Yesterday marked five years since the release of version 1.0 of the Mozilla Firefox web browser. Five years down the road, its success has surely played an important role in the ongoing development of web design and development tools and technologies, and it has gained significant market share.
But how has it changed the way we use the web, and what can we expect in the near future?
Before the advent of Firefox, the goal of most web designers was to ensure their site worked in the most widely used versions of Internet Explorer, and possibly Netscape if they were feeling dedicated. Neither browser paid much attention to web coding standards, and therefore websites were constructed using a mish-mash of hacks which would break every time a new browser version was released.
Firefox was the first widely-used browser (by including the words “widely-used” I am inevitably excluding Opera) to take web standards seriously, doing its best to ensure that its rendering engine (how it translates code into what you see) displayed content according to the standards set by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
This was a factor in gradually changing the approach taken by web designers, who were now starting to develop websites according to standards, then add hacks as necessary for them to work properly in the non-standards-compliant Internet Explorer. Such an approach is far more future-proof and maintainable.
A key feature of Firefox has always been that in its basic form, it is – well – quite basic, but has the ability to use easy-to-install “extensions” (plugins) in order to add all kinds of functionality.
Many extensions have been developed to enhance users’ privacy and security, and one such extension is called “Adblock Plus”. This plugin prevents most banner and text advertisements from being shown in web pages, and has, in my view, been an important factor in the success of Firefox, with something over 10 million users.
Extension development is relatively easy compared to some kinds of software – another reason why developers flock to Firefox.
Before the release of Firefox, the browser market was effectively sewn up by Microsoft. Other players (Netscape, Mozilla and Opera) had a very small market share and could not be said to play a significant role in the evolution of the web at that point.
Now Firefox has (depending on whom you consult) in the region of a 25% share of worldwide browser usage, whereas Internet Explorer has dropped to around 65% (from around 90% five years ago), meaning that no single company can dictate how web standards evolve any more.
It can also be argued (at least, I’m arguing) that without the success of Firefox, Google may not have thought it worth their while to develop their Chrome browser, which is now starting to gain market share and further level the playing field.
Firefox 3.6 will soon be released, giving developers the chance to experiment with more new and emerging web standards, and my own forecast is that Firefox market share will continue to grow, though more slowly as other new competitors such as Chrome and Safari gain ground.
When Internet Explorer 9 is released (probably sometime during 2010), it promises to be far more standards-compliant than all previous versions, making countless web designers’ lives easier around the world. I believe that we have Firefox to thank for that.
Internet Explorer 9 will of course put more pressure on Firefox, Chrome and Safari, because it will undoubtedly be better than versions 7 and 8, but somehow I think the younger players will rise to the challenge.