Firefox Market Dynamics: the evolving state of the browser business


The history of Mozilla, upon which Firefox was built, extends all the way back to 1994, when the name was first established as a branding for the “mosaic killer,” Netscape Navigator. Mozilla as a modern day institution found its beginnings in 1998, when Netscape decided to release the source code of its dying browser to the open source community. Even later still, the browser that would become Firefox did not come into existence until 2002. In a sense, Firefox 1.0 came out in 2004 after 10 years of laying its foundations.

the trouble with netscape

Netscape originated as an offshoot project by some employees of the NCSA corporation, producers of NCSA, the most popular web browser of its time. The company that created Netscape was founded with the name Mosaic Communication Corporation, changing later to Netscape after trademark disputes. NCSA MosaicJamie Zawinski, an employee at Netscape, came up with the name Mozilla, a shortened form of "Mosaic killa," and the name became the internal name for the Netscape browser. Although Mozilla often appeared in public use earlier in Netscape's history, an attempt to improve its corporate image led Netscape to drop the moniker in public use.

Ironically enough, Microsoft licensed a fork of the Mosaic browser technology called Spyglass for use in its Internet Explorer browser. With the release of Internet Explorer, bundled free with every copy of Windows 95. Prior to the release of Internet Explorer, Netscape had over 80% market share in the browser business, even with a hefty price tag.1 Even after the release of the free Internet Explorer, Netscape kept the price tag on its browser for three years.2 The intense competition between Microsoft and Netscape following Internet Explorer's release could be considered capitalism at its finest, driving the greatest benefits to the consumers. The competition led to very rapid adoption of new features ranging from bookmarking to online radio to URL auto-correction by both browsers.3

However, Microsoft possessed overwhelming advantages of price (free!) and bundling. By 1998, independent reports by several companies placed the market shares of both browsers at almost percentage parity with Netscape's shares continuing to slip.4 That same year, MozillaAOL acquired Netscape, however to little effect on the floundering company's shares. In a final attempt to improve its browser to level the playing field with Internet Explorer, Netscape forked off its source code to the open source community, enlisting the help of volunteers to making Netscape better. The fork represented the establishment of the Mozilla Organization.

Netscape and Mozilla established an uneasy relationship from the outset, stemming largely from the conflict of interest between the two entities. Netscape, a business struggling to find a new revenue stream, became embroiled with Mozilla, an organization designed to improve and rebuild the Netscape browser, in an almost philosophical diametric, eventually splitting the source code of the Mozilla-Netscape project into two branches, a commercial one and a developmental one. However, despite the split, Netscape maintained a firm grip on the Mozilla community, leading to an increasingly bloated and inconsistent user-interface.

from the ashes

Out of the stew of bloated design, corporate overminds, and stifled employees grew Firefox, which initially bore the name Phoenix. The foundations of Phoenix progressed along an entirely different development mindset from its parent Mozilla. Instead of focusing on large application suites developed by large development teams headed by senior programmers, Phoenix centered around a small, core development team concentrated exclusively on the web browsing aspect of the Mozilla Suite. The ideas for these small volunteer projects had manifested themselves earlier with David Hyatt and Ben Goodger's Manticore browser,5 built on Netscape and Internet Explorer using C# and .NET. However, where Manticore looked to offer basic browsing functions in a lean form factor, Blake Ross and David Hyatt's Phoenix looked to innovate on the browsing experience, focusing on security and utility as the pillars of the new browser. Unconstrained by the business-minded Netscape, Ross and Hyatt could develop a browser "completely focused on the end user."6

Phoenix 0.1In its 0.1 incarnation, the browser that would later become Firefox bore the name Phoenix. True to its goal, Phoenix was fast and lean, possessing only a small, core set of features. However, even in this first version of Phoenix, the notion of innovating on the traditional browser had taken root. Beyond the standard offerings of competing browser Internet Explorer that included basic bookmarking, navigation, and web browsing, Phoenix offered three major features that IE did not, tab browsing, a primitive popup blocker, and a download manager. Over the next few iterations, features were slowly added including the integrated Google search bar, a sidebar system similar to ones used in the earlier Netscape and Mozilla browsers, themes and extensions support, a password manager, and much more.7 In addition, the browser had been translated into 31 different languages, thanks in large part to its overwhelming community outreach and support. A recent article about Firefox as a platform notes that "By comparison, Microsoft's Internet Explorer 7 launched only in English, despite having far more internal resources."8

Firefox 1.0Before even reaching version 1.0, the browser had already experienced over 23 million downloads. By the final 1.0 release of the browser, all these things had come to pass in only two short years, and Firefox was receiving tremendous media coverage. In a review of Firefox by Scott Finnie, ex-editor of ZDNet, Windows Magazine, and PC/Computing, the headline read "Firefox 1.0: The New World Wide Web Champ?." In the conclusion he notes "Firefox 1.0 is so far the best alternative to IE of all the browsers I've ever tested."9 In a world where the original Netscape had been destroyed by Internet Explorer, where alternative browsers like Opera merely occupied a niche marketplace, reviews like Finnie's demonstrated that Firefox was more than a passing anomaly.

establishing the brand

Firebird RDBMSOver the course of the two years between the initial release of Phoenix 0.1 and Firefox 1.0, Firefox went through two name transitions. First, the name changed from Phoenix to Firebird10 during the shift between version 0.5 to version 0.6 of the browser; the makers of a popular BIOS, Phoenix Technology, had designed a browser which could run from the BIOS before the Phoenix browser from Mozilla came out. Almost as soon as the new Firebird name was announced, controversy stirred as another highly popular open source project, a relational database management system, was already named Firebird. In the announcement of the final change of the name from Firebird to Firefox (which happened between versions 0.7 and 0.8 of the browser), Mozilla noted that "The database community's supporters and commercial backers waged a high-profile campaign against and affiliated parties until announced that Firebird would only be used as a codename."11 Even after the incident, Mozilla never truly admitted that Firebird was a poor choice, noting in the FAQ about the browser's name that "While we don't believe our use of the Firebird name infringed on their trademark, we wanted to be responsive to the concerns of fellow open source developers."12 After finally learning their lesson after two major trademark disputes, Mozilla did careful research and began the process of trademarking the name for their new browser.

Although the browser received high acclaim from all overs, it had still eaten away at only a small percentage of Microsoft (about 3%) of Microsoft's market share. While 3% was a large measure by the standards of the time, the constant name changes pronounced a problem in the strategy for continued growth of the browser into mainstream markets: the Firefox / Mozilla branding was confusing to people outside the small community around the browser. In a popular article by Steven Garrity, Garrity presented the current problems with Firefox. Notably, he mentions that Mozilla and Firefox have used several different icons to represent the browser, both internally and publicly. At the time, Garrity expected Firefox and Thunderbird to reintegrate into the main development branch at Mozilla as Mozilla Mail and Mozilla Browser. Little did he know that his recommendations would spur a branding campaign that would establish Firefox as a brand that surpassed even the Mozilla name.13

Mozilla, Phoenix, Firebird, Firefox (original), Firefox (new)

Following the publication of the article, Mozilla contacted Garrity and established him as leader of their new Mozilla Visual Identity Team. The artistic talent of Jon Hicks14 created a new Firefox logo (second one from the right) which was later updated (last one on the right) and finalized before the 1.0 release of Firefox. The settling down of the Firefox visual brand became central to the new strategy of publicizing Firefox. Along with the icon, the Visual Identity Team drafted a document explaining the guidelines for properly displaying the Firefox icon.15

growing the movement

Firefox 2In addition to the improvements on consolidating the image of Firefox to the outside world, the Firefox team developed several initiatives to spread the word of Firefox. In September of 2004, just a month before the official debut of Firefox 1.0, Blake Ross and a number of other individuals organized the website, a marketing portal for Firefox. Because the Mozilla Foundation was a non-profit organization, the establishment of a separate community for spreading the Firefox name became extremely important to the promotional efforts of the new browser. The website offered members incentives for promoting the Firefox name by awarding them points for referrals to the browser. The SpreadFirefox community also organized events like local get-togethers, creating an extremely dedicated group of individuals working together to promote Firefox. Only a few months after the creation of the community, membership skyrocketed to over 50,000 registered members. With the help of the community, donations were collected from over 10,000 individuals for enough money to run a two-page advert of Firefox in the New York Times.

Around the release period of Firefox 1.0, the Mozilla Corporation also worked to reach out to other countries. In 2004, Mozilla established branches in Europe and Japan, and in 2005, another branch was established in China. With the overwhelming success of Firefox and nearly $4 million a month pouring in from a partnership with Google, the Mozilla Foundation found that it was hitting Foxkehthe limits of its non-profit capabilities, eventually spinning off the Mozilla Corporation, a commercial sector of the organization. The advent of a corporate entity around Firefox meant that more money could be spent marketing Firefox.

In 2007, Firefox began a grassroots movement in Japan centered around a lovable mascot named Foxkeh. Similar operations were carried out in other countries like Taiwan, spurred by the creation of more international branches of Mozilla, where volunteers went onto the streets dressed in Firefox costumes to hand out flyers.16 In the United States, Mozilla established Operation Firefox, a competition established to see what volunteer group could come up with the best location for plastering a giant 3.5' Firefox logo. The winning entry of the competition was displayed atop a football stadium for nearly 46,000 people to see.

The sheer magnitude of Firefox's grassroots initiatives, even in the first year of Firefox's public existence, demonstrated a new wave of marketing that worked in direct contradiction to Firefox's biggest competitor, Microsoft. Leveraging its users, Firefox established a dedicated fan base that would help it continue to grow into the foundation of the present-day Mozilla Corporation.


  3. Melody Martz writes an enlightening article from the period about the competition:
  4. The figures vary wildly, however, with some companies putting IE far below Netscape. However, it's important to not that Netscape's shares were dropping rapidly.
  5. Ben Goodger's secret project.
  6. Acohido's sentiments were echoed by the vast majority of reviewers of Firefox 1.0 at the time, an astonishing feat for such a new product.
  7. For a detailed timeline of the features added in each release, check out The History of Mozilla Firefox: From Phoenix, to Firebird, to Firefox.
  10. At the same time, Mozilla Minotaur was renamed Mozilla Thunderbird to keep maintain consistency.
  12. Unlike with Mozilla Suite, Mozilla often takes a very informal tone when talking about Firefox.
  14. You can see more of Hicks' work on his personal website.
  15. This website struggled with whether it should strictly follow these guidelines. However, even Ben Goodger, the former lead developer of Firefox, breaks most of the rules in using the icon.
  16. You can feel like part of the action by watching the video on YouTube.
  17. Banner image: