The Story of Mozilla Firefox

When all else is lost, the future still remains

The above quote perfectly summarizes the situation which led to birth of the most popular web browser. Today, lets find out the untold story of how a giant tried to suppress an upcoming force but eventually got it’s fingers burnt due to retaliation from the re-incarnated form of the same force. Anybody who has ever used an Internet browser will find this narration interesting 🙂

During the early 1990s when the internet began to proliferate into mainstream, US Govt funded the development of a graphic interface browser called “Mosaic” in 1993 which was in experimental phase and triggered the internet revolution. However, being an experimental browser, it had its own flaws and was not intended for the masses.

One of the programmers who had worked for the Mosaic project was Marc Andreessen. Being an young programmer with entrepreneurial spirit, he quickly realized the potential of the internet and co-founded a company called “Netscape” to develop the “Netscape Communicator” browser which took the internet world by storm.

Netscape offered the browser software on floppy disks at an affordable price and in a matter of days, millions of copies were sold. Within months, the company went public and almost all of the employees become millionaires due to stock options. Along with it’s bundled services, Netscape had branded itself as the de-facto standard for internet  and there was no stopping. Analysts began to predict Netscape as the next Microsoft of the technology industry.

Journalists would spend hours to get an appointment with these busy tech wizards to just to interview them for a few minutes. TIME magazine featured Marc Andreessenon on its Feb 1996 cover page.

netscape_golden_geeksThis apparently didn’t go down well with Bill Gates. Gates was always optimistic about the potential of internet from early 90s but due to his intense focus on delivering windows 95, he missed the bus and Netscape had already taken the crown. But Bill was not the kind of person to accept defeat. After monopolizing the OS segment, he wanted to monopolize the internet as well.

Gates wanted to ruthlessly take on Netscape & began his new project to “Kill” it. Sentiments were high and there is even evidence of his internal mail asking his employees to gear up for the “jihad” against Netscape.

Gates selected some of his best engineers and formed the “Internet Explorer” (IE) team. After slogging for monnths, the team managed to do a complete reverse engineering of Netscape Navigator (they even reverse engineered JavaScript and called it JScript) and got the browser ready for launch in August 1995.

After IE was ready, Gates bundled it with Windows and made it the default browser, effectively pushing Netscape downhill because it made no sense for people to buy any other browser when they could get one for free packaged within the OS itself. Further, Gates was so adamant on making IE as the default browser on every platform. The 1997 Microsoft deal forced Apple also to make IE as the default browser on the Macintosh platform.


Steve Jobs announcing “IE as default browser for Mac” as part of the 1997 Microsoft Deal

In order to bring more awareness, Microsoft marketed the browser (and the concept of internet in general) through TV ads with catchy tunes like this:

Finally, Microsoft had captured the casual home users (Most of them thought IE was the only way to browse the net and those who were aware of Netscape were now happy that they dont need to buy a browser now), and Mac users. But there were professionals in organizations who still preferred Netscape due to its robustness and features. So the next thing Bill did was to use his muscle power to twist their arms. He forced all the organizations into coming to an agreement which said that if they uninstalled IE and used Netscape as default browser, then Microsoft would revoke their windows licenses!! In order to stop Netscape from collaborating with other tech companies, Gates launched a “Predatory Campaign” threatening to pull out of any company which worked closely with Netscape.

The US Govt had been keeping a watch on all monopolistic activities of Microsoft since 1991 and a spur of these activities triggered them to file an antitrust suit against Microsoft. Gates was totally defenseless because all the facts were out there showing him in bad light. During his deposition testimony, Gates underwent nervous breakdowns & emotional trauma.

bill_gates_antitrust_caseA short video excerpt of the deposition related to a question on Netscape:

But it was too late for Netscape to revive because the extensive damage was already done. As Microsoft gained foothold due to it’s shrewd tactics, Netscape lost it’s market-share gradually. In less than a decade, Netscape browser had turned from an emperor to a pauper while the reverse was true for Microsoft Internet Explorer.

The Netscape brand was eventually acquired by AoL and in 2003, MS had to pay $750 million to settle the Netscape antitrust suit.

Netscape had lost it’s employees, market-share & customers. But they still had the codebase for their wonderful browser. So they decided to open up the code to open source community through Mozilla Foundation.

This code underwent lot of changes over the years (Initial versions were called Phoenix/Firebird), leading to Mozilla browser suite, which later was modified and launched as “Mozilla Firefox”.


Those who are interested to know more about the last min preparation of the development process & opening up of source code can watch the documentary titled “Project Code Rush” available in YouTube:

The source code was officially opened up in the last week of March 1998. Today, the Mozilla Firefox browser in this avatar is exactly 16 years old. So, the Firefox browser most of us have been using these days is actually a descendant of Netscape Navigator.

Isn’t it similar to the bollywood movies where we see a villain kills a woman & the woman’s son later grows up to be the hero and finally defeats the villain. Here, Microsoft IE killed Netscape. Netscape’s child grows up to become Firefox, gradually capturing market-share and finally defeats IE.. 🙂