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Firefox at 15: its rise, fall, and privacy-first renaissance

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There’s a good chance you are reading this in Google’s Chrome web browser, which commands 65% of the global market (and about 50% in the U.S.), according to Statcounter. Only about 4% to 5% of web surfers now go online through Firefox, the open-source browser from the California-based Mozilla foundation. But the web was much different when Firefox launched 15 years ago on November 9, 2004, and began a fast rise to prominence.

When Firefox hit the scene, Internet Explorer had more than 90% market share, having felled Netscape Navigator. Given that it was the default browser on Windows, which commanded a similar share of the operating system market, its monopoly seemed like it could be permanent. But Firefox quickly caught on, and eventually grew to command about a third of the market at its height in 2009. While it’s unlikely to recapture such former glory, Firefox has been experiencing something of a renaissance, not just by improving speed and features, but by putting user control over privacy front and center.

Fifteen years on, it’s hard to imagine how radical Firefox was at the time of its debut. Instead of coming from a megacorporation like Microsoft (or today, Google), Firefox was built by volunteers around the world who gave their code away for free. “Open source was well known for developers,” says Mitchell Baker, who cofounded the Mozilla Project back in 1998 and is today the chairwoman of the Mozilla Corporation and Mozilla Foundation. “But the common wisdom of the time was that open source was only for the geeks. You could build [tools] for developers but not consumer products out of it.”

Firefox offered more than techno-utopian ideals. It was built with security in mind and emerged just as Internet Explorer 6, the browser bundled with Windows XP, was in a security crisis. “The browser that most people were using at the time was a security risk,” says Baker. The U.S. government even warned consumers about security risks in IE, which created the perfect opportunity for Firefox to grow.

Beyond security, Firefox also offered a streamlined, approachable interface, snappy performance, and rich features. It made tabbed browsing mainstream long before Microsoft even saw the value in such a feature. Firefox also boasted robust support for technologies like JavaScript (invented by Mozilla cofounder Brendan Eich) and standards like CSS that allow web pages to work the same regardless of the browser, as well as extensions that permitted near limitless customization. The benefits of switching were obvious, and it was easy to do—so many people did.

“There’s probably some alternate world in which Firefox didn’t come along, IE’s market share is still monopolistic, and the Web is a much less interesting place,” wrote my colleague Harry McCracken back on Firefox’s fifth anniversary in 2009.

Firefox’s plucky, nonprofit character belies corporate roots. It emerged from Netscape—the once-dominant browser maker that was the first great IPO of the internet era (back in 1995). Netscape, in turn, came from the creators of Mosaic, the first major web browser. In 1998 Netscape announced that the code for its browser would be open source, under a project called Mozilla, a portmanteau of Mosaic and Godzilla. (Its original red dinosaur logo was designed by street artist Shepard Fairey of later Obama “Hope” poster fame.)

In 1999, internet giant AOL purchased Netscape and set it on the kind of slow death spiral that follows so many corporate acquisitions. But thanks to the Mozilla Project, the technology outlived the company. The project........

© Fast Company