A Blow Against the Empire
In 2004, it looked like Microsoft would own browsing forever. Then came a feisty open-source browser called Firefox. And the web was never the same.
Ten years ago last week Firefox officially launched into the world. The browser was already a big deal, though, even before it hit 1.0. In true open source and Mozilla fashion, Firefox’s developers had been steadily sharing the code and product so that everyone could use it and contribute to its development. On release, millions of people around the world were quick to adopt it, because it put the user back in control of the web.
Yet just a couple of years earlier, in 2002 and 2003, hardly anyone thought of Mozilla at all. I’ll admit that I wasn’t immune. At the time I was working on my own Silicon Valley startup, and the Mozilla project seemed wholly irrelevant to my present or future. Little did I know that a few years later, not only would I come to care greatly about Mozilla’s work, I would become CEO of the organization.
Prior to Firefox’s launch, though, Mozilla was mostly seen as an afterthought or, perhaps, some kind of crazy nonprofit group. This small group of open source hackers, known as Mozillians, were working on projects that virtually nobody thought they needed. The public certainly didn’t think it wanted a new browser. People were using Internet Explorer (IE), which Microsoft had bundled with Windows. In 2004, IE had approximately 95% of the web browser market.
I’m going to repeat that, because the number is ridiculously high: 95 percent.
WTF? What was going on?
It was so obvious at that point that Internet Explorer had thoroughly colonized the web — MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!! — that Microsoft virtually disbanded the group, sending many of its members off to work on Silverlight, the company’s nascent web development tool. (A younger, less mature Me, would put a snarky comment here. Today’s Me, a clearly more sophisticated and subtle individual, will leave that as an exercise to you, Dear Reader.)
Web technology was complete; Microsoft had finished it. Innovation really, really slowed down.
And I say, without exaggeration, that the web sort of sucked in 2003. You’d be using it during the day at work, and as you packed up to go home at the end of the day you’d go through and close the dozens, or hundreds, of popups that littered your screen.
Other browsers gained toeholds during this time, so it wasn’t 100% obliteration—Opera fought the good fight, for example—but let’s be honest: these other efforts were on the margins.
But then: Firefox.
Firefox came not as an obvious breakthrough, even within the Mozilla project itself. Mozilla’s prior products had been an integrated suite of e-mail, web and authoring tools . Even Mozillians disagreed on whether you could take just the browser client, make it fast and remove all the crap, put the user in control with tabs and popup blocking, and make a go of it.
But that’s just what the Firefox team did. In the first month of its release, millions of people found Firefox and started using it. From the vantage point of 2014, it’s easy to be a little blasé about a few million users, but in 2004 (and even by today’s standards, really), the browser had a lightning fast start.
With Firefox climbing to a few percentage points of market share—and with Firebug, an add-on for web developers, making it easier for innovators to build new types of web apps—the web was suddenly alive again. Vibrant.
What had been so obvious just months before, that the web was moribund, was now just as obviously hogwash. Yesterday’s wisdom had become today’s foolishness.
The group that yesterday had been viewed as quixotic for attacking the 95% market share of Internet Explorer was suddenly lauded for having worked on the right problems, for the right reasons, even as the market told them those issues didn’t matter at all.
And thank god for their persistence & stubbornness: they opened the web back up.
Mozilla opened up the web in ways that are hard to even grok from our smartphone-dominated perch of 2014. But having a mass market alternative to IE let people break away from Microsoft leadership and developer dominance (Firefox would eventually be used by nearly half a billion people). Having a developer-oriented browser meant that an interesting new class of Web 2.0 applications could be delivered via the web, including things such as Delicio.us and StumbleUpon, but more fundamentally apps such as Gmail and Pandora. The Firefox success story was also an object lesson in how a small band of techies could take on giants such as Microsoft, which were thousands of times their size.
I myself would get involved about 6 months later —in 2005 I had just left my own startup. I wanted to start a career in investing, so I was talking with a number of venture firms on Sand Hill Road. But I just couldn’t escape the gravitational pull of working on something that was obviously so right, and something that mattered so much. Joining a tiny nonprofit organization was a surprising detour for me, but it may have been the smartest decision of my career. It changed everything about the way I think about products and organizations, and helped me prioritize working on things that really, really mattered.
It’s easy to look back on the last decade and think that things were destined to happen just the way they did. It’s tempting to assume that no matter what, the web would have been vibrant through the 2000s, and that the dual forces of iOS and Android would have emerged to lead us into the period of innovation we are in today. But it’s just not true.
The work by the group of Mozillians that led to the release of Firefox 10 years ago changed so much, for so many. And it reopened the frontiers of the web.
So when I see the announcements that Mozilla is making this week, I’m hopeful, even though I’m not involved anymore. And I’m grateful that so many people are still focused on helping normal humans get involved with the creation of the technology we use; allowing them to assert control over their privacy and their content; and helping our technology become more robust and diverse as a result.
It’s easy to dismiss Mozilla today — because they’re off at it again, tilting at the impossible windmills of mobile and privacy and putting users in control of their technology. The battle is done. Mozilla’s impact is in the past.
But I wouldn’t count them out. I made that mistake 10 years ago, and it’s clear to me today that we need a voice like Mozilla’s. I’m optimistic that it will continue to find ways to do what everyone else “knows” is not achievable.
Happy birthday, Firefox. And congratulations to everyone who played a part in Mozilla’s history. There’s much to be proud of, and many impossible missions ahead. Onward.