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Firefox at 5: the Google Cold War

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Phoenix from the, well, you know

The Firefox project was originally known as Phoenix, a standalone open source browser rising from the ashes of Netscape. The project was launched in early April 2002, but its roots trace back to 1997, when Netscape released its Communicator suite as open source software - before anyone called it open source software.

When Netscape's code went free, Asa Dotzler was among the first to file a bug report. And by 2000, after helping to build a thriving community of testers, he'd landed a job with the Netscape-backed Mozilla Organization, well before the outfit morphed into a standalone not-for-profit.

"I had always had some interest in the free software community, but I couldn't stand Linux. I was a Mac user and it was abhorrent to me," he remembers. "But here was a product I did use - the Communicator suite - and I said to myself: 'I should get involved somehow.'"

In those days, Mozilla's efforts centered around the development of the suite as a whole - a package that included not only a browser but several other online tools, including email, chat, and html editing. But two years later, Dotzler and a small group of developers launched another project on the side.

The group had worked on Camino - nee Chimera - a standalone browser that wrapped Netscape's Gecko rendering engine in a Macintosh front-end, and they soon decided to do something similar using Mozilla's front-end language: XUL.

Enter the Phoenix.

The Mozilla brain trust set aside some space in the source code repository, and within three or four months, Dotzler says, ten to fifteen thousand people had tried the thing.

The browser wants to be alone

In those days, Microsoft controlled 95 per cent of the browser market, a lead so large that the Borg actually disbanded its IE development team following the release of Internet Explorer 6 in 2001. The only way to chip away at Microsoft's seemingly unassailable position, Dotzler and crew soon realized, was through a standalone browser - not a suite bogged down with all sorts of other stuff.

"We were looking and saying 'No one is really taking browsers seriously,'" he says. "The only way to have an impact, to make something that was going to get millions of users, was to attract Internet Explorer users, and they didn't want or need to move over to a large suite of applications. We wanted to let them keep their email client or chat client and just give them a browser."

By the time the Mozilla Foundation was founded in 2003 - a way of saving the project from a sinking Netscape - the organization's focus had shifted from the original Mozilla suite to Phoenix. Firefox 1.0 was released on November 9, 2004, and in the five years since, the open source browser has reclaimed nearly a quarter of the market.

Based on the number of security updates downloaded each month, Dotzler and Mozilla estimate their browser boasts roughly 330 million active users - plus or minus 10 or 20 million.

Microsoft is still the market beast, with a nearly 65 per cent share. But Mozilla has proven that despite Redmond's grip on the desktop operating system market, an alternative browser can succeed - in spades. And in doing so, it forced Microsoft into (at least partially) updating Internet Explorer for a modern internet.

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