Our guess is that you wouldn't be reading this unless you already know what a web browser is. However, if you don't: it's the software used to visit and view web pages on the Internet.
The Internet is a giant network of computers all connected to each other. It has grown from the first four systems that were originally connected in 1969 to currently over a billion systems and growing. Some of the computers connected to the Internet are "web servers." These web servers run software that allows them to deliver web pages. The vast network of web Servers on the Internet provides access to over 10 billion web pages and a continually growing and evolving set of web content and services. If you want to access these pages from your personal computer, laptop, or mobile device, you need to run a software program that knows how to do this. This is the purpose of a web browser.
Browsers have had one of the most public and interesting competitive lives of any software.
The first browser that could display images alongside text was known as Mosaic, and it really was an innovation that changed the world. In 1994, Marc Andreessen and a few of the original Mosaic developers banded together to start Netscape along with Jim Clark, a well known Silicon Valley entrepreneur. The early days of commercial browser development were marked by high energy and many innovations that continued to expand and improve the kinds of information the internet could provide. Every week it seemed that new sites popped up and new features appeared in browsers. A Wired Magazine article (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/2.10/mosaic.html) captured some of the excitement from those early days when browsers and the web were starting to take off and grow rapidly.
However, while Mosaic and then Netscape Navigator were first to enter the game, they failed to corner the market. After a relatively short and aggressive "browser war", Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) took the lead. Through spending over $100 million on the development and promotion of IE and aggressive business practices, Microsoft was able to capture around 96% market share of all browsers in use. Some of the business practices Microsoft engaged in during the "browser war" were later determined to be anti-trust violations (http://www.usdoj.gov/atr/cases/ms_index.htm). With control of the market and no perceived business case for improving the browser, Microsoft began scaling back development in 2002 and 2003. In 2003 it announced there would be no more standalone versions of Internet Explorer (http://www.usdoj.gov/atr/cases/ms_index.htm).
With Microsoft out of the game, Netscape in decline, and many websites using pop-ups and untargeted advertising schemes, some consider 2001-2004 as a dark age of innovation and improvements for browsers and the web.
A new chapter was added to this story with the debut of Firefox. Firefox is a distant descendant of Mosaic and Netscape. In 1998, Netscape set up the Mozilla Project and made its browser code freely available as an experimental strategy to gain a competitive advantage against Microsoft. This allowed programmers around the world to study the Mozilla code and follow its development. As time passed, this community of developers continued to contribute to its development. Netscape and AOL (which had acquired Netscape) remained heavily involved with Mozilla and released several Netscape and AOL products from the evolving Mozilla code. However, interest in browser development waned at AOL over time and in early 2003 AOL decided to reduce involvement, setting the project free to chart its own course.
In 2003, the Mozilla Foundation was created as an independent organization. The stage was set for the growing Mozilla community to leverage Netscape's past investment in browser code and make its own mark. This passionate community focused on the creation of a next-generation browser named Firefox.The goals for Firefox were simple: Make a light-weight browser that was fast and easy to use. It would put users back in control of their web surfing experience. It would not compromise on any part of the user experience with annoyances. It would also add an extension system that would give users the power to customize, experiment with, and tune the browser in thousands of ways.
In 2004, Firefox 1.0 was released. Since then the number of users has grown steadily. As of 2009, Firefox has about a 23% worldwide market share, with more than 300 million of the 1.2 billion Internet users around the world using Firefox as their web browser. The day Firefox 3 was released, in an event known as "Download Day", more than 8 million users downloaded the new version in a single day.
Firefox continues to innovate. With features such as an easy method for subscribing to automatically updated news headlines, home page tabs that help you get to content on the web faster, built-in pop-up blocking, and the expanding number of extensions that allow you to tailor your browser, Firefox helps you to stay in control of the way you interact with the web. Firefox has sparked renewed interest in improving web browsers.
In response to Firefox, Microsoft changed its plans, restarted its browser development and released IE7 and recently IE8. Apple and Google have also become involved in efforts to build new web browsers (Safari and Chrome, respectively). Innovation and choice is returning to browsers and the web.
Firefox runs on any operating system and is localized in over 75 different languages. It is built by a community of developers around the world who are passionate about improving the browser and the web. Best of all, Firefox is free!
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