What Is Firefox

by Brian King
Firefox is a free web browser. It is one of the products of the Mozilla open source software project, supported by the Mozilla Foundation. Firefox is an application platform. You can write applications and extensions that install and run on top of Firefox. Firefox is a feed reader. It supports auto-discovery of RSS and Atom, with features to integrate feeds into bookmarks. Firefox is a way of life. There have been over 90 million downloads since Firefox 1.0 was released in November, 2004.

In This Article

  1. The Evolving Web
  2. Firefox and Web Standards
  3. The Extension System
  4. New Features and the 1.5 Release
  5. The Future of Firefox

The Netscape Communicator Suite source code was released as open source in 1998 under the guise of the Mozilla project, with the hope of breathing new life into it after heavy loss of market share to Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE). Soon after, AOL bought Netscape and continued to support Mozilla. After what many felt was an overly long interim period, Mozilla 1.0 was released in June 2002. Before that, version 6 of the Netscape suite, based on the Mozilla code, was released to poor reviews. Netscape 7 was released around the time of Mozilla 1.0.1, to better reviews.

Around this time, a few developers within the Mozilla project who were dissatisfied with what they saw as poor management and feature bloat forked the code to create a new browser. Originally code-named "m/b" (for "mozilla/browser," where it lived in the source tree), it underwent a few more name changes before finally becoming Firefox. The Mozilla Foundation, once it became independent, eventually replaced the Mozilla browser with Firefox, and it became the showcase of their new set of tools, which also included the Thunderbird email client and the Sunbird calendar application. Development of the Mozilla Suite slowed to maintenance and security updates only.

The ethos and mandate of this new browser was simple--to create a lightweight browser that was easy to use. The goal was to give control back to users, and to make web browsing fun again. And right from the early days, the project did tap into a new spirit. Early adopters became fans, despite the many issues that needed to be fixed and the features that needed to be completed. With each new preview release, the number of downloads grew. The 1.0 preview release achieved eight million downloads in about a month. By the time 1.0 was released, it already had a very strong foothold. Firefox became the first open source project to reach the masses. This was helped in no small part by community marketing efforts such as So we have reached the point where we are today. While IE still has the dominant browser market share, Firefox is slowly making inroads into that and bringing energy and innovation back into the arena.

The Evolving Web

Not so long ago, the browser served one purpose: to view web pages. Other tasks were carried out by client applications. However, client and server are merging rapidly, and the browser has a key role to play in this transformation. And Firefox is leading the way. Web services and applications have replaced hefty client downloads for some applications. From the browser, you can keep up to date with news feeds, read your email, watch movies, and grab the latest tunes for your music library. AJAX is enabling powerful new applications in the browser by using old technologies in a new way. Google is using it with Google Maps and Gmail, and more sites using it are popping up each day. In the enterprise arena, companies are basing more and more of their tasks in the browser. These range from simple time-sheet applications to mission-critical applications. Some companies are already making the switch to Firefox.

The Web is not one platform or operating system. It does not need to be, and should not be, controlled by one company. It is about choice and how to make information available to people in a useful way. Firefox certainly gives power back to users. One of the great advantages of the Mozilla codebase and of Firefox is that it is cross-platform. Say you run Windows at work and Linux at home; in both environments, you can stick with the software that you like and are familiar with. Developers creating extensions can "write once, run anywhere." There has been much scare-mongering and hype recently about browsers being gateways for viruses and spyware. Some of it is true. Firefox is perceived as being more secure than IE, and certainly has a better track record in this area. It would be a mistake, however, to say that Firefox is completely secure. Some would argue that it is more secure simply because it does not have the dominant market share, and is therefore less of a target. This has some truth, but Mozilla is always quick to patch security bugs and release new versions. IE development stalled for many years once it reached market saturation, while Firefox came of age in the time of spyware and phishing. Therefore, Firefox is much better equipped to deal with these threats.

Firefox Hacks

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