After rough start, Firefox marks fifth birthday

I never would have expected this. Firefox is five years old.

Despite its promise from the jump, Firefox spent its beta period without any real identity. Literally.

At first no one was really sure what to call it. For a while it was known as Phoenix, then Firebird. I believe the developers had to come up with a fast name change because there’s another piece of software called Firebird, and branding is a big thing in the computer world.

With such an inauspicious beginning, it’s amazing to see that the product survived, let alone developed a reputation as a stable browser.

To further confuse things, Firefox is open source, meaning you can take the code, tweak it, build something else from it, and rebrand it. This was done with Debian Linux, as the Firefox brand is copyrighted though the source code is not, so that thing that looks and feels like Firefox is called Iceweasel or some such thing. I’ve also used BonEcho, a rebranded, stripped-down version of Firefox for the ultralight Puppy Linux.

For a while, one of the lesser-known and more tongue-in-cheek Firefox extensions available was called firesomething, which would put a whole different name on the browser every time you run it. The name on it may be SnowSnake this time, and maybe something like BlizzardLizard the next. It was a goofy extension, but brought a chuckle to this user who remembered Firefox’s early search for a name.

The browser made it out of beta and released Version 1.0 five years ago this week. Within four days, more than a million people downloaded it. I was one of them.

I was one of the early Firefox adopters. I was running an assembled-from-scratch computer, and already I was sick of Internet Explorer’s balkiness and security leaks. I went to the old Mozilla suite, and when that company announced it was throwing its resources into a new, browser-only project, I had to try it out.

The design was a thing of beauty. You were getting a basic browser, and you’d add whatever you feel you needed to it. Now, five years later, the modular design remains. My Firefox has the experimental Google Gears extension, plus the LastPass password keeper. But the biggest extension I have is ScribeFire, which allows me to compose blogs within the browser and post them seamlessly. ScribeFire is big, adds more bloat to the browser, and is sometimes buggy so I’m a bit lukewarm about it. But I use it.

A caveat about Firefox: The more add-ons and extensions you install, the slower it will run. It’s like running a car with all the options instead of a model with power nothing and the kind of air conditioner you get when you open all four windows. But even with a lot of chrome on it, Firefox is a good browser, stable, and secure. The developers stay on top of things, and are quicker to solve their bugs than the Microsoft people are at admitting there’s a problem with IE. For a while, Firefox had a problem where it would blow up in your memory and consume every CPU cycle you had, but that was solved several updates ago.

Over time, Mozilla dropped its old browser and made Firefox its big Web browsing application. Recently, some fans of the old Mozilla browser took the source code, tweaked a few things, updated the whole thing, and released it as Seamonkey.

Now, Firefox is taking a decent chunk of the browser market. It’s the main browser by about 25 percent of Web users, but that’s a funny number. Firefox is not routinely installed on computers out of the box, and many users tend to stick with what’s already on the box — like Internet Explorer. Figure it. To use Internet Explorer you unpack the computer, plug it in, and double-click on the big “e” on the screen. You have to go out of your way to get Firefox — and then install it yourself. But, Firefox now grabs a bigger share than the obsolete IE version 6, which is still a step ahead.

Recently, MozillaZine announced that Firefox was present on a majority — 50.6 percent — of computers, based on numbers by the exo.performance.network. So someone, somewhere, is doing an awful lot of downloading.

But while Firefox has seen some real growth lately, the year-old Google Chrome is growing even faster. Roughly four percent of computer users are making Chrome the prime browser, so that one has a way to go, but the growth rate matches the buzz it’s generating. I played some with Chrome, but its development has primarily been on the Windows and, more recently, MacIntosh side. Still, I’m pleased by its lightness and speed — by comparison a fully-loaded Firefox is kludgy — but Chrome has an unfinished feel to it. I do suspect that, once it is ported to Linux, I may put it on my front line.

Firefox is still my go-to browser, but mostly because it works better with much of the stuff on the Web (particularly the experimental Google Labs widgets). It’s probably a little bloated for my taste, though. Much as I tend to shy away from those large, do-everything suites (such as Open Office), I like Seamonkey (the rebuilt and reissued Mozilla browser suite) a bit better. Even with the built-in mail reader and HTML editor, its design is lighter than the browser-only Firefox. I do like Opera for the same reason, though it hasn’t caught on in the mainstream computer world at all. Too bad. Opera is the only one that has a chance of outrunning Chrome in a speed test. Both of them are much quicker than Firefox, while IE lags so far behind you’d need searchlights to find it.

But if you want pure speed, Lynx runs circles around all of them, including Google Chrome. But since Lynx is text-only, you might have a problem watching those YouTube videos on it.

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