Firefox turns five: Thanks for giving us a choice

Birthdays in the world of tech normally aren't that big of a deal for most folks. We tend to feel as much nostalgia toward hardware, software and services as we do toward flu shots and oil changes for the car. But even if you don't use Firefox -- and by the numbers, that's over 60% of you -- it's difficult to underestimate this once-upstart browser's impact on the way we experience the Internet, and how our software is developed in the first place.

Replacing monopoly with choice

Before Firefox came along, Internet browsing was Microsoft's game to lose. The company had successfully used its ability to bake IE into the fabric of its dominant operating system, to none-too-subtly force mainstream internauts to overlook the alternative. If IE was already sitting on the average user's desktop, the logic went, why would he or she even bother to download Netscape?

The strategy worked, as Netscape began a long, slow slide into oblivion. Users by the millions simply stuck with what their OS came with. I'm keenly aware of the fact that Betanews readers can download and install a browser in the time it takes to change the channel. Yet I'm also keenly aware that our tech savvy readers are far outnumbered by the kind of Internet users who, for a while anyway, didn't understand what a browser was, and who thought "The Internet" was the glowing IE icon on their desktop.

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)Microsoft got this, too. Whatever your view on the company, it's easy to see that this fundamental understanding of its audience helped it recover from almost missing the browser bandwagon altogether. Antitrust cases notwithstanding, Microsoft's recognition that most everyday end users wouldn't bother (at least in the chaotic early days of the commercialized Internet) to take the time to download something as mundane as a browser, helped it drive a large chunk of the Internet agenda for the better part of a decade. Although we scoff at the notion of default desktop real estate today, it mattered immensely when Windows 95 first hit the market.

The shift toward download-your-own

But getting and keeping a monopoly are two entirely different things. As Microsoft eventually learned, product innovation matters, and its inability to focus on that growing market need left the door slightly open for an alternative.

By failing to move the bar once it wrested control, Microsoft virtually guaranteed that increasingly sophisticated and demanding mainstream users -- who by then had figured out how to customize their desktops with their own software choices -- would eventually take the time to download and install a new browser. By 2004, there were enough of them who were ticked off with IE's dominant market position, its bloat, its disrespect for the Web standards of the day, and its sock-it-to-me reputation as a target for hackers that IE's days as the default choice were numbered.

It's easy to forget that Firefox wasn't always a flexible upstart. It was born out of the ashes of Netscape's Mozilla Project, a bloated failure that stands as an example of too many features and not enough thought devoted toward making them work with each other...or for the end user. The project's rebirth under the Mozilla Foundation as a broad-scale open source collaboration allowed it to return focus to the singular browser. It also gave it the edge needed to position itself as a viable alternative to the then-dominant IE.

Firefox introduced a number of features that we now take for granted: Tabbed browsing, add-ons and extensions, integrated search, themes, consistent support for Web standards, download management, pop-up blocking, and best of all, speed. And while age has helped more recent competitors like Google's Chrome begin the process of turning yesterday's David into today's Goliath, Firefox remains a formidable platform with enough developer and end-user support to ensure it won't soon meet Netscape's fate.

Of course, nothing is a given in the world of tech. And despite its vaunted success in hacking out a growing base of fans (over 24% of all users, according to October 2009 data from NetApplications) and taking on a company many saw at the time as unbeatable, Firefox the browser isn't immune to the creeping ailments of age. It's gotten bigger and slower with each successive generation, and its prodigious use of memory and system resources remains a widespread source of irritation. But as the first truly successful example of an open source product that went mainstream, Firefox has helped build the business model by which software that's given away for free can become the basis of an industry.

An intensifying market

As version 3.6 gets set to go gold, the core developers are already filling in the blanks on a roadmap that stretches years into the future. Google, which was an early and ongoing Firefox supporter, now wants its own piece of the action as it aggressively improves Google Chrome and uses the browser as the basis for its first full-blown desktop operating system, Google Chrome OS. The broader client market is evolving as well, as the desktops that defined the bulk of our online activities in 2004 give way to increasingly mobile form factors and uses. Firefox's mobile project, known as Fennec, is expected to deliver a working product in 2010. None of this would have happened without Firefox 1.0.

No one quite knows where any of this will end up. And whatever features and performance the various players pile in to their respective offerings in the coming months and years, they'll all owe a debt of gratitude to a product...more accurately, to an open source project that saw the potential in shifting the market away from dominant offerings from commercial players that limited choice and stifled development.

In that respect, Firefox was less a product than a revolution in how software is developed and used, and how sustainable markets are built around these products. I can't wait to see what the next five years have in store.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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