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GreyMatter September 16, 2015

“Make the World You Want” – The Rise of Mozilla Firefox

It’s easy to forget how powerful Microsoft was only fifteen years ago. In 2000, Microsoft had 97% market share of its operating system in computers and, at its peak in 2004, Internet Explorer reached 95% market share of web browsers. “It became clear that the possibilities of the web were being funneled through that company,” remembers Mozilla Chairwoman Mitchell Baker.

While Internet Explorer market share continued to rise, Baker, along with a small group of early “Mozillians”, felt web innovation was slowing down, and the possibilities of the Internet needed to be opened. Knowing they could never compete head-to-head with the tech giant, the Mozilla team conceptualized a more robust and user-friendly browsing experience that leveraged an community of open-source contributors that was larger and more diverse than any one company could possibly hire internally. “We thought a lot about how to compete asymmetrically,” recalls John Lilly, former CEO of Mozilla and current investment partner at Greylock.

In pre-GitHub times, the idea of open source was not widespread. It was for just developers and geeks, not the average consumer. However, the release of the open source Mozilla 1.0 browser suite in 2002 (and later Firefox in 2004) galvanized a lot of energy in people. Mozilla spawned a global community of people who were passionate about the idea of free software that also enabled more choice and flexibility in how people use the Internet. Lilly saw open source as an “intoxicating idea because anyone in the world can say whatever they want, debate it out and, if it works, the software changes and it’s distributed to tons and tons of people.”

The ambitious mission and worldwide collaboration became key to enabling Mozilla to compete with Microsoft. In just a year after release, Firefox was downloaded more than 100 million times, largely because the browser introduced features users wanted like anti-phishing, an integrated pop-up blocker, and tabbed browsing. Microsoft didn’t debut a competitive version of Internet Explorer until IE7 in 2006, their first major update in over five years. “They didn’t know what to make of us until we were big,” contends Lilly. “By the time we were at 7-8% [of web browser market share], it was already finished.”

Firefox is now used by half a billion people around the world and approximately 40% of its code is written by their global volunteer community.