Happy Birthday, Firefox 1.0

Like a set of proud parents on its baby’s first birthday, the Mozilla Foundation is grinning from ear to ear today. Its precocious Web browser, Firefox 1.0, is one year old.

In terms of popularity, media coverage and impact, the Web browser enjoys a position any startup technology would envy.

In roughly a year’s time, Firefox 1.0 has amassed 100 million downloads and has a legion of devoted followers at Spreadfirefox.com who make it their mission to preach the gospel of Firefox to the rest of the world.

But finding its identity seems to have been one of Firefox’s biggest issues from the beginning.

The journey really began in September 2002 with the launch of Phoenix, a standalone version of the Mozilla suite. Like the legendary Phoenix of lore, the Phoenix browser was essentially a resurrection of the Netscape browser, which went down in flames in the so-called browser wars against Microsoft .

In early April 2003, Mozilla.org proposed to make Phoenix its standalone default browser. A few weeks later, the org changed the browser name from Phoenix to Firebird because of undisclosed legal issues.

Later that year, Mozilla.org split from Netscape’s parent company, AOL , and folded into the Mozilla Foundation.

And the name changes weren’t done. Firebird changed to Firefox in February 2004 to avoid another legal tussle.

There’s a certain amount of irony to be found from Firefox’s modest beginning and shaky start as a standalone browser.

According to a report last week by Web analytics firm OneStat.com, Firefox has captured 11.5 percent of the browser market, with Microsoft Internet Explorer garnering a still-dominant but shrinking 85 percent share of the market.

Apple Safari took 1.75 percent of the market, the statistics show, while the Opera and Netscape browsers lag far behind at less than 1 percent.

“The global usage share of Mozilla’s browsers is still growing and it seems that Netscape users and some Internet Explorer users are switching to the Firefox version,” Niels Brinkman, OneStat.com co-founder, said in a statement accompanying the report.

Once a splinter project of the Mozilla Suite, Firefox has become the most popular development project within the Mozilla Foundation. That was enough to prompt officials to devote more energy to Firefox at the expense of the suite.

The rapid popularity of Firefox, even before the official launch a year ago, prompted renewed interest throughout the browser community.

AOL, which hadn’t launched a new version of Netscape since version 7 in August 2002, came out with Netscape 8 in May of this year, based on the Firefox engine.

Developers at Opera and Apple partnered with the Mozilla Foundation to work on the Netscape Plugin Application Interface (NPAPI) to improve the Web-browsing experience.

Microsoft also jumped in as a result of the Firefox buzz and kick-started development of IE 7.

As any professional sports fan will tell you, standout rookies sometimes experience a sophomore year letdown, but Mozilla Foundation officials aren’t waiting around for that to happen.

The organization plans to release Firefox 1.5 in a few weeks (release candidate 1 is live on the site), and the company recently launched an Extend Firefox competition to get developers to create plug-ins to the browser.

Firefox 2.0, code-named The Ocho, is expected sometime in 2006.

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