How 12 people banded together to make Firefox 1.0

Hair there and everywhere: according to Baker her hairstyle’s similarity to a Firefox tail is entirely coincidental

I had the rare opportunity to talk one-on-one to Mozilla Foundation CEO Mitchell Baker after her keynote speech at CeBIT Sydney. I was staggered to find out how few people were involved in creating Firefox 1.0.

Dan Warne (APC): Firefox seems to have been a stunning success but it can be hard to get a true idea of just how small it was to begin with and how big it has become.

Mitchell Baker: Yes — the Mozilla project started in 1998 and was originally housed inside Netscape – a virtual organisation. We had thought about having an independent organisation for a long time and finally in 2003 it was decided it was time to give us some seed money some critical assets and the Mozilla name.

But in the short‑term even the development machines we had were pretty critical as there was no known financial sustainability path at the time.

So the foundation started with ten or eleven employees and we grew by maybe two or three employees in the next 15 months. So when we shipped Firefox we had maybe 15 employees it was very slim.

Dan Warne (APC): That’s an amazingly small team for such a complex product.

Mitchell Baker: It might have even been 12. It was very slim at the time. It was really a leap of faith on the part of all of us that it had to happen and something would work out.

We had a pretty good inkling before we shipped Firefox 10 that we were on to something and that our product and the timing was right. Probably as early as summer or maybe May or June of 2004 we could tell by the level of technology interest and the number of people using it that we were in a good spot.

But we couldn’t predict what happened with the actual release of Firefox 1.0 and how it took off. So that was unexpected or unpredictable. I think a launch like that is pretty hard to predict. It suddenly seemed to storm out of nowhere although we had been doing it for a long time.

One of the things that we spent a long time thinking about as we got Firefox 1.0 ready for release was how to make it as much a consumer-focused product as possible. This was a big change for us; the design of the product has always been focused towards your grandmother or your grandfather some smart respected person who was technologically not focused. How would that person enjoy using the Internet?

So that had been built into the product but as we came down to the end stretch there were certain other things like what did it look like the first time you started it up? And today I think Firefox is pretty well known for the search box and the simple start page and so on but that was a long long long discussion for us.

Dan Warne (APC): Really? It seems like such an obvious thing.

Mitchell Baker: Yes because this was one of the very early moves from being really developer-centric not in the product design but in the presentation of it.

We had very long discussions about whether it should be a portal page what do people really want should we leave it with the Mozilla “please help us write code here’s our bug tracking system” page which is what it was before things like that.

We finally came to the conclusion that the old developer start page was not appropriate and that the one thing we knew people did was search. People do many things on the web but if you’re trying to find something that almost everybody does search was the only thing that we were really comfortable with.

So that made our choice for the start page search and it turned out that Google was interested in doing that with us and creating a joint start page. So that’s how we ended up with the start page. I think that was a good decision because a lot of people really do like it and even now when you look at people who customise their start page it varies widely and trying to pick something other than search I still today wouldn’t know what to pick.

We also came to agreement with search engines about revenue related to search. So as Firefox market share took off – and I think it grew at a percent a month for the first X months – it turned out of course many more people were using it than we expected and the combination of search and the start page and the search box turned out to make search really useful.

So more people used Firefox and more people did more searches than we expected out of that. And so our hope for some sustainability model turned out to be positive it turned out well and it also generated more money than we would have expected in the first place.

Read more of the interview with Mitchell Baker: