Being the story of how the Mozilla web browsers came to be

The World Wide Web began when Tim Berners-Lee brought out the first web browser and web server, in between hunting and gathering food and fending off velociraptors. This was the distant past of 1991, and society was so primitive that you actually had to go to an adult bookstore to purchase Interracial Anal Lesbians VI. The arrival of the web meant one thing — no longer would some guy working at a porn shop know your innermost perversions. Instead, the only people who knew about your interest in Japanese schoolgirls and their sexy, sexy feet would be the good folks at the NSA. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

It wasn't until 1993, with the release of the Mosaic web browser, that the web started to become popular. Mosaic was developed by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. The development team was led by a young undergraduate named Marc Andreessen, and it was the first widely available web browsers for Windows, and the first for the platform that allowed pornographic images to be displayed inline, rather than in a separate window. This is a feature we take for granted today, but at the time Mosaic was first written, this ability to combine graphics and text was new and exciting and it took the world by storm, if by world you mean the tiny handful of nerds who had internet access.

Mosaic was also, like many early web browsers, given away free for non-commercial use, and while it wasn't open source as we know it today, the source code for it could be obtained by signing a non-disclosure agreement. After he graduated, Marc Andreessen went to work in California, where he and a few others founded the Mosaic Communications Corporation. The NCSA requested that the company change its name, so it was renamed the Netscape Communications Corporation. The company's explicit goal was to develop a web browser that would unseat Mosaic, and so they went to work on Netscape Navigator.

And the beast shall come forth surrounded by a roiling cloud of vengeance. The house of the unbelievers shall be razed and they shall be scorched to the earth. Their tags shall blink until the end of days.
                 from The Book of Mozilla, 12:10

Mosaic Killer

And what's the most important part of developing software? Why, the mascot, of course. And thus was Mozilla born. His name came from "Mosaic Killer", doubtless influenced by the name 'Godzilla'; he was a dinosaur and he became a popular image for t-shirts and posters in the Netscape offices. In the early months of Netscape's development, the little dude also appeared in the documentation pages for the software, but by the time Netscape 1.0 was released, the developers decided he wasn't corporate enough to make public appearances.

But Mozilla was hidden inside the browser nonetheless. Part of the web protocol requires the browser to identify itself to the server it's requesting a web page from. Netscape identified itself as "Mozilla", and many web servers would serve different content to Netscape than to other browsers, as Netscape was the leader in adding things like Javascript and cookies to its browser. Some people protested Netscape's attempt to remake the web's standards, but by the time Netscape 2.0 came out in 1995, it was popular enough among the rapidly-growing population of the web that they could pull off that kind of shit. Things were looking good for Netscape. During the mid-nineties, it was by far the most popular web browser around. In fact, as I remember, it was really the only web browser I ever saw anyone use. The prophecy of the Book of Mozilla — you can see it by typing "about:mozilla" in the location bar of any Mozilla-based browser — was rapidly coming to pass.

Lost my legs in the Browser War

That whole interweb thing was really starting to catch on. Even non-nerds started to recognize just how awesome it was to have porn delivered right into your house. And the good folks in Redmond decided they wanted in on the action. So, naturally, they put their massive in-house talent to work crafting a quality web browser. Ha ha! I kill me! Actually, they licensed a little-known browser called Spyglass Mosaic (so named because, like the first version of Netscape, it was inspired by the Mosaic browser.) The year was 1995, and the Browser War began. Netscape had the major initial advantage — at that time, they controlled almost the entire market. And they had extended the functionality of the web far beyond the official HTML standards, as mentioned above, to create a richer but more proprietary web experience. So Internet Explorer had some catching up to do.

But it wasn't until IE 3.0, released in August 1996, that Microsoft had a browser remotely comparable to Netscape. Version 3 finally supported frames, plug-ins, Microsoft's Javascript knockoff (Jscript), and other features that had made the web richer for Netscape 2.0 users. Both browsers came out with 3.0 versions nearly simultaneously, and Internet Explorer even had a bit of a technological edge — some support for cascading style sheets, which would eventually become an integral part of web design, finally vindicated in the eyes of the masses with the release of E2's zen theme.

This is when the Browser War began in earnest. Releasing Internet Explorer for free wasn't enough, as Netscape was already available for free. So Microsoft started bundling it, leading to the eventual antitrust suit filed by the U.S. government. IE 3.0 was included for free with later versions of Windows 95, giving them a substantial leg up on the competition. Windows 98 not only included IE 4.0, but tied it in so tightly with the operating system that it could only be removed with the help of third-party tools. At this point, Netscape still held the majority of the market but their hold was weakening — 72% of web users used Netscape, while 18% used Internet Explorer. IE 4.0 continued to improve on its predecessors, and was faster and (surprisingly) more standards-compliant than Netscape 4.0. This was the beginning of the end for Netscape.

An interesting footnote is that Internet Explorer also identified itself to web servers as "Mozilla" in order to ensure that IE users were delivered the same richer content that was served to Netscape users. This use of their competitor's mascot in the browser's internals continues to this day.

The rise of that big blue lower-case 'e'

Microsoft never came up with a mascot for its browser as cool as Mozilla, but the late 90s were good to Internet Explorer nonetheless. There was a lot at stake; the web was becoming an integral part of people's lives and it was a pretty good bet that this trend would to continue. Microsoft was a bit late to the party — Bill Gates later admitted, "Sometimes we do get taken by surprise. For example, when the Internet came along, we had it as a fifth or sixth priority." (Incidentally, though, he never said that 640 kilobytes of memory should be enough for anybody.) While Microsoft was a tad later out of the gate than Netscape, it quickly proved to be a capable competitor.

And they used all the resources they had — not only had Microsoft actually developed a piece of software as good as their competitors', but the company also used its market force to its advantage. I've already mentioned the bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows, which gave consumers little reason to go looking for another browser basically equal in its abilities. The FrontPage web authoring program was made part of the ubiquitous Microsoft Office application bundle, and its buggy output was often only viewable in Internet Explorer, furthering the division of the web into Netscape and Internet Explorer sections. Microsoft also worked out a deal with Apple to bundle IE with their computers, and a similar deal made it the default web browser for AOL. AOL's purchase of the Netscape corporation at the end of 1998 could have been a boost for the browser, except that AOL continued to use IE as its web browser. The use of another company's product rather than their own in their software was perhaps not a strong vote of confidence in Netscape. By the end of the 90s, Netscape was no longer a serious competitor.

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.
                 from The Book of Mozilla, 3:31

Netscape 5.0

Seeing the writing on the wall, in early 1998, the Netscape Corporation released the source code to their browser as an open source project, which meant that anyone could contribute to it and the software was given away freely. The about:mozilla text was changed by Netscape's programmers to reflect its move to open-source development. Meanwhile Internet Explorer 5.0 was released in early 1999, and it featured improved support for style sheets, scripting, non-Latin writing systems, and so on. Back at Netscape, the company continued with development of the Netscape 4.0 base, though it was increasingly recognized as inadequate and outdated. So they decided that Netscape 5.0 would be based on a complete rewrite, starting with the new Gecko rendering engine. The rendering engine is the component that turns HTML into a display on your screen, and the preview released in late 1998 was quick and capable, and people assumed a browser based upon it could not be far behind. And time was of the essence!

So the Netscape people, now assisted by volunteers, snapped into action, and released a new version of Netscape only two years later. Yep, that's right — two whole years. A complete rewrite of a large piece of software takes time — time that permitted Microsoft to complete its domination of the web browser market. Mozilla was now the name used for the development version of Netscape, and like Netscape 4 it was a suite of applications, including a browser, an email client, a newsgroup client, and an IRC client. It was decided to skip Version 5 and call the new product Netscape 6.0. It was released in December 2000. But the wait was worth it! Oh, wait, no it wasn't. Netscape 6.0 was godawful. It was unattractive, slow, ugly, buggy, hideous, and it crashed. A lot. Also, it didn't look very nice. Those of us who stubbornly refused to use Internet Explorer ended up sighing and going back to Netscape 4.5.

But the developers, still largely AOL-Time Warner employees, kept on. And in August 2001, they released Netscape 6.1. And, as it turns out, Netscape 6.1 was pretty good. Internet Explorer 6.0 had been released in March of that year, and Netscape 6.1 was probably the better product — it was smaller, substantially faster, and had better support for style sheets. But being an arguably superior piece of technology wasn't really enough; by this point, most everyone used Internet Explorer, and a substantial portion of the web population was new enough that they didn't even remember Netscape.

The dinosaur roars and stomps on stuff

The Mozilla browser was initially not particularly intended for public consumption. It was meant as a development product, given away freely to computer geeks, its purpose to spawn new versions of the Netscape web browser. Mozilla started to catch on, though. It had cool features like tabbed browsing and pop-up blocking long before they made it into Netscape. "Prerelease" versions of Mozilla were quite usable and growing in popularity, and Mozilla 1.0 was finally released in June, 2002.

Soon after, work started on a slimmer version of Mozilla, a smaller piece of software that sacrificed features few people used in order to be smaller, speedier, and more useful on low-end equipment. With Mozilla's support for "extensions", small bits of software that users can download separately to add features or modify the workings of the browser, the goal came to create a browser that only did what each user needed, sparing them the features (and accompanying bloat) that they didn't need.

And so at last the beast fell and the unbelievers rejoiced. But all was not lost, for from the ash rose a great bird. The bird gazed down upon the unbelievers and cast fire and thunder upon them. For the beast had been reborn with its strength renewed, and the followers of Mammon cowered in horror.
                 from The Book of Mozilla, 7:15

A phoenix rises from the ashes

By the time Mozilla 1.0 came out, Netscape wasn't a particularly useful brand for AOL anymore. Few people used the browser, so there weren't many revenue possibilities associated with it. The open source community increasingly handled the product's development, and finally, in July, 2003, AOL decided to end the Netscape division entirely. The same day, the Mozilla Foundation was formed as a non-profit to direct future development of the Mozilla Suite; AOL donated all of Netscape's intellectual property and $2 million to the project.

The new, slimmer browser, named Phoenix, was the focus of the Mozilla Foundation's efforts, and new text from the Book of Mozilla was included in the entire product family starting in September, 2003 to reflect it. Phoenix was renamed Mozilla Firebird due to trademark issues, and then in 2004 it became Mozilla Firefox due to other trademark issues. As with Mozilla, prerelease versions were widely used before it went 1.0 in November, 2004. Firefox grew in popularity, eroding away at Internet Explorer's userbase due to its innovative features and relative invulnerability to security exploits. By the end of 2006, around 14% of the public was using Firefox, and Internet Explorer's share had fallen to less than 80%.

The Gecko rendering engine, being open source, is used in numerous other software products. In addition, AOL is still releasing versions of Netscape, though they're not remotely popular. Internet Explorer 7.0, the first new version of the browser in several years, incorporates pop-up blocking and tabbed browsing, no doubt in reaction to the popularity of Firefox; meanwhile, Microsoft has lately made overtures to the Mozilla folks, offering help to ensure its compatibility with Windows Vista.


Net Applications: Browser Share (
CNet News: Microsoft offers helping hand to Firefox (
Mozilla (
MozillaZine (
Inside Firefox: Where Did Firefox Come From? (
CNet News: Gates, Buffett a bit bearish (
U-G-L-Y / You ain't got no alibi / You ugly! (A picture of Netscape 6.0)
The History of Mozilla Firefox: From Phoenix, to Firebird, to Firefox (
Being a big nerd

Thanks to unperson for catching an error on my part and even digging up a quote for me.