What has Mozilla done for the web?

Mozilla: More than a browser
Mozilla was founded from the ashes of Netscape

Most people know Mozilla as the maker of the Firefox web browser. Indeed, creating a web browser, or a suite of web tools including a mail client and much more, is how Mozilla started out.

However, it has become far more than a browser creator.

Mozilla now says that its mission is "to promote openness, innovation and opportunity on the web". But where did this wider mission come from? What does it mean? And what projects is Mozilla pursuing today?

The birth of Mozilla

In 1998, Netscape released the source code of its Communicator suite to the public, through the Mozilla Organisation, and tasked it with creating a next generation internet suite named Mozilla.

While Netscape announced this move as a means to "accelerate development and distribution of future versions of Netscape Communicator to business customers and individuals," to many it appeared to be the first evidence that Netscape was losing the browser war with Microsoft.

Although Netscape, or Mozilla itself, never officially sanctioned this idea, in retrospect it seems that their struggles with Microsoft were almost certainly a motivating factor. Microsoft bundled Internet Explorer with Windows, effectively giving away a product for free.

This was fine for Microsoft, which could rely on income from Windows and Office, but it was a huge problem for Netscape: In order for Netscape to maintain market share, it also had to give its primary product away; but unlike Microsoft, Netscape had no other substantial revenue streams. It managed to sustain this for a short time, but it wasn't a burden it could suffer for long.

Open sourcing the code was a way for Netscape to keep fighting for longer, as it gave it access to a pool of talented, passionate developers for little cost. In the end, it became clear that just releasing the source code for Netscape's product wasn't enough to compete with Microsoft's integration of Internet Explorer with Windows.

By the arrival of Internet Explorer 5, Microsoft had gained more than 60% of the market share, and by the time of Internet Explorer 6, it had more than 90%. This led to Netscape being bought by AOL later in 1998, and then being disbanded in 2003.

Netscape had been one of the companies leading the dot-com revolution and the creation of the open web. It was this same action, however, that led to the evolution of the Mozilla Organisation into the Mozilla Foundation. This new entity was independent of Netscape and AOL (which funded its initial operations with a gift of $2 million).

Announcing the Foundation's formation, Mozilla said that it would give it "more freedom to innovate and provide meaningful choice to users on all computer environments". This is a markedly different tone from that taken in the press release noting the creation of the Mozilla Organisation. Rather than being tasked with leveraging free development to help further a private entity's business, the Mozilla Foundation's goal was maintaining freedom of choice, and helping to drive innovation.

Web stagnation

How did this shift happen? Well, without being inside Mozilla at the time, we can only speculate, but it seems the browser wars demonstrated the importance of a competitive browser market, and the open web, to those at Mozilla.

Before Microsoft's outright victory, helped by the inclusion of Internet Explorer in Windows, the browser wars had been fought by all sides on innovation and standards support. Eric Meyer, a well-known web developer and standards advocate, described Internet Explorer 5 as, "a big step forward for web surfing on the Macintosh. In terms of standards, it is far and away the best browser available to Macintosh users…"

This praise was based on the inclusion of innovations such as excellent CSS1 support, fair support for CSS2, full PNG support and Text Zoom. These were all a boon for usability, and massively reduced the complexity of designing new websites.

After Microsoft's victory, everything changed. There were two years between the release of Internet Explorer 5 and 6, and then five years between 6 and 7. Innovation stopped at the exact moment that competition disappeared. Microsoft also discontinued support for Internet Explorer on platforms other than Windows – up until this point it had been available on Windows, Mac and Solaris systems.

If there had been other browsers with significant market share, this might not have been such an issue, but there weren't. The ubiquitous nature of Internet Explorer meant that many sites were created with it specifically in mind, and optimised to work with its increasingly quirky standards implementations.

Following Hurricane Katrina, Ars Technica revealed how the American Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) online registration site for disaster help wouldn't work with any browser other than Internet Explorer 6.

This browser ran only on XP, which precluded the organisation from setting up registration kiosks on some donated hardware, and increased time to deploy because of the need to properly secure the system. It also meant they would have to pay lots for Windows licenses.

Obviously, there were problems with this situation, and Mozilla, having experienced the difficulties first-hand, decided to make it their mission to support an open, competitive Internet.

The browser as a tool

Although what was being fought over had become far greater than just browser market share, the weapon that Mozilla decided to wield in this battle was the web browser (Firefox, to be exact).

Announcing the formation of yet another entity, the Mozilla Corporation, Mozilla said the project's overriding goal was "to provide a web browser with enough market share to drive open standards on the web". In effect, the plan was to create a great web browser, one much better than the competition, but to ensure it complies to web standards.

As users started to adopt Firefox in significant numbers, developers were forced to create websites that complied with standards, and not just Internet Explorer's idea of standards. If they didn't, they'd risk locking out a significant number of tech-savy users. And it worked.

Firefox quickly gained a market share of more than 10%, and racked up more than 100 million downloads. It has gone from strength to strength, and in some jurisdictions has more than a 50% share.

More important than market share, however, is the impact Firefox has had on the rest of the browser landscape. Internet Explorer has lost substantial market share, which has pushed Microsoft to start innovating again; and its latest effort, Internet Explorer 9, is not bad.

Then there's the fact that it opened up the market and made the idea of alternative browsers viable again. Now there's healthy competition in the browser market, between Google, Microsoft and Mozilla, and they're all innovating and pushing web standards; and the web is getting better and faster.

Mozilla hasn't stopped at solving the problem of user choice and freedom on the web. Instead, it has identified a number of other challenges that the open web faces. A common theme in many of these challenges is that Mozilla seeks to resolve the problems by building on open standards, or working with others to create these standards where necessary.

So, what challenges are now on Mozilla's radar, and what solutions are they beginning to build? Let's find out.