Firefox is five years old. We thought that we would celebrate that by talking about how the web has changed over the last five years and Firefox’s role in those changes.
Where We’re At
2009 has been an interesting year. We’re at a crossroads for the Internet. In the next 12 months or so we’re likely to see regulation of the Internet in the United States – possibly for good, possibly for bad. We’ve seen increased interest in the browser space with the entrace of Google with their minimalist Chrome browser. Mozilla put a vastly improved rendering engine into the hands of hundreds of millions of users with the release of Firefox 3.5. The EU is working with Microsoft to implement a ballot to make users aware of browser choice. No one could possibly say that things are boring right now. And this has only been over the last year.
But what has changed over the last five years? What are the main themes? We’ve picked a few to talk about and we hope that it helps put things into perspective for the next five.
The Rise of the Modern Browser
Over the last five years we’ve been setting ourselves up for the next five. The web is moving faster, not slower, and modern browsers are set to handle it.
Firefox’s growth on the web has had another important effect – bringing standards to the forefront of development. Very early in the Mozilla project almost half of the web’s HTML pages started using DOCTYPE in order to opt-in to standards mode for many web browsers. Developers signaled that they wanted to use a standards-based method for development.
That’s important. It set up the current frame for development on the web that we have today. It allowed Apple to take KHTML and turn it into Safari which then allowed Chrome to pick up that work and enter the market and render a standards-based web. Now we don’t have just one or two browsers, but many, and a lot of that has to do with the way that early web developers approached development.
Standards matter, and they should continue to matter. When they do those individual human beings we like to call users benefit with greater choice and fast innovation.
Customizing Your Experience
Led by Firefox’s add-ons system there’s been an explosion in the number of people who are customizing their experiences – both in browsers and on the web. Anywhere from one third to one half of Firefox users have some kind of add-on installed.
The web is unique, and was built to be hacked. No other widely-deployed system in the world delivers itself as source code like the web does. And this transparency has made it possible for the distributed innovation that we’re seeing in Firefox and on the web. People patching new UI into their favorite web sites, mashing up data from multiple sources or radically changing the feel of the browser itself – this is a source for inspiration for browser vendors and web site operators alike. For the first time individual people have the ability to take an active part in the future of their computing experience.
It’s also worth noting that Gecko and Firefox are unique in this space. The highly modular nature of Gecko mixed with the fact that Firefox itself is written in HTML and XUL (another UI-focused markup language) means that it’s the only browser that’s hackable like the web is. Every other browser is built as a monolithic desktop application from the last millennium. This natural advantage not only means that Firefox has the widest array of add-ons and developers, but is also a source of inspiration for most of the rest of the market.
RSS and Data
In the last five years one of the big changes we’ve seen is web sites offering up data and feeds. Feeds in particular have reached the point where even non-technical people know what they are and how to use them. The ubiquitous RSS icon, which was originally created for the Firefox browser and given away by Mozilla, now exists on millions of web sites offering users the ability to get updates on their terms.
But we’ve gone far beyond just simple feeds. Advanced APIs are now appearing for web sites so you can integrate native applications, build a Firefox extension or be able to pull your data out of a web site.
And we’ve also moved from the promise of XML to the reality of JSON as the data format of choice.
It’s important to remember that Youtube didn’t exist when Firefox was launched. At that time your only options were native QuickTime, Windows Media or Real Player. (Anyone remember Real Player?)
In the last few years we’ve seen Youtube become one of the largest sites of the Internet, the launch of Hulu, and sites like Netflix offering premium on-demand video right over the Internet to web browsers and devices alike. We’ve also seen millions of people create their own videos and publish them to the web.
We’ve also seen the launch of open video and native video support in browsers to bring the creativity and hackability of the web to currently closed video platforms.
Users as Creators
The rise of the web is a story of anyone being able to create a web site. But that’s still a largely technical exercise, even with tools. What we have seen, thanks to tools like WordPress and blogger, is the growth of weblogs, feeds and data which make it possible for anyone with a web browser to become a publisher or journalist.
And it has moved well beyond just text. People with low-cost tools are making movies and posting them. Remix culture is alive and well, creating comentary and new and exciting creations – all in the hands of pretty normal people.
The iPhone taught us that you could build a decent browser for mobile phones and that data was important. Phones, really just in the last five years or so, have shown us that access to data plans that look like what you can get to your house can unleash developer and user creativity.
In the last five years at Mozilla we’ve also made the commitment to build a browser for mobile devices. We’re still in an early pre-1.0 beta stage, but that browser is already getting excellent reviews.
So what about the next five years?
Mozilla has been at the heart of many of the issues of the Internet over the last five years. We’ve vastly improved the browsing experience for hundreds of millions of people around the world. 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. 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. We’ve given over 330 million people the taste of what it’s like to use an open source product. And we’ve overseen the technical growth of the web through direct action and standardization.
It’s hard to beat that, but we’re going to try. We’ll continue to make competitive browser releases and improve people’s experiences on the web. We’ll continue to innovate on behalf of developers and bring those improvements to the standards space. And we’ll continue to grow our amazing global community of users, developers and activists.
Over the next five years everyone can expect that the browser should take part in a few new areas – to act as the user agent it should be. Issues around data, privacy and identity loom large. You will see the values of Mozilla’s public benefit mission reflected in our product choices in these areas to make users safer and help them understand what it means to share data with web sites.
Expect to see big changes in the video space. 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. Expect to see changes in the expectations around the licensing of codecs.
And over the next five years mobile will play an increasingly important role in our lives, and in the future of the web. The decisions of users, carriers, governments and the people who build phones will have far-reaching effects on this new extension to the Internet and how people will access information for decades to come.
Mozilla has a unique place on the Internet. Driven to help improve it as part of our mission expect us to express opinions on decisions that affect its future. We act both through direct action but also through indirect action – sometimes our effects are as important as our actions. We will continue to protect users and we’ll continue to do everything they can to make it possible for the next set of people to come along and build the next great web site.
It’s been a great five years. Let’s make it another five and keep the web moving forward for the benefit of everyone.
About Christopher Blizzard
Making the web better, one release at a time.