The Inside Track on Firefox Development.

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February 6, 2006

Where Did Firefox Come From?

The story of Mozilla is long and rich in detail. There are many perspectives. This is mine.

Getting Involved

I got involved with Mozilla because I loved the idea of working on something that had the potential to make an impact on millions of people. My friends and I lived in our browsers, so there was also a tangible payoff for contributions that made it into a shipping Netscape release. After switching gears on the layout engine, it looked like Netscape needed all the help it could get. In early 1999 only the most basic elements of the old Communicator suite were in place in the new browser; you could barely browse or read mail as Netscape's engineers worked furiously to erect the framework of the application.

I thought about what I could offer. It was difficult — through my website I had taught myself JavaScript and HTML, but I did not know C++. Perhaps more importantly my AMD K6/166 was not really capable of compiling a codebase as large as Mozilla (even when it could almost fit on a floppy!). What I did notice though was that the user interface was being developed using something similar to HTML and JavaScript. Realizing that my fussiness and attention to detail could be useful, I began working on improving the UI. I became involved both polishing the developing browser front end and in the design of the XUL toolkit that rendered it. After a few months I was offered a job on the Browser team.

It was mid January, 2000, and I stood in the dimly lit international arrival lounge at SFO waiting for my ride. After a few moments a smiling man with a burst of reddish hair approached. It was gramps, and I had arrived.

An Awkward Alliance

The relationship between Netscape and the Mozilla open source project was uneasy. Mozilla wanted an independent identity, to be known as the community hub in which contributors could make investments of code and trust, while companies like Netscape productized the output. Netscape was not satisfied to let Mozilla turn the crank however; building and shipping a product with as many constraints as the Netscape browser was — and remains — a mighty challenge. Netscape was convinced it was the only one that knew what needed to be done. At the time, I think it was true.

While there were many community volunteers, there were more missing essential features than were present. There were more unfixed critical bugs than fixed. The only organization that had a strategy to drive the ominously lengthy bug lists to zero was Netscape.

Netscape's Communication Problem

Netscape made two mistakes. They did not publish enough product management information to enable the community to help them achieve their goals. They did not even consistently communicate what these goals were. The cohabitation of engineers and PMs did not contribute to open dissemination of information as it was easier to communicate with your immediate team than those on the outside. Without understanding the importance of publicly available documentation to effective community development, the extra steps to publish the results of internal discussions were not always taken.

The other mistake was not having a clear vision for product development. For the folks working in Client Product Development (CPD — the browser/mail software division at Netscape), the idea was to rebuild and improve upon the Communicator suite using the newly selected layout engine. The goal was to make a better browser and mail reader.[1]

Netcenter's Agenda

More importantly however, Netscape had to make money to survive. Across campus, the Netcenter division management had browser ideas of its own. Once the most popular site on the web, Netcenter's fortunes were waning as users switched to other portals like Yahoo and MSN. Netscape had to replace revenue from declining traffic and it looked at what it could do to differentiate itself. The one thing Netcenter had was close affiliation with a browser. Netcenter sought to monetize the browser in two ways: by linking the browser very closely to the portal itself in design and content and by linking the browser to features supplied by business deals.

Netcenter passed various requirements on to CPD. Over time these included things like a browser “theme” that was supposed to merge seamlessly into a particular iteration of the Netcenter web site. Users could be forgiven for thinking, when using the freshly themed browser, that their monitor was broken. Adding to the injury was an overload of links in the browser UI to Netcenter and partner properties, and a large eye-catching but mostly useless sidebar panel with additional partner content vying with web content for the user's attention.

Eventually, forced Netscape to push most of its business specific functionality into its own private branding cvs server, where features like Netscape Instant Messenger were also developed. The controversial “Modern” theme, panned in the Netscape 6 Preview Release 1, was eventually removed and replaced by a more stylish but similarly non-native theme.

Mozilla's UI Dysfunction

Since most of the user interface design for the Netscape products was done by Netscape staff working to Netcenter requirements, the Mozilla user interface suffered. Instead of being a clean core upon which Netscape could build a product to suit its needs, the Mozilla suite never felt quite right; it was replete with awkward UI constructs that existed only to be filled in by overlays in the Netscape's private source repository — the “commercial tree.”

Compounding this dysfunction, at the time the project was being developed by over a hundred engineers in different, sometimes poorly connected departments within CPD. Netscape had grown rapidly in previous years, and with an uneven hiring bar engineers with abilities that would suggest they needed more assistance from others had far too much autonomy in feature design and implementation. User experience assistance was sparse, and as a result the application quickly bloated.

Fighting For Change

Engineers in the Browser and Toolkit groups were not happy with the way things were going. For my part, I began working on what would become known as the “Classic theme” — a visual appearance that respected the system configuration and would later form the foundation of what would be Firefox's theme. Since I had little graphic design talent I used icons from Netscape 4. This became the default theme for Mozilla distributed releases, Netscape ultimately choosing to use its “New Modern” theme for Netscape 6. Several of us argued strenuously against this decision but were unsuccessful. In the eyes of reviewers, the alien appearance of Netscape 6 would be the straw that broke the camel's back., an early pop-culture review, wrote an article decrying the themed interface, using Netscape 6 as its prime example of the failure of theming.

Despite the failure of Netscape 6, engineers were still enthusiastic about continuing development. Now that Netscape could include its partner customizations[2] — engineers called them “whore bars” — in its commercial tree, the engineering teams focused on improving the Open Source releases instead, hoping Mozilla would be the suite they had dreamt of building. Netscape branded products were largely ignored.

Many contributors, myself included, pushed for further improvements to the user interface. We got extensive pushback from people within the company. On more than one occasion I tried to flex my muscle as “user interface module owner” (Mozilla parlance, then a something of a novelty — Mozilla had granted me this role in an attempt to show autonomy in project development after the disaster that was the original Modern theme). It did not go well. Weak management stressed the importance of seniority over logic when it came to feature design. I was told I could not expect to use Open Source tricks against folk who were employed by the Company (all hail!). I held true to my beliefs and refused to review low quality patches. I was almost fired. Others weren't so lucky. It became a source of great frustration and disillusionment for me. I lost motivation. I realized Netscape's Byzantine stranglehold permeated the design of the Mozilla product still, and that now as a Netscape employee I was expected to use my “module ownership” to support its whims. I was to be a puppet.

I disengaged. I no longer treated every patch I thought was low quality as a battle to be fought and won at all costs. Netscape and Mozilla continued to ship releases. The application improved in terms of stability and performance, but the user interface remained baroque.

New Beginnings

One night in mid 2001 I went to Denny's late at night with David Hyatt. Dave is the sort of person with an enthusiasm that is magnetic. You cannot help but become caught up in the excitement of the ideas generated during a discussion with him. We discussed the rot within Mozilla, which we blamed on Netscape and Mozilla's inability to assert independence. He suggested it'd be perhaps preferable to start again on the user interface � much of the code in the front end was so bloated and bad that it was better off starting from a fresh perspective. We talked about using C# and .NET, and Manticore was born. As is often the case with ideas and prototypes, the fun quickly deteriorates into tedium as the magnitude of the task becomes clearer. A couple of weeks after it was begun, Manticore died. Dave tried again though, first with Camino, and finally with Firefox.

These browser efforts were reactions to the rot we had seen in the Mozilla application suite. As Netscape began to lose favor within AOL, Netcenter's grip on CPD loosened, and the strength of the community grew. However even after Netscape cleaned up a lot of its engineering operations the UI did not improve. Rapid improvement to the user interface was now restrained by the same processes established to preserve code quality when weak engineers had free reign to check in.

There was no organized vision for the browser UI, and the ability to make changes was too widely distributed: anyone could make any change or addition to the UI as long as they had two other reviews. There was no clear plan for improving the resulting clutter. There was no vision.

Firefox was different. After 0.6 I laid out a plan for reaching 1.0. After a few cuts and sanity checks, a year and a half of engineering work by a motivated core of engineers on the front end and the continuing development of Gecko beneath, Firefox 1.0 shipped.

During this time Mozilla finally gained the independence it had long sought, establishing a non-profit foundation on the same day many of the remaining client engineers at Netscape were laid off in a mass termination that can only be described as a bloodbath.

There was and remains much resentment towards Firefox and its development model. At its creation, there was much shouting about how the many were not always smarter than the few, the merits of small development teams with strong centralized direction, the need to adhere strictly to Mozilla's module ownership policy[3]. In practice, these statements resulted in effectively locking everyone but the Firefox team out of the Firefox source code. We railed against the inefficiencies of past UIs. We were unnecessarily harsh, and polarized opinions. We had been badly wounded by the Netscape experience and the disorganization that had followed. I don't think a lot of people understood that. It wasn't something we could easily communicate.

To many, it looked like we were breaking ranks. We were claiming their work had no value. It was said that what we were doing went against the principles of community development. That wasn't true — as most open source projects are centrally managed by a small few. Many have well defined release plans and maintain tight control over what contributions make it in. We had hurt our case though by being so dogmatic up front. We did not do a good job of PR.


We were determined, and we brought the product through to a 1.0 release. It was a long, difficult, all consuming road. I may eventually write more about it. But for now I'll just say that despite the rocky start, and the criticisms faced along the way, the model worked. It worked better than it ever had before for Mozilla or Netscape. Firefox 1.0 shipped to over a million downloads on the first day alone, 10 million downloads in ten days, and over a hundred million downloads before it was replaced by Firefox 1.5 just over a year later.

Today Firefox is one of the brightest stars in upcoming tech brands. It was voted by BrandChannel readers as the number 7 global brand across all segments — ahead of eBay and Sony. It is the first browser to stem the decline of market share against Internet Explorer and has reclaimed a healthy 10-25% share depending on country. It is still growing. Firefox's mail counterpart, Thunderbird, is a successful and comprehensively featured mail application. The dream that team of engineers had back in the darkest days of Netscape 6 product hell had been delivered at last.

Here & Now

I am writing this because I want to provide a historical perspective on where we are today with Firefox. A lot has been told about the development of the Firefox browser since Firefox 1.0. The reality is that the story is bigger than just Firefox 1.0. It goes back years, spans continents, and includes a cast of thousands. It's a fantastic story, with all of your standard themes — greed, rage, turmoil, love lost. But mostly it's a story of dedicated people laboring to create something they truly believe in. That's something I think everyone should be able to relate to - no matter what their walk of life. That's why Mozilla is so powerful and extends well beyond just Firefox.

For me, the story included the realization that I had never believed in something this much before, and discovering how easily and arbitrarily your dreams could be snatched away. Ultimately though I realized that with some patience and good old-fashioned hard work, anything is possible.

Over the years, Mozilla finally gained the ability to be that crossroads where people could come together and share their thoughts on the internet and where it is going. Different people have different ideas, and these are borne out in the different projects that exist: Camino, SeaMonkey, Thunderbird, Sunbird, Chatzilla, Bugzilla and so on. These projects create the ecosystem that is Mozilla. While related projects may not always agree on approach, the work that is done is inevitably beneficial — one project feeding off the ideas of another, and vice versa. Whatever project scratches the itch of any particular person, having their contributions and ideas around is beneficial for all projects. Generic tools to support many instances provide a backbone to support today's demands and tomorrow's as well.

Firefox is so successful today that it is gaining attention from many quarters. Many new contributors are finding the project and new ways to help out. This sort of thing is essential to keep the project vibrant and maintain the flow of innovation. It is important that those of us who've been round the block a few times share what came before, what did and did not work. The struggles that were fought, the price that was paid. This project has not been successful by accident. Its success represents the sum total of the energy expended by thousands people around the world for more than half a decade.

No contributor, no matter how new they are or what their motivation should let the story of Mozilla stray too far from their mind.

February 4, 2006.


  1. Some people claimed building a browser and a mail client at the same time was muddying the waters. I don't think the two are necessarily mutually exclusive however, and many of the needs of one helped influence improvements which benefited he other.
  2. How to Monetize your browser”, “The IE Advantage
  3. Module Owners
  4. Moving Target

Posted by ben at February 6, 2006 10:19 AM


Great article, very interesting insight. I want to translate it into spanish but, due to your copyright notice I would need your permission. Do I have it? Please e-mail me with the answer.

Thanks in advance.

Posted by: Mat�as at February 6, 2006 11:12 AM

Excellent story. It sounds like the management could have used a copy of Karl's book, Producing Open Source Software. From what you wrote, it sounds like they did just about everything wrong.


PS I'm glad you survived it!

Posted by: fitz at February 6, 2006 11:20 AM

Anyone who wants to translate this into another language is free to do so.

Posted by: Ben Goodger at February 6, 2006 11:20 AM

Actually made me nostalgic about the "good" old days - however they were indeed much more painful. I remember all the UI fights in the bugs, ownership issues, Netscape vs anti-Netscape wars and the horrible M18-theme. :)

It's fantastic how much Firefox/Mozilla has progressed these last years, and it's so great to see it really succeed in non-geeky circumstances. I find new people every day using Thunderbird/Firefox - people who do not know what open source is, and who do not use Mozilla for ideologic reasons - as it once (more or less) were.

It's also extremely important how Mozilla has made the web standardized. Not everyone might remember how much ad-hoc there was around the HTML extensions and standards support a few years back. Mozilla was a main reason for making the W3C standards firm and not just a bunch of documents from utopia.


Posted by: H�kan at February 6, 2006 11:51 AM

Excellent article, I enjoyed it very much. I agree with what the core Firefox team did. Small teams are more effective when dealing with crucial tasks.
Firefox sets the bar for open source success, and it's only gaining momentum. You guys created something amazing, and the world thanks you. Exceptional job.

Posted by: Villa at February 6, 2006 11:55 AM

How can this article not have one mention of Blake Ross? From a long time firefox follower I could never tell if Blake lost interest or if Ben just took over control.

Posted by: Richster at February 6, 2006 12:10 PM

That was a nice read. :)

For me the "old days" were spent worrying whether Fx0.8/9/10 were _really_ going to get rid of the view source/DOMi/JSconsole. Looking back it seems kinda funny.

Posted by: ant at February 6, 2006 12:14 PM

Great story, what really caught my eye was; "They did not publish enough product management information to enable the community to help them achieve their goals. They did not even consistently communicate what these goals were. The cohabitation of engineers and PMs did not contribute to open dissemination of information as it was easier to communicate with your immediate team than those on the outside. Without understanding the importance of publicly available documentation to effective community development, the extra steps to publish the results of internal discussions were not always taken."

Co-location does not guarantee communication, but many people still assume that, even today... I see job postings for project managers in software development where the main qualifications are software development skills. One can have the very best technical people and fail if the program / project is not managed well. It sounds like this was the case at Netscape.

Application of the proper project management methods, tools and techniques could have largely mitigated this problem and helped to build a community. PM is a discipline which applied properly can make a significant difference.

Again, great article, thanks for sharing your experience.

Posted by: Steven Wolff at February 6, 2006 12:32 PM

Great article, never really knew the history of firefox and how it came about. :-)

Posted by: RiVa at February 6, 2006 12:47 PM

That's about what I remember happening. Being as I was really young and unexperienced (Netscape was my first real tech job) I didn't realize what was going on. If I would have, I would have done a hell of a lot more work on phoenix/firebird/firefox for ya'll, instead of being a complete slacker.

On a side note, I miss ya man. I haven't seen or heard from you guys in a long, long time. I've been tempted to drop into IRC and see if anyone's still around, but then realized that it's a part of my life that was pretty dark, and I should just move beyond it.

BTW, who ended up buying your M3?

Posted by: Antitux at February 6, 2006 12:53 PM

Very interesting read, really gives insight into multiple aspects of Firefox's development that I don't think we would otherwise ever hear about.

- Mike D

Posted by: LoganAvatar at February 6, 2006 1:13 PM

Maybe one day they'll look into the vast memory swamping that Firefox does. Its not like people don't know about it, and nothing *seems* to have been done.

If I open a few tabs and visit a few sites my Firefox.exe shows over 136MB in use. Thats one hell of a chunk taken by a 'small footprint' browser.

Posted by: DMZ at February 6, 2006 1:26 PM

Fascinating stuff.

I had the privilege of finding out from people like Eric Hahn, Frank Hecker and Jamie Zawinski the Mozilla story up to April 1999; I've often wondered what exactly happened afterwards. Now you've told us.


Posted by: Glyn Moody at February 6, 2006 1:36 PM

FireFox is popular enough that Microsoft offers a method to validate Windows downloads by means of a FireFox plugin. I think that says something.

Posted by: Anonymous at February 6, 2006 1:40 PM

Thanks for this - your perspective is a little different to mine, but the themes are clear enough.

I avoided contributing to Phoenix/Firebird/Firefox and stuck with Mozilla/Seamonkey, as did many other contributors. This post (for me) finally clarified why you guys (Firefox guys) were so harsh. Thanks for clearing that up.

And I can totally relate to the "fixes being thwarted by process" thing too - there's a lot of crap down there, many horrific bugs that I know about that are very difficult to fix for process rather than technical reasons. Now I'm at MS, I don't have the opportunity to fix them, either.

I was running Mozilla since M16-M17 as my primary web browser. To this day I can't believe that Netscape shipped Netscape 6 on M18 given the bugs at that time; it did so much to undermine Mozilla. For me, the realisation that it finally came together was at College when Mozilla 1.1 was installed on our Solaris machines and people started to use it (and for the most part, it was stable.)

Also - I'm forever in your debt for the classic theme - the M18 modern was horrible. I could have even tolerated the M17 modern theme, but M18 showed a real lack of UI experience.

Posted by: Malx at February 6, 2006 2:06 PM

I remember the really early phoenix builds as being a breath of fresh air that might just work. I contributed to the forums that Dave et al read and helped point out the great features that IE had which Phoenix also needed to compete (ctrl-enter, alt-d and similar keycodes spring to mind). It was clear this immediate feedback cycle was incredibly productive. Firefox did seem to loose its way a little as Dave left for dryer pastures, but the team got there in the end.

Posted by: RichB at February 6, 2006 2:09 PM

I'm not really a fan of the Firefox UI. It was a definite step back from the Mozilla suite in a number of areas- alt-tab is much less convenient to press than ctrl-tab when you want to open new tabs, the search bar eats up valuable screen space, for some strange reason Firefox users select "options" from "tools" rather than just "edit" "preferences, the modern theme looks much nicer than the "IE wannabe" theme... the list just goes on. If I could have all of the latest updates that firefox has under the hood in the Mozilla suite, I'd never use Firefox again. The interface just isn't that convenient.

Posted by: Mark at February 6, 2006 2:19 PM

Mark - sounds like you should have a look at SeaMonkey.

I disagree with basically every statement there, but i guess we all have different taste and priorities.

The "IE wannabe" theme is there for a reason. It's to blend in with the OS (which, actually, is a good thing) and to make ex-IE users feel at home.

The search bar may seem unnecessary to you, but to someone less "computer literate", as it where, the search bar is absolutely necessary if they are to ever find out about the search funcion at all. You know that you can make the location bar of Firefox default to a normal Google search if you like? When you've done so, just remove the search bar, and voila!

Tools - Options is the MS standard. I agree that Options aren't really tools, but hey, no need to make things more difficult for beginners than necessary.

Posted by: David Naylor at February 6, 2006 2:59 PM

Thanks to Ben, Dave and everyone else involved - your hard work has made a huge difference in the internet world.

Posted by: Andrew Ebbatson at February 6, 2006 3:19 PM

Thanks for posting this, Ben. It's cool to see an overview from someone who was in on it all.

IMO it would be great if there were a site for Firefox anecdotes, like the Mac folklore pages. You, Hyatt, Hixie, Ross, and others must have some good stories to tell.

Posted by: �Q� at February 6, 2006 3:26 PM

It's amazing that despite so many workers Mozilla and Firefox are such mediocre, badly designed apps. Compare the sleek Opera, which has preceded Mozilla in every new and useful feature (popup blocking, tabs) and a few which Firefox doesn't have even now (mouse gestures).

Small, tight, smart teams work much better than large, distributed and mediocre teams. The proof is in how bloated, badly-integrated and incoherent Firefox is.

Posted by: Rolf at February 6, 2006 4:22 PM

why does every single post someone makes about firefox have to have opera fanboys jumping in?

opera that only recently realised that its business model was untenable? the browser that i can't run on 90% of the boxes i own because its binary only? the same browser that for years kept itself bug-compatible with internet explorer instead of standards-compliant?

I'm very glad firefox wasn't developed like opera was.

Posted by: tehmoth at February 6, 2006 5:21 PM

Rolf isn't a fanboy, he's just a troll. Ignore him.

Posted by: Anonymous at February 6, 2006 5:36 PM

Hi Rolf,
For the most part, you decry Firefox/Mozilla as mediocre, bedly designed, bloated, incoherent, and badly integrated. Wow, that's lots of negativity. It's a shame you feel that way, because I find Firefox nicely designed, high quality, simple and focused application that is easily extendable to what I want from a browser.

You say that Firefox doesn't have mouse gestures? You've obviously never tried to install an extension to Firefox. That's where it's power really lies. Firefox gives the basic browser and functionality, and then you customise it to your liking, even to installing mouse gestures if you want.

I've never used Opera, and it sounds quite good from what I've heard, but I've found the browser that does everything I need, and it is Firefox.

Posted by: Dave at February 6, 2006 6:09 PM

The geek/idiot attitude of "it's there, just look for extension XYZ" is one of the major reasons why I think Firefox sucks. Every time the main app updates the plugins break.

Opera includes a sensible set of features right out of the box, and there's little need to add a bunch of extra programs to get basic functionality.

Opera provides a WELL-INTEGRATED browsing experience. Firefox, by its nature, has a bunch of slapped-on features. And simple doesn't mean easy to use. Every time the Firefox developers try to make the app more "user-friendly" they create something like the utter mess that is the current 1.5 Preferences dialog.

Go look in the Firefox forums and you'll find them LITTERED with questions and complaints about the stupid profile system. Do you know it's possible to delete all your files if you set your profile to a top drive level and then delete it? YOU COULD LOSE THE CONTENTS OF YOUR HARD DRIVE WITH FIREFOX'S PROFILE "DESIGN"!!!

If Firefox is merely Opera of 6-18 months ago (except with a klunky, awkward, slow interface), why not just go to the source and use Opera? Opera is adding Bittorrent support...I bet within 12 months the Mozilla monkeys will add a similar feature.

Posted by: Rolf at February 6, 2006 6:55 PM

One thing I forgot to add is, the ONLY way Mozilla can get people to use Firefox is if they give it away. Nobody would pay money for that garbage!!!

Posted by: Rolf at February 6, 2006 6:56 PM

muy buen articulo, firefox y toda la familia mozilla son una gran ayuda a que el mundo conozca las ventajas del software libre

Felicitaciones y sigan entregandonos tan buenos productos como hasta ahora

Posted by: rodrigo at February 6, 2006 7:29 PM

Very interesting read, I'm glad you wrote it without getting too technical and it's more like a great management essay about clash of organization culture and leadership. Thanks for sharing this.

Posted by: Son Nguyen at February 6, 2006 7:45 PM

I use firefox as my primary browser every day and absolutely love it.
I have just one question... when are we finally going to see the seperate release of the GRE? ;) This really sucks in a lot of distributions lately, having either mozilla or firefox being pulled in as a dependency, when you're using the other, even when you just need it for some browsing widget...

Posted by: Chipzz at February 6, 2006 8:18 PM

Very interesting article, thanks for letting us know the process :)

Posted by: SpyMy at February 6, 2006 8:54 PM

What happened to my last comment?

Posted by: Blake Ross at February 6, 2006 9:12 PM

I enjoyed this essay on why software engineering doesn't have to be as dispassionate as many people think. I got involved with Mozilla for many of the same reasons you did.

I'm still not sure why you felt the need to leave me (and Joe, and Asa, etc., not to mention all of the original Mozilla contributors) out of it. In quoting Dave's posts, you seem to have omitted this one, which states:

"I still think the m/b effort to produce only a browser is the best hope for Mozilla's future, a future in which the individual apps are disentangled from being in the same process, in the same bloated suite. m/b is scaled back with a streamlined UI. I suspect Blake started it after going through some of the same emotions that led me to work on Chimera."

In this context, "m/b" stands of course for "mozilla/browser".
In any case, good luck at Google and beyond.

Posted by: Blake Ross at February 6, 2006 9:22 PM


I think I speak for all of my customers these days when I say thanks for the Firefox and Mozilla Suite.

Though I'm pretty partial to FF/TB... The Mozilla Suite has suited many of my customers quite well in leiu of Firefox...

Oh yeah, as for Opera, I used it for two minutes, until it started to annoy me.

Posted by: Matt Blecha at February 6, 2006 10:17 PM

I'd like to clarify something here, because my above comment may not come across correctly.

Your essay seems focused on the factors that led to the forking of an independent browser. My comment above concerns that particular piece of the story, which in my opinion is an important one, since it's unclear where Mozilla would be today without it.

Everyone involved in Mozilla knows there is *far* more to the story. The largest, most complex and most important parts of Mozilla were written by architects like David Baron, Mike Shaver, Brendan Eich, Boris Zbarsky, Johnny Stenback and a host of Netscape old-timers I never even had the pleasure to meet. It is an abomination that these people rarely receive the credit they deserve. And while there are those who will judge based on the press alone, I have never neglected to frame the Firefox story in its proper context in my accounts. I believe they deserve a mention here, too.

Posted by: Blake Ross at February 6, 2006 10:18 PM

The article makes no mention of the fact that FF is a Netscape re-written to work like Opera. Take Opera innovations out of Firefox and it is not worth anything. I still can not use FF without installing extensions that mimic Opera's feature and after I have around 10 extensions, FF becomes bloatware.

Posted by: An at February 6, 2006 10:42 PM

As a sometimes rabid (currently running 30 extensions) fan since Phoenix, I'd like to say thank you to you (and all the other contributors), and thanks for putting up with all the peanut gallery feedback over the years, including mine.

Congratulations for being part of changing the world, and keeping the web open. And thanks for telling your version of your story.

Now if you could work on getting your employer to be a little less evil ...

Posted by: Tim at February 6, 2006 11:26 PM

Blake - maybe you missed the fact that this is just his perspective, or the "cast of thousands" in your rush to claim credit for youself on seeing a history of Firefox that didn't have your name plastered all over it. And then, an hour later, "defend" the contributions of the legions of others you forgot to name in your initial mad dash. Funny how faux humility works!

Posted by: Tim Dalton at February 6, 2006 11:47 PM

Hi Tim,

From my initial post: "not to mention all of the original Mozilla contributors".

The follow-up post was intended to correct the very misperception you seem to have walked away with.

To each his own, I guess.

Posted by: Blake Ross at February 7, 2006 12:10 AM

Wow!!! I always wondered why it took Mozilla 7 years to come up with a decent browser, despite having so many resources available ($$$ from AOL, many developers and beta testers).

Now I know why the tiny Norwegian Opera ASA managed to out-innovate the Mozilla boys at every turn. It's like Linus Torvalds with Linux, you need a place where the buck stops, and a smart eye for design at the very top rather than among the actual programmers implementing the program.

Congratulations to the Firefox team for finally getting a decent stand-alone browser out the door, and utter kudos to the Opera team for coming up with the ideas that the Mozilla project copies without any attribution every 6 months!

Posted by: Patrick at February 7, 2006 12:20 AM

All I can say is: WOW!!!!...

What a great story...

When I first got online with AOL back in the early 90's I had heard about Netscape and downloaded it...

It was my main browser for years until Firefox...

Firefox is something to be proud of for all that have worked on it... I will continue to use it even if there are never any updates...

Creat Article & Great Job on a Great Piece of Software guys...

Thank you for letting me use your Creation..


Posted by: Keith L. Dick at February 7, 2006 12:28 AM

So what's your contribution to over a hundred million users worldwide, Patrick?

Posted by: Kroc Camen at February 7, 2006 12:57 AM

Where would we be without firefox? The browser that came and changed the way we think and work. From a web programmers point of view it has rediced my workload massivly. Finally someone is putting the pressure on IE to conform to standards so we dont have to write huge amounts of cross browser javascript anymore...

Posted by: jason rowe at February 7, 2006 1:02 AM

Wow, this is a reminder to all those who take great and freely available software for granted. Kudos to all those who stuck through when the going was tough. The Mozilla Foundation's success is a testimony to these dedicated few.

Posted by: Alan at February 7, 2006 1:45 AM

I dont understand how you even thought about making a "C# and .Net" browser. Mozilla was always neutral to platforms and choosing an inmature, microsoft only platform to build a new browser seems really awkward.

Posted by: mdakin at February 7, 2006 1:45 AM

firefox rocks!!!
thanx to you all..

Posted by: selvin at February 7, 2006 2:45 AM

This post should be retitled "Ben Goodger Re-Writes Firefox History with Self as Hero".

What I find strange about this history is the gap between Manticore and Firefox 0.6. A pretty significant period, no? Perhaps you didn't write about it because you weren't actually involved with founding of the project.

An enjoyable read despite the obvious self-promotion.

Posted by: Bob Tillman at February 7, 2006 3:55 AM

Great article Ben very interesting read.

As for the comments from rolf, an & Patrick that is none other than the pathetic Opera obsessed troll Andrew K just ignore his posts he is a very sad & deluded individual.

Posted by: Jake Evens at February 7, 2006 5:27 AM


Nice story.

FOSS projects should learn something from Mozilla-Firefox, how a product can be elegent!

And I can not use binary-only browser on my Debian box!

Posted by: Kartik Mistry at February 7, 2006 5:45 AM

Great stuff, thanks for spreading the love ;)

[Geeks Are Sexy] Tech. News

Posted by: Geeks Are Sexy at February 7, 2006 6:01 AM

Hi ! Fine article.

Just the other day, I was preparing for a (university micro-project) presentation about incompatibilities between browsers (at the rendering level), promoting Firefox and Opera of course.

During my brief research I realized again how dim and foggy the time of the shift from Netscape to Mozilla / Firefox still was for me. This article helped dispel that fog a bit.

Thank you.

Posted by: David Holmes at February 7, 2006 6:41 AM

Ouch, my eyes!

It's been a long time since I've seen those old themes. Thanks for bringing back some painful memories.

Posted by: dean at February 7, 2006 6:42 AM

Interesting post...any plans to post on the future of Firefox?

Posted by: Mukunth at February 7, 2006 6:56 AM

Great story Ben!

I really like to be able to keep track of how the web evolves. As an early Netscape user at the time when the Company drove the web development, I'm happy to hear a bit of the story that led to one of the browsers of today, on the road to standards compliance.
I'm well aware that this is your part of the story, and I'll take it as just that. I'm sure there are other stories to. As for the Rolf kind of flamers, I just didn't understand the attacks. The facts that Firefox is a great browser, is free and extensible, doesn't diminish the greatness of Opera.

Thanks for a good contribution to the story of the web!

Posted by: petit at February 7, 2006 7:17 AM

This really help story like me, it make me more closer to my fave browser ;)

Posted by: Jauhari at February 7, 2006 7:50 AM

Hi Blake,

You seem to have missed the point of the post. It _was_ about the engineers who labored away on Mozilla and later Firefox. You are part of this, just like Brian, Darin, Chase, Mike, etc. Read it again. I use "I" a lot because this is my personal account.


Posted by: Ben at February 7, 2006 8:46 AM

It's kinda ironic for an essay like this to show up so soon after a Firefox developer added a non-standard extension to the browser which has essentially no user support but is apparently desired by his employer. This would seem to give the lie to any assertion that Firefox has managed to get out from under that aspect of its Mozilla ancestry.


Posted by: robin at February 7, 2006 10:54 AM

Ben: 'I use "I" a lot because this is my personal account'

Actually I'd say you haven't used "I" enough to make it a personal account - there's a load of passive-voice stuff which makes much of it read more like it's a somewhat objective overview. But you have said in several places that it's your view, so I don't think people have got much to complain about it not being objective or missing out the bits you weren't involved in. Anyway, perspective or not, it's an interesting read - thanks for posting it.

Posted by: Michael Lefevre at February 7, 2006 11:33 AM

Wow, what�s to be said that hasn�t? I�m more on the end-user side than the technical one.
I consider myself to be a power-user, and super surfer. I have tried other browsers (Opera twice, sucked the first time, I don�t know why I thought it would be any different the second), but Firefox has provided me with the tools and the means that I need to accomplish whatever my Internet needs are. It�s not just a browser, it is a superior piece of software and an excellent consumer product that has transcended itself (to go beyond something in quality or achievement).
I got involved in marketing Firefox because of its great communities, its support system and involvement from people worldwide, as a way to give back for what I�m getting out of it,
but most of all, because it is the best in its class. I wouldn�t be using it otherwise.
Thank you for the insightful article, for your dedication and for your contributions.
Oh and one last thing, I have terrible eyesight and I have 0 problems with using and navigating Firefox�s UI. I try different configurations and Themes for testing purposes, but I always return to the default.

Posted by: Ken Saunders at February 7, 2006 11:46 AM

Opera seems to lack extensions...

Posted by: Liam at February 7, 2006 12:27 PM

Great account, thank you.

It was always extremely obvious to me that the Suite was a major, major distraction to putting out a lean, high performance, standards-compliant, stable browser. By shedding all the Suite baggage, Firefox has finally been able to deliver on that promise. And the terrific results are totally expected.

Posted by: pwb at February 7, 2006 12:54 PM

Thanks for sharing some Firefox history with us! :)

Posted by: pentapenguin at February 7, 2006 1:59 PM

Spanish version available at

Posted by: Mat�as at February 7, 2006 2:05 PM

Great read. It's nice to finally see that Opera is getting it's well deserved recognition in parts of the community like this. It's also sad to still see that when Firefox is put down even for the slightest bit, fanboys jump in to protect it, just because they've been using Firefox forever, they think it's the best. Please bear in mind we all have our own preferences in doing things, and how it is done.

I still use Firefox because I think that it is the best browser "overall" out there. Hands down people, that's a fact. The extensions really are what makes the meat of the product. The fact that I can play with my TABS and work with how the TABS are opened gives me enough joy (LoL). I just wish I could change how the TABS are displayed, size color and all that.

Still, I'm a constant Opera user everytime Firefox fails on an important task (you can't depend on session saver always!), especially if I'll be browsing 30 or more tabs at one time, doing a research on something time-critical.

If Opera 9 releases a feature that "TABMIX PLUS" offers with a few more whistles, I'm going to switch and rid myself of that memory problem, Firefox always gives me.

Keep it easy people. :)

Posted by: Alan at February 7, 2006 3:20 PM

For those that are interested, Chris Hofmann wrote a chapter in Firefox and Thunderbird Garage that covers a brief history of Firefox (

Posted by: marcia at February 7, 2006 5:06 PM

5 stars, both your viewpoint and the end results.

Thanks Ben.

Posted by: Douglas Clifton at February 7, 2006 9:17 PM

And, there is KHTML, which has more or less made steady progress without the incredible hype that has surrounded Mozilla products since day one.

Posted by: v g at February 8, 2006 12:35 AM

Good read! And, all true!

I should know -- I invented the Internet...

Posted by: Al Gore at February 8, 2006 3:42 AM

Very nice article. I hope someday someone write the whole story, it would surely be interesting (and need lots of contributors). I remember reading jzw tales of spipping Navigator 1. It was fascinating then and is fascinating now.

A point of irony: My FF could not print the article, had to use IE for that :-)

Posted by: chris at February 8, 2006 6:14 AM

Nice article. I just have to laugh at the sea monkey and opera "dead enders" who just can't deal with the fact that Firefox has mass appeal. Sea Monkey is a great browser if you know what you're doing. Most people don't fit that description.

And don't get me started on Opera mouse gestures... anyways Firefox has been more than vindicated.

Interesting read, you should expand on it someday.

Posted by: Nicademus at February 8, 2006 8:25 AM

As always, very well written! I enjoyed reading the story on how it all began. I agree with everything you have to say - lots of engineers contributed to Firefox' success.

I believe it is _your_ leadership, vision and focus that helped ship Firefox 1.0 and establish itself as a mainstream browser.

Thanks Ben, keep up the good work!

Posted by: Sagar at February 8, 2006 8:50 AM

"Opera seems to lack extensions..."
UserJS and other stuff users make work quite nice.

Posted by: Ivan Minic at February 8, 2006 11:05 AM

The Opera boasting Firefox bashing comments must not be authored by Blake,I'm now posting with that name too.

Posted by: Blake Ross at February 9, 2006 1:11 AM

It's sad to see how some people are bringing up KHTML and Opera in reply to a post about one persons perspective of how Firefox came to be what it is.

The problem is that fans of a particular browser sometimes see Firefox as massively overhyped, and jealously presume that all of Firefox's user base failed to properly evaluate other possible solutions in their rush to be an early adopter of the "new", "cool" thing.

I have thoroughly evaluated all of the options I could find on both the Macintosh and Linux platforms which I use for my desktop, part of what has made me select Firefox is it's ability to run on virtually any computer, not just those running Linux/OS X/Windows.

Firefox's UI may be by default a poor copy of IE or Opera. Who knows? who cares? It's irrelevant to me because what I really like is the ability to take Firefox and mould it like a raw material into the web browser that I want it to be.

That's something that I can't easily do with any other web browser product. It may not be important to you, but for a fussy, exacting and capable person like myself being to use extensions and CSS tweaks to be able to change the feel, and not just the look of my browser represents a massive, tangible advantage that isn't available in any other web browser only product.

You guys can stick to your cookie-cutter browsers if that's what suits you, and I'll stick to what suits me. My own browser... and you know what?

I won't even tell you naysayers that you should switch to Firefox, because the browser landscape should stay as multicultural as possible. It's good for evolution.

Posted by: Steve Keate at February 9, 2006 9:01 PM

so, netscape is dead long enough for you to bash all over it?

FYI, when i first opened NS6 and saw the Modern them, the first thing i said was "WWWWOOOWWWW, that's BEAUTIFUL!!!!!" and i haven't changed my opinion since. the "classic" them is plain ugly IMO. because it was the default theme, and many people didn't notice it can be replaced, people thought it was NS4. one local reviewer wrote that "it remideds the happy old days of netscape".

today i use the Suite (and will use SeaMonkey once i finish the l10n work on it). i often find features missing in firefox, and the bookmarks manager is just annoying.

you talk about the lack of vision and direction. who was at the head of then? wasn't that the very same mitchel baker that stands there today? where was she? what did she do? it appears like she was one of the people responsible for all this. today she is your boss, isn't she? do you think she is a bad manager?

i didn't see anything in your writing against a browser+email client application as a concept. what made you support the browser-only firefox then?

and finally, what were your mistakes? were there any? or are you the genious that knows everything and never wrong?

you are a hipocrate, mr. goodger.

Posted by: tsahi at February 10, 2006 1:16 PM

Ben, a small offtopic note/bugreport: I wanted to print out your post to read it offline but couldn't. Firefox (using, my primary browser) tries to format the text onto a singe looooong page which obviously does not fit on a sheet of paper. Ironically, both MSIE and Opera handle the layout well on printing. Apart from that, big thanks for a good job on FF & the movement surrounding it.

Posted by: Premek at February 13, 2006 4:47 AM

I've translated this article into Japanese. Close read during translation revealed a few typo, I think.

1. If I understand correctly, on the votes by BrandChannel, Firefox is number 8, not number 7.

2. Footnote 1 - "...which benefited he other." should be "... the other."

3. No reference mark on the text pointing Footnote 4.

Hope my fussiness and attention to detail could be useful, like you.

Posted by: Joji Ikeda at February 14, 2006 12:19 AM

Very Nice sum up of how things go, It was rather shot I might say.

Posted by: Ben goodgers booger at February 16, 2006 10:27 AM

tsahi: First, the Classic theme wasn't amazing, but as Ben mentioned, it looked more like a real program than Modern did. (If you like Modern that much, you can get it for Firefox.)

Second, Mitchell Baker's job was not to provide "vision and direction" on Mozilla's interface design. Actually, she tried to do that once, and shortly afterwards Netscape fired her.

And third, Ben's post was quite long enough without discussing obvious issues like why it makes sense for a Web browser to be a separate program from a spreadsheet. Or from a mail client. Whatever.

The only problem I see with Ben's article is that it's titled "Where did Firefox come from?", but doesn't mention where Firefox came from. :-)

Posted by: mpt at February 17, 2006 5:00 AM

I think the story was good. And based on the pissing contest going on above me, there still seems to be some bad blood out there towards FF. Some of you Opera fanbois should catch a clue. If FF is "so bad they have to give it away" then why has Opera now adopted that model? Isn't that kinda like the pot calling the kettle black? Or maybe it's that 10% market share of FF that now looks so enticing to Opera?? I guess we'll find out when FF reaches version 8.x and another tally is done on market share.

Posted by: Zexy at February 21, 2006 6:59 AM

We want good old mozilla back :(

Posted by: Ivan Minic at February 25, 2006 5:15 AM

"Engineers in the Browser and Toolkit groups were not happy with the way things were going. For my part, I began working on what would become known as the �Classic theme� � a visual appearance that respected the system configuration and would later form the foundation of what would be Firefox's theme. "

So you're the guy responsible for the unappealing Firefox look and the ugly Mozilla classic theme!!!.

Finally I have someone to blame!. The first thing I do after installing SeaMonkey 1.0 now, is setting the theme back to Modern which, unlike classic, is visually attractive.

I think I read somewhere else that you were the guy behind the "download manager" another reason why I dislike Firefox and prefer SeaMonkey (with individual download progress dialogs).

In short: it seems I dislike most of the things you do that you find visually pleasing. ;-)

Don't get me wrong... you're probably a nice person. It's just nice to finally find and identify my antipodal UI designer. ;-)

Posted by: Fernando Cassia at March 1, 2006 12:09 AM

Ben, with all the crap above you probably won't read this but I can't figure out any other way to get the message across. There is a big take up of FF because the little old home users like it, they like the way tabs work etc. with the one location for the active tab no matter where it is in the list. I have been experimenting with the branches and you have removed the behaviour from the package following what I consider to be a flawed exercise at google. I and quite a few others have found a severe deterioration in usability as a consequence. You have apparently decided that FF will go the way of every other browser visually is the message I get back from the forum, however I think there is a large base of non tech home users who are happy with the way it works at the moment and I feel that you ought to offer an install time and a run time choice of behaviour satisfying both parties. I don't believe this should be left as an add on as the first most of the home users will know of this is when they close the wrong tabs. Once you lose the confidence of the user you lose the user and FF may go back to being a lovely tool for the techie geeks as opposed to a mainstream product.
The threads are in the forum but I seriously doubt if you have the time to read them cos I don't. However I and many like me feel very strongly about this removal of what was for us THE FireFox clincher.

Posted by: Steve Bell at March 7, 2006 9:40 AM