Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The ascent of Firefox

On Radio New Zealand National today I talked about the Firefox web browser – what it is, where it came from, where it’s going to and what you can do with it. Read on for my notes, and links (including how you can get your own copy of Firefox) are at the bottom.

Q: This is the Firefox web browser you’re talking about? We mentioned it before.

A: Yes – I’ll just recap. Firefox is an open source web browser, it’s an alternative to Internet Explorer if you are on Windows, Safari on the Mac, or Konqueror on Linux. It was originally written by a New Zealander called Ben Goodger, and it’s being developed at least partly in New Zealand. Two of the main Firefox developers are in Auckland.

Q: OK, so I Understand why it being open source makes it interesting, but is there more to it than that?

A: Oh yes. Open source almost isn’t the point here – Firefox is such a capable web browser, head and shoulders above the others. It’s really noticeable that Microsoft has restarted development of Internet Explorer now Firefox is taking off. Until recently Microsoft appeared to have stopped all innovation in this area – after all, it had an effective monopoly of the browser space – but then Firefox came out with lots of lovely features like tabbed browsing, an architecture for third party extensions, pop-up blocking out of the box and far better security. It had got a lot of these innovations from the open source world. And Microsoft just released a new version of its browser – the first for years, incorporating a lot of the same stuff as Firefox has always had, and Apple has done the same for Safari. Microsoft is definitely playing catch-up in browsers at the moment.

Q: Where did these programs originally come from?

A: If we go back to about 1993, the world wide web was just starting up, and the first web browser people could get their hands on was called Mosaic, and it came out of the University of Illinois where it had been written by a young man named Marc Andreesen.

Q: So how did we get to where we are today?

A: Andreesen left and formed a company with some rich backers to rewrite his browser and sell it. That was called Netscape, and it walked a fine line between giving away beta copies and trying to charge for non-beta copies. It also sold web servers software, and it did fairly well at first.

Q: What happened to it?

A: Microsoft decided it wanted that market. Bill Gates realized in 1996 that he’d misjudged the Internet and it was going to be serious big – and he took urgent corrective action. Part of that action was buying the Mosaic program – which had by now been spun off by the university and was called Spyglass – and he threw the might of Microsoft into improving it and turned it into Internet Explorer, and gave it away for free. The first couple of versions were rubbish compared to Netscape, but by version three it had come together as a serious contender. And Netscape wasn’t free. And Netscape’s server revenue was under threat from the open source Apache web server, which now runs more than half of the world’s web sites.

The Netscape people weren’t stupid. They could see the chasm yawning in front of them. So they made the browser open source – they just went and published it. They probably knew they were going to fall over whatever they did – and they did fall over soon after this – but they delivered their source code out onto the Internet before that. That was a brilliant move which stopped their source code from being acquired and monopolised. Their code got turned into Mozilla – the Godzilla of Mosaic as it were, and periodically the owners of the Godzilla copyrights threaten to sue for that. And Firefox grew out of that.

Q: Where did the name Firefox come from?

A: Yes, I got to ask Ben Goodger that. The program went through several names before they found one that wasn’t already taken. The last one was Firebird, but that’s the name of another open source project. They chose Firefox because it was like Firebird, and apparently it’s a name for the Red Panda. I told Ben Goodger that it makes me think of an atrocious Clint Eastwood movie of that name from the early eighties, but he hadn’t heard of that. But then, it might have been a little before his time!

Q: What about Apple’s browser – Safari, you said?

A: Yes, Apple’s browser is made from Konqueror – with a “K” – which is a Linux browser developed from the ground up in the late nineties as part of what is called the KDE desktop environment. Now KDE is open source like the rest of Linux, and presumably it’s licence allows Apple to make Safari out of it. The interesting thing about Safari is not that it exists for Macs – because Apple needs to have its own browser – but that Apple has just released a copy for Windows and is pushing it hard, too. It’s free, you can give it a whirl if you want to. There are other browsers as well – Opera is Scandinavian I think, it was built during the days when there was only Internet Explorer and it provides a good alternative to that. These days I think Opera is focusing on mobile phones.

Q: OK, so that’s where Firefox came from – why is it better?

A: It has so many really useful innovations. Tabbed browsing, for instance – that was invented back in the Mozilla days.

Q: What’s tabbed browsing?

A: It means having lots of web sites open at once, and you select which one to look at by clicking a tab along the top of the browser window. It’s massively useful.

Q: What else does Firefox do?

A: Blocks pop-ups straight out of the box. No more really irritating things popping in front of what you are looking at!

Q: And?

A: It has an open architecture for add-ons. Anyone can write a Firefox add-in. One of the most popular add-ins blocks adverts. Others do all kinds of things from downloading YouTube videos to your computer through to improving your privacy while browsing. There’s a wonderful add-in called Firebug for those of us with our own websites. There are add-ins doing most things you could imagine and a lot you can’t.

Another thing Firefox does beautifully is searching – it has a search box in the toolbar, just like the Google toolbar does if you’ve ever used that, but the really nice thing about Firefox’s way is that it lets you select what you want to search – mine does Google, Trademe, Amazon and YouTube. And the New Zealand government – bless it – has done a search plug-in of its own for Firefox so you can make that one of your options.

There’s another Kiwi connection here. A rather cool Firefox add-in called Interclue checks out links in a page before you click them and shows you what’s down the link as soon as you move your mouse over the link. Like most add-ins, it’s free to use – if you’re already a Firefox user I’d recommend you try it out. Interclue is being developed in Christchurch.

And possibly Firefox’s crowning glory is the way it deals with RSS feeds. Lots of websites have these – including Radio New Zealand’s site, and my own site It’s a way of distributing updated material. Typically a site that gets updated often will have a little icon and the abbreviation RSS or sometimes XML, or sometimes the word subscribe – these are all basically the same thing. If you click on them in Firefox it uses a thing it calls live bookmarks. It adds a subscription to that site to your bookmark bar, which sits just under the tool bar. (You might need go to the View menu and make it visible.) Then when you run your mouse over Firefox’s bookmark bar you can see a list of everything on the site. If, like me, you frequently check a few sites for information, this is just fantastic. All I need to do is run the mouse along that bar and I see a list of articles on each site.

Q: How popular is Firefox?

A: It’s beginning to give Microsoft a run for its money. 28% usage in Europe, 29% in Australasia – the real kicker is that its use goes up enormously at weekends. People are installing Firefox on their home computers even if they can’t use it at work.

Another reason Firefox is gaining so much ground is that it is developed in public. That means that the people who develop web sites, especially the fancy innovative new ones doing things like mapping and social networking, can talk with the developers as they are working on what is going into the next release of the browser. I saw that happening at a thing called Kiwi Foo Camp last February, a meeting of webby techy people with a few artists, journalists and politicians thrown in to leaven the mix. Anyway, the Firefox developers ran some sessions saying: this is what we are thinking about for FireFox three. What do you web people think of that? And there were some detailed and fascinating conversations that spun out of that session. You just can’t get that kind of transparency, that innovation, involving people from right across the Internet if you keep your source code as a trade secret. And the result is that the really good sites now tend to work better in Firefox than they do in anything else.


Getting Firefox, the alternative web browser.

A survey showing that Firefox use is now around 28%.

Interclue – a New Zealand Firefox add-in that shows you what’s down links before you click on them.

New Zealand Government search tool add-on for Firefox or IE7.

posted by colin at 10:50 am  

1 Comment

  1. […] got something for the geeks as well as the more mainstream radio audience. For instance, in his show about Firefox today, I learned that Internet Explorer was originally based on the Mosaic codebase, because […]

    Pingback by Interclue Archive » It’s like Radio, but more Clueful. — 4 October 2007 @ 7:47 pm

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