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Firefox at 15: its rise, fall, and privacy-first renaissance

Mozilla’s browser debuted on November 9, 2004, and became a phenom before losing ground to Chrome. Now it’s doubling down on user privacy and autonomy.

Firefox at 15: its rise, fall, and privacy-first renaissance

There’s a good chance you are reading this in Google’s Chrome web browser, which commands 65% of the global market (and about 50% in the U.S.), according to Statcounter. Only about 4% to 5% of web surfers now go online through Firefox, the open-source browser from the California-based Mozilla foundation. But the web was much different when Firefox launched 15 years ago on November 9, 2004, and the browser began a fast rise to prominence.

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When Firefox hit the scene, Internet Explorer had more than 90% market share, having felled Netscape Navigator. Given that it was the default browser on Windows, which commanded a similar share of the operating system market, its monopoly seemed like it could be permanent. But Firefox quickly caught on, and eventually grew to command about a third of the market at its height in 2009. While it’s unlikely to recapture such former glory, Firefox has been experiencing something of a renaissance, not just by improving speed and features, but by putting user control over privacy front and center.

Fifteen years on, it’s hard to imagine how radical Firefox was at the time of its debut. Instead of coming from a megacorporation like Microsoft (or today, Google), Firefox was built by volunteers around the world who gave their code away for free. “Open source was well known for developers,” says Mitchell Baker, who cofounded the Mozilla Project back in 1998 and is today the chairwoman of the Mozilla Corporation and Mozilla Foundation. “But the common wisdom of the time was that open source was only for the geeks. You could build [tools] for developers but not consumer products out of it.”

The debut version of Firefox in 2004.

Firefox offered more than techno-utopian ideals. It was built with security in mind and emerged just as Internet Explorer 6, the browser bundled with Windows XP, was in a security crisis. “The browser that most people were using at the time was a security risk,” says Baker. The U.S. government even warned consumers about security risks in IE, which created the perfect opportunity for Firefox to grow.

Beyond security, Firefox also offered a streamlined, approachable interface, snappy performance, and rich features. It made tabbed browsing mainstream long before Microsoft even saw the value in such a feature. Firefox also boasted robust support for technologies like JavaScript (invented by Mozilla cofounder Brendan Eich) and standards like CSS that allow web pages to work the same regardless of the browser, as well as extensions that permitted near limitless customization. The benefits of switching were obvious, and it was easy to do—so many people did.

“There’s probably some alternate world in which Firefox didn’t come along, IE’s market share is still monopolistic, and the Web is a much less interesting place,” wrote my colleague Harry McCracken back on Firefox’s fifth anniversary in 2009.

Firefox’s plucky, nonprofit character belies corporate roots. It emerged from Netscape—the once-dominant browser maker that was the first great IPO of the internet era (back in 1995). Netscape, in turn, came from the creators of Mosaic, the first major web browser. In 1998 Netscape announced that the code for its browser would be open source, under a project called Mozilla, a portmanteau of Mosaic and Godzilla. (Its original red dinosaur logo was designed by street artist Shepard Fairey of later Obama “Hope” poster fame.)

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In 1999, internet giant AOL purchased Netscape and set it on the kind of slow death spiral that follows so many corporate acquisitions. But thanks to the Mozilla Project, the technology outlived the company. The project originally made a browser under the name Mozilla. The version eventually known as Firefox was spearheaded by Joe Hewitt, Dave Hyatt, and Blake Ross and initially known as Phoenix and then Firebird before trademark issues led to it being released as Firefox in 2004.

Firefox on its fifth anniversary in 2009.

Dark days

2009 marks that highpoint from which Firefox took a precipitous fall and has yet to recover. The decline can be summed up in one word: Chrome. Google’s browser burst on the scene in 2008, offering a slicker and, above all, faster experience.

“Those first few versions of Chrome were better. I have to admit it,” says Baker.

Google invested heavily in new technology for the core of its browser, called the engine, that made it far more efficient. Meanwhile Firefox was built on an aging code base that just couldn’t keep up. (I’d been a Firefox user from the beginning, and I remember quickly abandoning the browser after Chrome emerged.)

It didn’t hurt that Google had a huge budget for development and marketing. And as modern smartphones emerged in the late aughts, Google found itself owning the largest mobile platform—giving Chrome the kind of built-in advantage that Internet Explorer had with PCs in the 1990s. Apple had a similar advantage with the iPhone, iPad, and Mac, which has allowed the Safari browser to become the world’s second most popular (with about 16% of the market). And unlike Microsoft 15 years ago, Google and Apple didn’t get complacent and stop improving their browsers after grabbing big market share.

(In pre-Chrome days, Google had been so enthusiastic about Firefox that it promoted the browser on its search engine’s home page. Even after introducing Chrome in 2008, the company continued to boost Firefox’s fortunes via a deal that made Google the default search engine in Firefox, with ad revenues shared with Mozilla. In 2017, Mozilla made more than $500 million from such advertising, for which Google is again the primary partner after a period when Yahoo had the business.)

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Firefox’s crash came amid a litany of failed products for Mozilla. In 2004 it also launched an email client called Thunderbird that never made a dent in the industry juggernaut Microsoft Outlook. In 2013, Mozilla challenged the Android/iOS duopoly with a lightweight mobile operating system called Firefox OS. A handful of phones emerged that failed to capture public interest, and Firefox OS was scrapped in 2017.

Some specialty Mozilla applications survived, such as a software bug tracking app called Bugzilla. But increasingly the foundation was focused on making a web browser—and not a very good one at that.

Quantum introduced a much faster, slicker experience in late 2017.

A quantum leap

“I think there was a time where, as an engineering organization, we became complacent,” says Selena Deckelmann, an engineer who joined Mozilla in 2012 and is now the senior director of Firefox browser engineering. Deckelmann’s first job was analyzing the crash reports the browser generates when things go wrong, so she had a front-row seat to the product’s failings. Firefox’s slump may have shown the downsides of a nonprofit, volunteer-led effort. Without business pressures like pleasing shareholders, an organization can lose sight of staying competitive.

Among Firefox’s problems was the failure to keep up with advances in modern computer hardware, including the ability to run operations in parallel on multiple CPU and graphics card computing cores. Work on a litany of small improvements had been ongoing, but big change came in late 2016 when Mozilla’s VP of platform engineering David Bryant announced the development of a new browser engine called Quantum. “It was like throwing down the gauntlet,” says Deckelmann. “Now we shifted to focusing on performance more explicitly.”

The first Quantum-based version of Firefox appeared in November 2017, promising to be twice as fast as its sclerotic predecessor. It was certainly a massive improvement, and received excellent reviews, but at best brought Firefox into rough parity with Chrome.

Privacy has become the defining feature of Firefox in 2019.

Privacy as the killer app

Being about as good as a competitor isn’t enough to win converts from the market-leading product. But Firefox outperforms Chrome in how it protects user privacy. While the transition to Quantum brought speed up to par, Mozilla was also introducing a raft of technologies to block advertisers, social networks, and even internet service providers from tracking and profiling you. (This, along with the tolerable speed, is what brought me back to using Firefox—and has caused plenty of others to take a second look as well.)

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Privacy may be the one area where Chrome is unlikely to even try to compete with Firefox. Google’s vast fortunes come from online adverting, which is built on collecting as much information about users as possible, across as many devices as possible. Hindering that process in any way threatens its core business model.

Mozilla, by contrast, is a nonprofit based on utopian ideals encoded in the Mozilla Manifesto, which Baker penned in 2007. It lays out 10 principles around concepts like free software, universal access to the internet, and interoperable technologies. Principle four states that, “Individuals’ security and privacy on the internet are fundamental and must not be treated as optional.” (A 2018 update to the manifesto adds values around human dignity, tolerance, and “civil discourse.”)

The very existence of a manifesto is a sign of how different Mozilla is from the makers of major competing browsers. The Mozilla Foundation is as much an activist organization as a software maker, and its two activities are inextricably linked.

Take the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which exposed tens of millions of Facebook users’ data to the political consulting firm. Mozilla pulled its ads from Facebook in protest and launched a petition demanding that the company revamp its user privacy settings. But Mozilla also fought back with code, building a Firefox plug-in called the Facebook Container that limits the social network’s ability to collect user data from the browser, such as the sites that are open in other tabs or windows.

Mozilla has been ramping up its offensive on all kinds of user tracking, such as third-party (or cross-site) cookies—files that one site drops in a browser to see all the other sites someone visits. Enhanced tracking protection, as it’s called, began rolling out in August 2018 as an optional feature in experimental, pre-release versions of the browser. It later became an optional feature in the mainstream release. And in September this year, Mozilla turned blocking on by default. In addition to third-party cookies, the browser now blocks other trackers, such as code in online ads and the social media “share” buttons that are ubiquitous across the web.

Google’s response has been predictably less aggressive. In August, it came out against the third-party cookie blocking, arguing that it would encourage marketers to devise more insidious ways of tracking users. One such method, called fingerprinting, collects the specific settings you’ve set on your computer and web browser, such as the plug-ins installed, to develop a unique identifier. The latest version of Firefox 70 includes fingerprinting blocking, as well.

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Mozilla isn’t alone in fighting for privacy, however. Apple has been at least as aggressive with tracker blocking in Safari, and has promoted that fact as a reason to buy its phones, tablets, and computers.

Spreading the word

As Mozilla has beefed up privacy protections, it’s also ramped up messaging about privacy. “For a long time we thought the best thing was just to be as quiet as possible,” says Baker. “Do all of this behind the scenes and not bother or tell people about it.” That began to change in the past 18 months as users became more aware of and worried about security risks.

Along with turning on tracking protection by default, the latest version of Firefox introduces a Privacy Protections dashboard that provides a detailed accounting of all the trackers that have been blocked, by type, for the past week. Users can also click a button at the top of the browser to see all the trackers blocked on each website.

The Privacy Protections dashboard keeps tally of tracking types blocked over time, with explanations of how each type works.

Mozilla doesn’t just throw stats at users. The dashboard has a minimalist design and uses color-coded bar graphs to provide a simple overview of the different types of trackers blocked. It also features explainers clearly describing what the different types of trackers do.

Making complex information simple for users was a major challenge, says Deckelmann. “This is a common engineering problem. You make all these things, but then how do you turn it into a story that everyone can understand?” she says. “And that, to me, is the focus today: focusing on that story and helping people really understand the state of the web.”

Not only is Mozilla helping people to see what the browser is doing behind the scenes, it’s helping users tweak those settings. Advanced tracking protection was an option that users could enable for about a year before Mozilla turned it on by default. Users can still disable it if the feature causes sites to misbehave. They can also turn on stricter levels that block more tracking technologies, but might affect how web pages operate.

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“What we try to do in Firefox is give each person some more ability to influence their online life, says Baker. “You should have some sovereignty over your experience. It shouldn’t all be dictated by giant organizations.”

What good are all these privacy tools if only 4% or 5% of people on the web use them? “We’re working on ways of increasing our visibility, helping people to return to Firefox,” says Deckelmann. “But we also have this other piece of our work, which is a lot about policies and influencing the direction of the web in favor of users.”

Mozilla has continued to grow as an activist organization, pushing for reforms like net neutrality regulation and privacy reforms at Facebook, for instance. It also works hard to establish new technology standards, such as one that makes it harder for internet service providers to see the websites that the browser visits.

On the product side, Firefox also serves as a testbed to prove out privacy measures and other technologies for the rest of the web. “Our hope is that each one of these technologies that we create gets adopted by all browsers,” says Deckelmann.

Mozilla and Firefox were conceived to expand people’s access to information and each other, not to make a company rich. The browser’s initial burst of popularity in 2004 didn’t just help Mozilla. It helped the entire internet by challenging the incumbents to improve and inspiring new competitors to join in. Fifteen years later, Firefox may appear small next to Chrome and Safari. But it’s still pushing new technologies for openness and security that can help everyone who goes online.

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About the author

Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain.

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