It was summer 2002, and I was on a bike tour across Michigan. For downtime reading I’d brought a bunch of unread magazines. One of the magazines I brought was a semi-recent PC Magazine with a review of the various browsers of the time. The major browsers were the focus, but a sidebar mentioned the Mozilla Suite and noted its being open source and open to downloads and contributions from anyone. It sounded unique and piqued my interest, so I filed the information away for future reference.
Sometime after I got home I downloaded a version of the Mozilla Suite: good, certainly better than Internet Explorer, but ponderous in its UI. I recommended it to a few people, but because of the UI somewhat half-heartedly, in an “if you can tolerate the UI, it’s better” sort of sense. Somehow I stumbled into downloading betas and later nightlies, and I began reading and triaging bugs, even reporting a few bugs (duplicates!) of my own.
Sometime later, probably through the MozillaZine default bookmark, I learned about Phoenix, the then-current name of the browser whose ultimate name would be Firefox. (Very shortly after this it acquired the Firebird name, which stuck for only a couple releases until the ultimate rename.) It seemed to do everything the Suite did (or at least everything I cared about) without the horrible UI. I began recommending it unreservedly to people, surreptitiously installing it on high school computers, and so on.
One notable lack in Firebird of the time was its lack of help documentation. Firebird was good stuff. I wanted to see it succeed. I could fix this. So I began contributing to the Firebird Help project that wrote built-in help documentation for the browser. At the time this was an external project whose contents were occasionally imported into the main tree. (I believe it later moved directly into the tree, although I’m not certain. Ultimately the entire system was replaced with fully-online documentation, which fixed a whole bunch of problems around ease of contribution — not least that I’d lost time to contribute to that particular aspect, mostly having moved onto other things in the project.) Thus began the start of several years of work writing help documentation describing various parts of the UI, including a late-breaking October 2004 weekend spent documenting the new preferences UI in 1.0 — in just before the buzzer!
I observed release day from a distance in my dorm room, but Air Mozilla made that experience more immediate than it might have been. (218 users on the IRC channel! How times have changed. Our main developer channel as I write this contains 448 people, and that seems pretty typical.) Air Mozilla wasn’t nearly as polished or streamlined as it is now. Varying-quality Creative Commons music as interludes between interviews, good times. But it was a start.
Ten years (and two internships, one proto-summit and two summits, and fulltime employment) later, I think it’s both surprising and unsurprising just how far Mozilla and Firefox have come. Surprising, in that entering a market where the main competitor has 95% of the market usually isn’t a winning strategy. (But you can’t win if you don’t try.) Yet also unsurprising, as Internet Explorer was really bad compared to its competition. (When released, IE6 was a really good browser, just as Tinderbox [now doubly-replaced] was once a really good continuous-integration system. But it’s not enough to be good at one instant.) And a serendipitously-timed wave of IE security vulnerabilities over summer 2004 helped, too. 🙂
Here’s to another ten years and a new round of challenges.