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Five Years of Firefox: A Retrospective

Hands up if you use Firefox. Have used it? Know about it? Heard of it?—Anybody left? ’Sites up and down the World Wide Web today will be celebrating five years of Firefox. When I sat down to write this I worried about having to list the history of its features and landmark events and the news of the past five years. Other sites will be comprehensively doing that, there is nothing I can add to that list that Google can’t surmise. Instead I will be telling you what Google does not know, my story of Firefox and what Firefox has meant to all of us.

Like all students, I was taught on Microsoft systems, using Microsoft software. It is taught because it requires the absolute bear minimum of understanding of the principles of what it is you are doing. Microsoft software is like an automatic transmission—you push the lever and it goes, and the teacher doesn’t have to explain why or how.

If you go to college to learn to be a builder you are not taught how to be a cowboy, yet if you want to learn web-design, you are.

Kroc Camen—“web cowboy

Climbing out of this pit of ignorance is not easy. One has to care about themselves as well as the quality of their code—this is a quality of personality. Some always see the end result as ‘good enough’, and this includes the developers making the development software too. So it is no surprise that I started out making websites using FrontPage. To get an idea of how ill advised Microsoft developers are with web-development, FrontPage actually used Java applets to do mouse over effects on buttons. I literally cannot wrap my mind around the kind of paid developer that naturally gravitates to Java for such a solution, rather than say—JavaScript, or heaven forbid CSS.

Due to my own will power and interest I began to learn HTML properly via and progressed to hand-writing IE-only websites laden with IE-only JavaScript. I had gotten as far as dumping FrontPage at least. But what one has to understand that in 2004 IE usage was over 95%. Everybody used IE, even if you knew what you were doing—because there was no choice. If you used an alternative browser you seemed like, frankly, a weirdo.

If you’re learning HTML now in 2009, instead of in 2004, then Firefox is an unavoidable part of the ’Web regardless of which development tool you are using but back then the Microsoft stack reached from top to bottom. As a student your entire computing experience was Microsoft designed. Your operating system was Windows, your browser IE, your office suite Microsoft Office. It’s like some closed-shell syndrome. You know only the Microsoft software and you purposefully stay ignorant of alternatives–even pirating MS software rather than using a free piece of open source software.

Firefox entered my world in 2004 as I was developing a website (that I was particularly proud of) for a friend. I was trying out a number of other browsers (most of which were just shells around IE anyway like CrazyBrowser which I’m amazed is still going) to better test my understanding of HTML / CSS and that’s where I came across Firefox just as it had moved to v0.9.

Firefox was the first open-source anything I had used that felt good. It had a distinct feeling to using the software which didn’t induce the usual feelings of either annoyance and rage (from awful U.I. design and experience) or the fact that it wasn’t made by Microsoft. It was more customisable than IE, a lot better at protecting against the usual spyware and virus threats and add-ons made everything better for the eclectic kind of power user.

(side note: as you no doubt remember, that even as a power user between 2000–2004, IE6 being the dominant browser, even us power users struggled against popups, spyware and viruses. Yes, being sensible is one thing, and I’m sure I’m going to hear stories of people who ‘never got any viruses’ but the fact remains that IE6 and Flash were the most insanely insecure software one used every day and many, many websites required them.)

Firefox was a triumph of design, more than it was of software prowess. The Mozilla Suite had existed for a long time and had never scraped much market share. As a power user I would have never considered using it because, ironically, it was too bloated, included more than I cared for and was just slow and unpleasant to look at and use. Let’s not forget that IE6 as a UI was not all that bad.

It quickly became my default browser and so has become a love affair ever since. Firefox was the first browser you could feel that you could participate in, you could contribute to its success. The (often copied) website gave a central place for people to share their experiences and ideas. We felt like a part of a group because we were a niche and passionate about the product. Here was something we could clearly see was better and people needed to know about this.

Firefox’s grass roots spread has been unequalled in the software world. Mozilla created a brand that people felt they could own. Were you on the New York Times ad? Do you remember eagerly watching the downloads counter ticking up to the first 10 million downloads? Then 25 million? 50 million? 100 million? I watched each event in great anticipation, with every landmark the ideas got whackier. Firefox had its detractors, those that would say that the download numbers were not representative of real people since one person could download several copies. Of course, this kind of reasoning only shows how brain dead geeks can be that we would question the numbers and not actually recognise what the numbers meant—that the Firefox name was spreading to regular people on the street. Through 2005–6 Firefox was featured in a number of magazines and on news channels as if it were some Internet meme that the mainstream didn’t get, but it filled the dead donkey slot (like All Your Base before it).

I learned how to code progressively better with HTML / CSS throughout these explosive years of growth as I was tracking Firefox closely through the websites I followed (and the arrival of RSS on the scene). Mozilla’s whole approach to the browser encouraged Doing It Right, vs. the Microsoft model of Do It Our Way®. Tools like Firebug blew everything else out of the water. In fact, Firefox has become one of the best web-development tools. Many developers test and debug in Firefox first. What a change since the days of writing in IE first and fixing for other browsers.

We watched as IE’s market share tumbled. The battle we had chosen we pushed at each day—talking to friends and family about Firefox, installing it on people’s computers, defending it on Internet forums. Collaboratively the world has overthrown a browser monopoly through education, through choice. Firefox has only briefly appeared on OEM Windows machines, it has largely never been shipped with computers. Mozilla proved beyond any doubt, beyond any criticism that people can and do choose their own browser even when they have to download it over the default browser (which doesn’t leave you alone without a fight). It really only demonstrates that the browser ballot from Microsoft has only one purpose and that is to get people to stick with IE through fear, uncertainty and doubt.

I switched to Mac by 2006 and Firefox was there too, to provide an easier transition. By now my involvement with Firefox and developing with it had also helped me learn more about the open source world and method of doing things than any book could have taught me. I had progressed beyond just using the product and began to understand the principles behind it. A lifetime of using Microsoft software will teach you nothing about principles; it will only teach you how to be dependant on Microsoft.

If there were no Firefox, I doubt I’d be who I am now. I literally mean that. I cannot possibly imagine how repulsive I would be if I were a big Windows zealot ragging on about how great Vista is, coding in .NET and writing websites in ASP .NET with awful, awful HTML / CSS, holding the world back with my defiant attitude about how good IE is, forcing Microsoft’s ideas of what is right on other people.

It was various bugs being fixed and new features going into the yet to be released Firefox 3.0 and the website of Sam Ruby that finally signalled the possibilities to me. Safari didn’t have the market share to make a website that only worked with it, that would alienate a lot of people, but for a tech crowd I knew I could do something very bold and make a website that simply did not support IE at all and a majority of people would have no problem accessing it, thanks to Firefox’s massive inroads. It was that day that IE ceased to be relevant to web-development to me.

Working tightly with Firefox, but ultimately making use of the wide CSS3 support in browsers that were not IE I really pushed myself and my design and programming abilities more than I had ever done before. IE was no longer a millstone around my neck that meant that I couldn’t do things in this or that way. For the first time in a long time, I actually enjoyed coding the site. I soared. In June 2008 I released Camen Design, a website that did not work in IE. The HTML5 has no DIVs, the CSS has no classes or IDs. I had come from a Microsoft-only, IE-only background and because of the subtle and parent-like guidance from Firefox I had climbed a mountain I couldn’t have even imagined before.

Would you think that Microsoft care about this kind of thing? Actually want me to make beautiful things in HTML? Does their behaviour communicate that? Microsoft sell tools and runtimes; beauty and elegance at no time is a factor in this. It has become a cultural rift between Microsoft and Mozilla. Mozilla are seeking ever new ways for regular folks to participate, to breath culture into software.

I think I am falling out of love with Firefox, though. Firefox blazed the trail because IE was so far behind and we had all become so fed up with IE. Firefox didn’t try to fix the Mozilla Suite, instead it was a skunkworks project to bring back some sanity to Mozilla after all the bickering and overriding geek control in the Mozilla Suite was hampering its ability to appeal to regular folks. Firefox succeeded because it had the balls to say balls to geeks, this is about all users.

I think Mozilla have simply slowed down on the U.I. front. What is sadder than the fact they will be generally copying the UI direction of Google Chrome with Firefox 3.7 and 4.0 is the fact that Google had to make their own browser because the Firefox project was so slow and resistive to the U.I. ideas in the first place (The lead designer on Google Chrome is Ben Goodger, previously the lead developer of Firefox at Mozilla). Google Chrome is the new Phoenix. It had to be made because Firefox could not be fixed as it was. The crap had to be cut, the ’Web browser had to go in a new direction and the Firefox ship was proving too difficult to steer in that direction.

I myself have been having more and more problems with Firefox as I run up against 9 year old bugs covering basic functionality that have still not been fixed. Priorities within Firefox seem to be about new features and not about making the current features reliable and solid, even when these features predate Firefox 1.0.

Google Chrome on OS X is significantly faster than Firefox and with a much simpler U.I. When it is released, I get the feeling that I’ll be jumping ship. Frankly, I’m angry. I expect more out of Firefox. Firefox has raised me in the ways of open source and standards-based web-development but I feel as if I have outgrown Firefox, as if I’m ready to leave the nest now. I couldn’t have gotten here without it, my entire life has changed because of this piece of software, but these next few steps are my own.

What does the future hold for Firefox? Mozilla have succeeded in creating their own competition and now they must compete. I can only fight for them if they provide me the tools to do so with HTML5 and CSS3 support. Because Mozilla are competing primarily for the public benefit, I don’t foresee a time where Firefox will be irrelevant to web-design. I just pray for a future where Firefox is not a millstone around my neck.

Thanks for everything Firefox and Mozilla. You have changed the world and the lives of many for better in such a short time. Eyes down, the race has just begun.