Staff Writer, CNET News.com
After 19 months of development, two name changes and more than 8 million downloads of its preview release, the Firefox browser is finally turning 1.0.
Firefox, a browser based on the Mozilla Foundation's open-source development work, was made available for free download at 1 a.m. PST Tuesday. (Just a few hours later, however, the site was not responding.)
If the download statistics from preview releases of Firefox are any indication, the open-source browser could be headed for a big debut.
"Our browser is moving into the mainstream," said Mitchell Baker, president of the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, based in Mountain View, Calif. "Being an alternative browser in today's market is a challenge, but people have begun to realize that the browser matters, that the browser you get with your computer can be a beginning point and not an endpoint."
The browser Mozilla released in the wee hours of Tuesday morning won't be significantly different from the preview releases that have launched in recent months. Mozilla changed its default start page to appeal to new users, but other changes are minor performance improvements and bug fixes.
But the release could nonetheless make a big impact if prerelease trends propel the open-source browser into serious contention with Microsoft's Internet Explorer.
While Web analysts have largely ignored the browser market since declaring IE the winner of the browser war, scattered Web site measurement statistics have suggested gains for Firefox and other minority browsers against the IE juggernaut.
IE continues to command more than 90 percent of the market, with Opera Software's namesake browser, Apple Computer's Safari software and other Mozilla-based browsers making up the difference. Firefox has set its sights on gaining 10 percent of the market by the end of 2005.
In addition to making apparent market inroads and shattering its own download goals, Firefox has succeeded in blazing an open-source fundraising trail that backers call unprecedented.
Mozilla owes part of its Firefox success to widespread security concerns about IE. While all the browsers have faced security bugs, IE's security reputation has suffered chronic damage amid a steady torrent of security bugs and spyware schemes targeting IE users.
The Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT), the computer threats division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, earlier this year issued an advisory urging Americans to consider ditching IE in favor of its competitors. Independent groups have launched their own campaigns urging Web surfers to consider IE alternatives.
Microsoft in August updated IE with significant security measures, but that update is available only to the approximately half of all Windows users running Windows XP.
Mozilla's bold moves
With the early successes of Firefox, the Mozilla Foundation has capitalized not only on the 19 months of work since the Firefox project launched (under the legally contested name Phoenix), but on the six years of Mozilla's tumultuous history.
Mozilla was the product of a bold—some said desperate—strategy by Netscape Communications to rescue its Netscape browser from oblivion at the hands of Microsoft's relentless marketing practices. Many of those practices were found to have violated federal law in the government's antitrust case against Microsoft.
In 1998, Netscape decided to do what grassroots programmers had long done but no major corporation had—release its software into open-source development. That meant anyone could freely see, use and contribute to the underlying code according to the terms of an open-source license.
Mozilla's initial results were long in coming and short on quality. Netscape's first products based on Mozilla's code were savaged as undercooked, and Mozilla's later releases, while more stable, were bypassed for being overweight.
While Mozilla struggled to turn out its browser, AOL acquired Netscape and merged with Time Warner. The merged company wound up laying off hundreds of its paid browser developers, settling its differences with Microsoft, and spinning off Mozilla as an independent foundation.
Unlike prior Mozilla releases, Firefox has won plaudits and some awards for being fast and lightweight while providing features, like tabbed browsing, that many Web surfers find indispensable once they've tried them.
The browser's small size earned it an investment by Nokia for development of "Minimo," a tiny browser for use with Web-ready cell phones.
Now Microsoft is paying close attention to Firefox's progress, even to the point of placing calls to reporters in advance of Tuesday's launch.
"We're seeing the natural ebb and flow of a competitive marketplace," said Gary Schare, Microsoft's director of product management for Windows, professing indifference in response to a question about Firefox's apparent market inroads. "Curious early adopters are trying it out, and frankly we're happy they're trying it out on Windows. We believe that IE is the best browser out there, but we're happy to have (Firefox users) on the Windows platform."
Schare said that Microsoft was taking some measures to promote IE add-ons, which let IE users enjoy features like tabbed browsing that are native to Firefox, Opera and Safari. On Friday, Microsoft launched a section of its Windows Marketplace for such add-ons.
Schare added that Microsoft was actively talking to its customers about what sorts of things they wanted to see in IE.
At the Mozilla Foundation, staffers haven't had to be quite so proactive about talking to their customers.
"We get a ton of mail from people who clearly are not technically savvy, telling us how great our browser is," said Mozilla Foundation's Baker. "And the other day I had someone at my gym get down on her knees and wave her arms at me when she found out the role I have at the Mozilla project."