Firefox: The alternative history

Summary:Asa Dotzler, the community co-ordinator for the Firefox browser, discusses how the fledgling competitor to Microsoft's IE learned to spread its wings

Over the last year Firefox has taken the web by storm, stealing a significant slice of the pie from Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE), and grabbing more than 10 percent market share in some areas.

Web analytics firm reports Firefox quadrupling its market share between May 2004 and April 2005, while IE's share dropped by more than 7 percentage points over the same period. Data from WebSideStory shows a more moderate change, with Firefox doubling its user base in the US from June 2004 to April 2005, while the proportion of IE users fell by more than 6 percentage points.

Firefox appears to have grabbed even more market share in Europe, with 30 percent, 24 percent and 22 percent of Web surfers using Firefox in Finland, Germany and Hungary respectively.

So, where has this new browser come from? It's public knowledge that the Mozilla project originated when Netscape Communications decided to open source its browser in 1998 but the intervening years up to the browser's current success is less well known. And the project hasn't been without its problems too, such as the challenge of handling a rapidly growing community of contributors.

Asa Dotzler, the community co-ordinator at the Mozilla Foundation, was a key player in organising the community around the open source browser, initially as a volunteer and eventually as a paid employee of Netscape, and later the Mozilla Foundation.

ZDNet UK recently made a trip out to the company's Mountain View, California headquarters to quiz Dotzler about his role in thedevelopment of Firefox, and how he and Blake Ross, the browser's creator, devised a community marketing campaign that contributed to its growth.

January 1998: Netscape Communications announces plans to release the source code of its browser to "harness the creative power of thousands of programmers on the Internet".

March 1998: Netscape makes the source code for Communicator 5.0 available for download from Web site.

Asa Dotzler started contributing to the Mozilla project early on. He had developed an interest in open source software in 1995 while he was at Auburn University in Alabama, where he was studying architecture and preservation.

"At university I had friends who were Linux fanatics, for example, the entry system and the lights in their house were controlled from a laptop running Linux. They kept telling me how great open source is. The idea of open source fit in with my personal philosophy — I liked the community side of it," he says.

"A few years later I heard that Netscape was open sourcing its browser. I wasn't a computer programmer, but wanted to find a way to get involved in the project, so I started reading the Netscape news groups. Netscape 5 was horribly broken, so I went to Bugzilla and reported some bugs. A developer replied saying he needed more information. I left more information and a few days later the bug was fixed," he continues.

As the number of people contributing to the Mozilla project increased, Dotzler realised that developers were spending a lot of time communicating with those filing bug reports, to find out more details about the problems they had experienced. He began to help newbies with filing good bug reports, to take some of the load off developers.

"Most people who were new to it weren't filing good bugs. I thought I could help these people with filing the bugs. That spiralled and people started saying, "If you want to get involved talk to Asa." I was soon spending 20 or 30 hours every week helping people."

At the time Dotzler was working for a market research company in Texas. His wife, Deanna Pierce, worked different hours, so he would often work on the Mozilla project in the evenings until she got home and on alternate weekends, when she was at work.

Topics: Developer

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