It was exactly five years ago Monday that Mozilla released version 1.0 of its open source Firefox Web browser, and fans around the globe marked the occasion with a multitude of special events held as part of the “Light the World with Firefox” campaign.
Celebration ideas were plentiful at the Spread Firefox Web site, while photos of the results were available on Flickr. A Mozilla-sponsored contest, meanwhile, invites Firefox fans to design a celebratory poster image.
“We’ve vastly improved the browsing experience for hundreds of millions of people around the world,” wrote Christopher Blizzard on the Mozilla Hacks blog. “We’ve managed to keep Microsoft honest and forced them to release newer versions of their browsers.”
Firefox’s presence was “a large factor in Apple being able to ship a browser to its user base as the Mac came back to the market,” Blizzard added. In addition, “we’ve made it possible for third party browser vendors like Google to enter the market. We’ve proven that people care about improving their experiences on the web.”
330 Million Users
With more than 330 million users around the world, Firefox currently holds the No. 2 spot in browser market share, accounting for just over 24 percent, according to researcher Net Applications.
Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, currently the market leader, holds 64.64 percent, while Safari, Chrome and Opera hold the next three spots with 4.42, 3.58 and 2.17 percent, respectively, according to Net Applications’ October data.
Indeed, Firefox’s market share is a testament to the magnitude of its achievements over the past five years.
‘Out of the Ashes of Netscape’
“Mozilla rose out of the ashes of Netscape, and I think there was a kind of emotional appeal,” Greg Sterling, principal analyst with Sterling Market Intelligence, told LinuxInsider. “It was the underdog, like in David and Goliath.”
Firefox was also innovative on a number of fronts, Sterling added, “but I think part of its appeal was that it was not Internet Explorer.”
Arriving as it did at a time of increasing awareness of security concerns on the Internet, Firefox benefited not only from its own innovative features, but also from perceived weaknesses in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.
IE Security Concerns
“I think the growth of Firefox was a product both of its own design philosophy — a slimmer, smaller browser with features like tabbed browsing that could be customized to each user with a plug-in architecture — and Microsoft’s lack of investments in Internet Explorer post-version 6,” RedMonk analyst Stephen O’Grady told LinuxInsider.
“The relatively slow, gradual gain in market share and prominence in Firefox shows it was more of a case of advantages and benefits of the software among its users,” maintained 451 Group analyst Jay Lyman.
“However, there is no question that security concerns about Internet Explorer drove significant use and growth of Firefox among consumers, home offices and even enterprises,” he told LinuxInsider.
‘A Key Characteristic’
While security is still an important consideration in Web browsers, it’s no longer clear that it serves as a differentiating factor.
“I wouldn’t want to weigh in on whether one browser is more secure thananother — all browsers have their vulnerabilities,” Lyman pointed out.
“I don’t want to get into the discussion of open security and transparency versus obscurity, either,” he continued. “I will say that security remains a key characteristic of browsers among all kinds of users, and Firefox has both helped promote security as a factor and held up relatively well to its own security issues — particularly with regard to speed of response.”
The Add-on Ecosystem
“You will see different numbers bandied about by Microsoft and Mozilla, but I don’t believe that differentiation on security is why users are choosing one browser or the other at this point in time,” RedMonk’s O’Grady asserted.
“The majority of the market, in fact, declines to make a choice at all, simply using whatever browser their operating system makes available to them: IE in Windows, Safari on OS X, etc.,” he explained. “For those that do choose a distinct browser, performance and extensibility via plug-ins tend to be the differentiation points that lead to selection.”
Indeed, speed, privacy and customization are all critical factors in browser selection, and “the add-on ecosystem and open source developer community behind Firefox help it stay up to speed in all of those categories,” 451 Group’s Lyman agreed. “This will likely continue to present competitive pressure to others.”
The New 900-Pound Gorilla
Today, the competitive landscape is very different from the one Firefox faced five years ago.
Microsoft, for one thing, is “less of a behemoth,” Sterling noted. “Google has become the 900-pound gorilla, at least in many people’s minds.”
That original David and Goliath story, then, “has lost some of its resonance” as a motivating factor, he pointed out.
No longer “the scrappy little browser that could,” Firefox must now compete more on its technical capabilities, Sterling said.
Advances in Video
Coming up in Firefox’s next five years, in fact, are advances in privacy and identity protection, as well as video and mobile capabilities.
For instance: “HTML5-based video and open video codecs are starting to appear on the web as web developers make individual choices to support a standards-based, royalty-free approach,” Blizzard explained in the Mozilla Hacks blog. “Expect to see changes in the expectations around the licensing of codecs.”
Newer players such as Google “are certainly more significant now, particularly as computing has moved off of desktop computers to mobile devices, including smartphones and netbooks,” Lyman noted. “I believe this does have the potential to fragment the market and open up opportunities, especially given new form factors and functionality.”
What fate holds for the smaller contenders, meanwhile — most notably, Safari, Chrome and Opera — remains to be seen, but the consensus seems to be that the market has room for more than just Firefox and IE.
“I think there’s probably room for four or five browsers to coexist,” remarked Sterling.
Currently, of course, that’s just about what the market has, so the going will be rough for any newcomers — unless they can offer some dramatic new feature, he said.
“Chrome, in particular, is making decent inroads amongst the technical elite,” O’Grady pointed out, “much as Firefox once did.”
Can either Chrome or Opera anticipate following the same trajectory Firefox has in recent years?
“Almost certainly not,” O’Grady said, “but they can be successful in more specialized markets for users that put a premium on their respective technical differentiations.”