How Firefox Almost Won the Second Browser War. Almost.
On November 9th, 2004, Mozilla released Firefox 1.0. Born from the fallout of the first browser war
, the launch of Firefox signaled the start of the second browser war.
The plucky alternative to Internet Explorer introduced features like tabs, a popup blocker, extensions, and themes. Firefox didn't invent those features — that honor belongs to Opera — but Firefox’s combination of speed, usability, and eventually, privacy-and-user-focused positioning made it a favorite. Within five years of launching, Firefox accounted for nearly a third of all web browsing.
Over the years, Mozilla managed to hold its own in the browser war against industry titans like Microsoft and Google, despite its relative size and resources. Eventually, Firefox declared defeat—but with a new incumbent, the third browser war may not be far behind.
Fallout from the first browser war (1995 - 2002)
The internet began to see mainstream popularity in 1995. At the time, Netscape Navigator was the most popular web browser, with about 80% market share and positive public opinions.
However, Netscape’s relatively small size and a single source of revenue (the Netscape Navigator browser) made it vulnerable. Competition drove rapid development, and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 3.0 approached feature parity with Netscape.
“Netscape's total revenue never exceeded the interest income generated by Microsoft's readily-available funds.”
— Wikipedia: Browser Wars
Microsoft Windows, which had over 90% share of the desktop operating system market, integrated Internet Explorer 4.0, making it free for Windows users. For most, it was their first web browser — they had little motivation to consider alternatives.
"Very few times in warfare have smaller forces overtaken bigger forces..."
— Jim Barksdale, President and CEO of Netscape Communications (source)
The first browser war ended with Internet Explorer attaining a peak of about 96% of the web browser usage share during 2002. The conclusion of the war brought an end to the rapid innovation in web browsers. Between 2001 and 2006, there was only one new version of Internet Explorer since version 6.0 released.
From the ashes of Netscape rises a Phoenix (2002 - 2004)
In 1998, several events laid the foundation for the second browser war:
- America Online purchases Netscape
- The United States Department of Justice files an antitrust case against Microsoft.
- Members of Netscape found Mozilla, a free software community
- Larry Page and Sergey Brin found Google
Mozilla community members started to create a spiritual successor to Netscape Navigator. Codename "Phoenix," Firefox was built in 2002. Firefox's beta garnered praise for its speed, security, and add-ons—characteristics that would define its difference from Microsoft's then-dominant Internet Explorer 6.
On November 9, 2004, Mozilla Firefox officially launched. It saw 60-million downloads within nine months.
Image via 1000 Logos
The second browser war begins with Firefox (2004 - 2017)
Five years after launch, Firefox usage grew to a peak of over 32% of usage. Firefox version 3.5 overtook Internet Explorer 7 in usage 2009, marking the first time since Netscape Navigator that a browser outperformed Internet Explorer in usage.
At roughly the same time, Google released the Chrome browser to critical and consumer acclaim. The second browser war was truly underway.
“For the first time in years, energy and resources are being poured into browsers, the ubiquitous programs for accessing content on the Web. Credit for this trend – a boon to consumers – goes to two parties. The first is Google, whose big plans for the Chrome browser have shaken Microsoft out of its competitive torpor and forced the software giant to pay fresh attention to its own browser, Internet Explorer. Microsoft all but ceased efforts to enhance IE after it triumphed in the last browser war, sending Netscape to its doom. Now it's back in gear."
— Rich Jaroslovsky, Browser Wars: The Sequel
When Google entered the second browser war, Mozilla executives didn’t see Chrome as a threat. After all, Mozilla just signed a three-year contract with Google—how could they compete?
“Chrome is not aimed at competing with Firefox. Rather it's made for competing with Internet Explorer.”
— Mozilla Europe president, Tristan Nitot, in 2008
And Mozilla, as a non-profit group focused on public benefits, praised the choice and competition that came with the entry. It seemed like a win for the web no matter what happened.
“Mozilla and Google have always been different organizations, with different missions, reasons for existing, and ways of doing things. I think both organizations have done much over the last few years to improve and open the Web.”
— John Lilly, former CEO of Mozilla (via John’s Blog)
Firefox declares Google Chrome the winner of the second browser war
By 2012, Google Chrome was the most-used browser in the world.
Image via Chrome Won
Public opinion of Chrome went from underdog to ‘monopolistic spyware
’ as Google began to employ unfair practices similar to those that Microsoft used to win the first browser war.
New web standards proposed in-house by Google are implemented in Chrome first, creating performance disadvantages and compatibility issues with competing browsers. Some developers refused to test their websites on any other browser than Chrome as a result.
In early 2019, Johnathan Nightingale, a former General Manager and Vice President of the Firefox group at Mozilla, tweeted about all the “oops” that Google kept making at Firefox’s expense.
"Google Chrome ads started appearing next to Firefox search terms. Gmail & [Google] Docs started to experience selective performance issues and bugs on Firefox. Demo sites would falsely block Firefox as 'incompatible'.” — Johnathan Nightingale on April 12th, 2019, via Twitter
“Chrome now has the type of dominance that Internet Explorer once did, and we’re starting to see Google’s own apps diverge from supporting web standards much in the same way Microsoft did a decade and a half ago.” — Tom Warren, The Verge
Browser wars never change
Over the past fifteen years, Firefox managed to reignite the browser wars and set standards for how we access the web today.
Despite Chrome's dominant position at roughly 70% web browser usage, Firefox is still competitive. It is the second-most used desktop browser and third-most-popular web browser overall. In areas where Google can't utilize its advantages, like Cuba, Firefox boasts over 70% usage.
Unlike Netscape, Mozilla managed to weather the browser wars, and the Firefox brand still burns bright today. Chrome's meteoric rise disrupted Firefox's place in the browser hierarchy, but the not-for-profit's sights have shifted from Microsoft to Google with vengeful grace. At about the same time that Google dropped its unofficial "don't be evil" catchphrase, Firefox underlined its mission for the greater good with the tagline "for people, not profit." The company's past actions seem to support that message too.
“Mozilla’s mission is to keep the Web open and participatory — so, uniquely in this market, we’re a public-benefit, non-profit group (Mozilla Corporation is wholly owned by the Mozilla Foundation) with no other agenda or profit motive at all. We’ll continue to be that way, we’ll continue to develop our products & technology in an open, community-based, collaborative way.”
— John Lilly, former CEO of Mozilla (via John’s Blog), in 2008
Firefox’s journey over the past two decades shows how the business of the internet and how we use it has changed. It also showcases how history, like war, tends to repeat itself.
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