Firefox: The alternative history

Asa Dotzler, the community co-ordinator for the Firefox browser, discusses how the fledgling competitor to Microsoft's IE learned to spread its wings
Written by Ingrid Marson, Contributor

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 OneStat.com 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 mozilla.org 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.

After about half a year working as a Mozilla contributor, Dotzler realised that there were so many new contributors to the project that he needed more help teaching people how to file bug reports. "I started holding weekly events on IRC — Bug Days, where me and a group of deputies would help people get involved," he says.

November 1998: AOL announces purchase of Netscape (completed in March 1999).

March 2000: Asa Dotzler wins an award "for his great work organizing Bug Day, maintaining browser general bugs, and helping novice bug reporters become experienced Bugzilla users," according to mozillaZine.

At the Mozilla award ceremony Dotzler set up a track for QA discussions, where he and other contributors came up with a plan to handle the ever increasing number of people filing bug reports. One of his main concerns was that Netscape would find it too difficult to handle the volume of bug reports and may decide to close source the browser.

"We discussed what we would do if Netscape got scared with high volume of bug reports. We came up with plan — if unknown and untrusted people filed bug reports, the community would go through and triage these and pass them onto the developers. We would form a front line to shield developers."

May 2000: Asa Dotzler starts work at Netscape.

After he got home from the Mozilla Award ceremony, Dotzler was offered a job at Netscape by Mitchell Baker, the chief evangelist of the Mozilla.org project at Netscape (now the president of the Mozilla Foundation). He accepted this job and moved to California.

"I was paid by AOL, with responsibilities to the Mozilla project. The management chain was a group of 10 people with Mitchell at the top. AOL let us be, to do the open source thing."

Early on, Dotzler realised that working on the open source project within AOL was unlikely to work out long term.

"There were conflicts and over time we realised that it wasn't going to be a permanent solution to the open source project. We realised that we weren't going to be the priority we needed to be, to achieve success," he says..

November 2000: Netscape 6 released, but criticised for containing too many bugs.

June 2002: Mozilla 1.0 released. The all-in-one Internet application suite included a Web browser, an email and newsgroup client, an IRC chat client, and an HTML editor.

September 2002: Version 0.1 of the standalone Phoenix browser released.

May 2003: AOL agrees to offer Microsoft's Internet Explorer as its default browser to subscribers of its proprietary online service for the next seven years.

July 2003: AOL lays off 50 employees involved in Web browser development at its Netscape subsidiary. The Mozilla Foundation starts, funded in a large part by a $2m donation from AOL and $300,000 from Lotus founder Mitch Kapor.

When AOL started laying off people, Baker spoke to "friends in the industry" to get support for an organisation that could carry on developing the open source project, according to Dotzler.

The newly formed Mozilla Foundation decided to focus more on standalone projects, such as the Firefox browser (then called Phoenix) and the Thunderbird mail client (then called Minotaur), rather than on the Mozilla Suite, which integrated all this functionality, Dotzler says. The decision was taken to make it easier to maintain the project and create a browser that appealed to IE users.

"By that point Phoenix was starting to get some buzz," he says. "We thought the smart move might be to break it [Mozilla Suite] up as if we didn't have the resources to maintain one of them, the whole thing would break."

"Also, by the time we time got to Mozilla 1.0, most of the audience had gone — there were very few people still using [Netscape] Communicator. We had taken on a lot of additional features — it was a heavyweight suite of applications and was weighed down by features such as the chat client. It was difficult for users of other products like [Microsoft] Outlook or IE to use."

Although within a few weeks, the browser was "twice as fast and half the size", some people were unhappy that the Foundation was focussing its attention on the standalone browser.

"In the early days there were a lot of people who thought this was a step backwards. But Blake [Ross, the creator of Firefox] and I were saying we need to make browser that doesn't target the current users — the biggest audience is IE users and they don't need an HTML authoring tool or an email client. Lets just give them a better browser with pop-up blocking and tabbed browsing," he says.

Some of the changes in the Firefox browser were minor, such as keyboard shortcuts. For example, in IE the shortcut, Alt+D, is used to select the address location bar, while the same feature required the shortcut, Ctrl+L, in Firefox. Firefox developers changed this so both shortcut keys worked, making the transition to Firefox easier for IE users.

"That little thing was a barrier to entry. Once we changed it IE users were willing to play with it for a few days because it felt more comfortable," says Dotzler.

April 2003: Mozilla Foundation changes name of Phoenix browser to Firebird due to trademark issues.

February 2004: Mozilla Foundation changes name of Firebird to Firefox, due to a trademark dispute with another open source project.

September 2004: Firefox 1.0 PR "="" class="c-regularLink" target="_blank" rel="noopener nofollow">is made available. Around the same time the SpreadFirefox community marketing site launches, which helps the Mozilla Foundation beat its 10-day goal of one million Firefox downloads.

Before the Firefox release Dotzler and Ross started thinking about how to market the product. Initially, the main media coverage they got was through blogs, but this soon spread to the technology press. They decided to try to get the owners of blogs more involved in spreading Firefox.

"We spent one day looking at blogs and anyone who said something good about Firefox was asked to put a [Firefox promotional] button on their blog. Out of about 100 people, the overwhelming majority agreed. We thought, instead of going to blogs, lets post a list of blogs and ask the community to read them and if they're positive pass on the contact details [to us]. We then wrote to the blog owners — we thought it would sound better coming from the project leadership.".

The success of this initiative led Ross and Dotzler to start SpreadFirefox site, a community marketing portal that encourages and rewards people for telling their friends, technical departments and schools about the open source browser.

"We launched SpreadFirefox with preview release, with the challenge of a million downloads in 10 days, we got a million in just over four days. In 30 days we had about 10 million downloads."

The SpreadFirefox community has grown considerably since the launch of the Web site, with many users joining the affiliate programme — where they can add a Firefox button to their Web site or email signature and get points every time someone clicks on the link, according to Dotzler.

"The community sprung from a couple of thousand people [in September 2004] to 30,000 people by the time 1.0 was released. It's up to about 110,000 people now [June 2005]. A non-trivial percentage of these — between a third and a half — are participating in the affiliate program."

October 2004: Mozilla Foundation calls on supporters to chip in to buy a full page advert in the New York Times for the launch of Firefox 1.0 in November. A quarter of a million dollars is raised in its 10-day ad fundraising campaign, with donations from 10,000 individuals.

After the success of the Firefox preview release, Dotzler and Ross decided they wanted to do something "even more ambitious" for the 1.0 release — an ad in the New York Times.

"The ad was not to go get Firefox, but was an ad celebrating Firefox. Our gimmick was that if you contribute to this we'll put your name in the ad — it would be celebrating our community of users," he says.

"We were both marketing the project and marketing ourselves. We were showing what we could do, allowing us to compete with commercial organisations. Our main competitor has no problem pumping 10 million dollars into a TV ad. We wanted to show that grassroots marketing can be successful."

November 2004: Firefox 1.0 is released.

December 2004: New York Times  ad is printed.

Even though the New York Times ad ran later than expected, Dotzler does not consider this a problem.

"Any community project is bound to have delays. Interestingly, some of the press we had about delays resulted in the downloads going up — people wanted to find out what Firefox is," he said.

May 2005: IBM encourages its employees to use Firefox, by letting them download it from the company's internal servers and getting support from the company's helpdesk staff.

Dotzler was pleased with this news and says that it is likely to persuade other companies to take the step. "It bodes well for other smaller organisations to feel more confident about supporting Firefox," he says.

Dotzler says the first step that companies are likely to take when migrating to Firefox is to offer users a choice of browsers, while they work to make internal applications work on both IE and Firefox. Now Firefox has now reached a significant market share, companies are more likely to make all internal applications work on both Microsoft and more standards-compliant browsers.

"I am confident that when companies embark on new systems, they will have a dual browser strategy. When they have a virus that affects one browser, they want to have two browsers. There is no doubt that people are working today on planning the next generation of projects to be cross browser."

ZDNet UK also spoke to Asa Dotzler about the rise of Firefox in the enterprise, future marketing campaigns and how the Mozilla Foundation plans to target less tech-savvy consumers.
To read the full interview, click here.

To see photos of the Mozilla offices and some of the people ZDNet UK met there, click here.

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