One of the web’s most influential browsers has roots that date back to its earliest days, and an evolution that has transformed it several times over.
The rich history of Mozilla and Firefox is one that I imagine I’ll be coming back to from time to time. There’s a lot to cover. For me, the most intriguing way to take a look through Mozilla’s history is to track each time its name has changed. There have been more than a few. In fact, taking a look at these moments takes us on a parallel path through the history of the web itself.
If you want to understand where Mozilla Firefox came from, you have to go back to just about the time the web was starting up. The most popular of the early browsers was NCSA Mosaic. It introduced breakthrough features like the
img tag and inline multimedia, and was available on just about any operating system out there. It eclipsed the competition.
Marc Andresson, a founder of the project, and Jim Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics, had other ideas for Mosaic. They wanted to test it’s commercial and enterprise possibilities and push the browser even further. In 1994, about a year after the initial release of Mosaic, they staged a coup of sorts. They left the company to start their own, taking a few top programmers from NCSA along with them.
They called this new company Netscape.
Netscape’s browser was a complete rewrite of Mosaic. This wasn’t just for the sake of improving the browser. The newly formed company didn’t have a right to any of the code that their programmers wrote when they were at NCSA. They had to reimagine everything, from the ground-up. In the end, not a single line of code from Mosaic remained.
The first release of the browser was called Netscape Mosaic, hoping to capitalize on existing users. This name wouldn’t last long. For legal reasons, Mosaic was renamed to Netscape Navigator while still in beta.
Andresson made it clear to his team that Netscape’s new browser had to be a “Mosaic Killer”. Jamie Zawkinski, a programmer that came with Andresson from NCSA, suggested a nickname in a staff meeting. He had smashed “Mosaic” and “killer” together, mixed in Godzilla for good measure, and there it was: Mozilla. After that, Mozilla became the de facto name for the source code of the Netscape browser whenever it was referred to internally.
In a short time, Netscape grew to three quarters of the market. Exponential growth would be an understatement. By the the mid-90s, however, it was pitted against Internet Explorer in the now infamous Browser Wars. As the browsers popularity took a hit, Netscape shifted focus to more commercial endeavors.
Around that time, a whitepaper written by Frank Hecker began circulating throughout Netscape. It suggested open sourcing their browser, in honor of the free software movement, to recruit help from a community of programmers. Development on Netscape Navigator had all but completely languished, and Hecker hoped to inject some vitality back into the project.
Much to many people’s surprise, the higher ups got on board. In February of 1998, Netscape announced that the Netscape Navigator codebase would now be open source. As a wink to the browsers internal codename, they named the organization running the show the Mozilla organization. And Navigator became a part of the Mozilla Application suite.
The Mozilla organization decided almost right away that a complete rewrite would once again be necessary, this time using a new layout engine called Gecko. They had a beta out quick, in December of 1998.
Then nothing happened. For almost 4 years.
Of course, the browser received incremental updates. But it wasn’t until the end of 2002 that the rewritten version of Mozilla was ready for primetime. The team called it Mozilla Phoenix, seeing as how this new version was rising from the ashes of an all but dead browser. The rewrite finally made the browser a standalone app, casting off the suite of tools it used to come bundled with, like extensions for IRC and email. It was faster, leaner and incorporated all the latest web standards.
In the meantime, AOL bought Netscape. The focus of the company moved even further away from the new Phoenix project. To ensure that the project could continue even without Netscape, the Mozilla Organization split of from it’s parent company and became a wholly independent non-profit. It was renamed the Mozilla Foundation.
Phoenix was lauded by critics and users alike. But the browser’s naming curse continued. A BIOS-based browser was also called Phoenix, and Mozilla was not able to secure a trademark. It was renamed to Mozilla Firebird, the hidden meaning still intact. But the well established Firebird database server took issue with that. It was back to the drawing board on that one.
Finally, on November 9, 2004, Mozilla Firefox 1.0 was released. It was a monumental effort; a champion of the free software movement and a powerful, open browser. It also represented a legacy that spanned six separate name changes, three different companies, and two ground-up rewrites in its 10 year history.
Mozilla’s constant would always be the people that worked on it. As the browser moved around, programmers followed it, from company to company. And when it was handed to the community, they embraced it. Mozilla’s codebase might look entirely different then Mosaic, but its spirit is surprisingly unshaken.