mitchell Baker helped retool the Mozilla project into what we now know as the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation.

Things were tough -- until Firefox caught fire.

The browser, first called Phoenix, was born from the ashes of Netscape in 2002 and became Firefox 1.0 in 2004. It was svelte, fast, and won over techies immediately, with features like tabbed browsing and adds-ons that offered customizability. A search box leading to Google produced ad revenue that Google shared with Mozilla, which in 2005 launched a for-profit corporation within the non-profit foundation.

It wasn't long before millions of mainstream users downloaded the Firefox. It rose to account for about a quarter of Web browser usage in 2009.

Firefox helped usher in a new burst of Web creativity after years in which most sites accommodated themselves to IE since Microsoft controlled the biggest share of the browser market.

Although Firefox has never vanquished IE in market share, its principles won out: Microsoft poured new energy into browser development and embraced a slew of modern Web standards. Apple's Safari has since helped bring modern browsers to smartphones. And Google's Chrome browser has become a major ally in overhauling Web technology.

"Mozilla was really crucial," one industry insider said. "It reinvented Web browsing."

Firefox has installed base of about 400 million people at last count. That's an impressive achievement, but Firefox's browser competition in 2014 is the polar opposite of complacent Microsoft in 2004. Google boasted in 2013 that Chrome has 750 million, and it'll likely share an even bigger number at its Google I/O show later in June.

A "Book of Mozilla" easter egg criticizes Apple and Google as greedy in the mobile market.
A "Book of Mozilla" easter egg criticizes Apple and Google as greedy in the mobile market. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Mozilla's evangelistic fervor today shines through Firefox OS, its mobile operating system. The newest Book of Mozilla entry: "The twins of Mammon quarreled. Their warring plunged the world into a new darkness, and the beast abhorred the darkness. So it began to move swiftly, and grew more powerful, and went forth and multiplied. And the beasts brought fire and light to the darkness."

Translation: The greed that once led Microsoft astray now has claimed Apple and Google. As Apple CEO Steve Jobs put the goal in a 2010 memo, "Tie all of our products together, so we further lock customers into our ecosystem." Customers are going along for the ride: they bought more than a billion smartphones in 2013, mostly powered by Android and iOS, according to analyst firm IDC.

For Mozilla and Firefox, Internet Explorer might have been the easier victory.