The Andrew Turnbull Mozilla Network





A Visual Browser History, from Netscape 4 to Mozilla Firefox

The development and evolution of the Mozilla browser, from its Netscape-seeded beginnings through the Firefox releases of today, can be fascinating. Numerous changes occurred to the software in terms of technology, features, and appearance; particularly when Mozilla and Mozilla Firefox were both in their infancy and many groundbreaking developments were made. Much of this software was not widely seen or used when initially released, with its focus limited to enterprising testers and developers for several years. Several releases however provided the basis for Netscape 6.x and 7.x releases that were oriented towards end users, which as an essential part of the context are also covered here.

Although I could have conceivably traced this chronology all the way back to Netscape in 1994, I have chosen to limit my focus to the post-Netscape 4.x browser development that began from the time Netscape released its preliminary "5.0" source code on March 31, 1998 through the present day. For consistency, I have also chosen to show the browsers running on Windows 95 (which was current at the time the original code was released) at the same screen size displaying the respective browser's "About" page when possible.

For convenience, I've divided things up into four sections:

[Netscape Navigator 4.04 screenshot] As a point of reference, we'll begin our look back at the history of Mozilla with a screenshot of Netscape Navigator 4.04, which was current at the time when Netscape released most of the source code to its next browser release in development on March 31, 1998.
[Unofficial Netscape 5.0 screenshot] After the Netscape source code was released, some enterprising users attempted to compile it. This is a screenshot of one such unofficial "Netscape 5.0" build, available for download here.

The user interface at this point was substantially the same as that of Netscape 4.x, although Netscape trademark references were changed to the codename "Mozilla" or removed altogether.

The fire-breathing Mozilla lizard graphic used on this "About" screen was originally one of many mascot graphics used on Netscape's website in 1994-95, and would reappear on Mozilla later on.

Many features are non-functional, and this happens to be the buggiest piece of software I have ever used; with frequent error dialogues and crashes. Given circumstances such as these, perhaps it's not surprising that later in 1998 the decision was made to practically rewrite the browser from scratch...
[Netscape Gecko Preview screenshot] There is little detailed documentation of what "Netscape 5.0" development went on throughout 1998, and due to the circumstances of the time nearly all development work was limited to inside the walls of Netscape headquarters. (A page was once created on MozillaZine containing screenshots from this era...and it still exists!)

In December 1998, however, Netscape did publicly release a developer preview based upon this development work and its new rendering engine, called NGLayout or "Gecko." This preview was not intended as a traditional browser beta as much as a press demonstration of the new rendering technology.

Curiously, this build produces the user agent string of "Mozilla/4.05 [en] (Win95; I)," leading me to wonder if Netscape created the preview by taking Navigator 4.05 and somehow grafting the new rendering engine into it.
[Mozilla Milestone 3 screenshot] In March 1999, the first "proper" next-generation Netscape browser preview was released under the moniker of "Milestone 3" (Milestones 1 and 2 were apparently limited to internal development).

A new user interface with bluish-purple toolbar buttons was introduced, and due to the open-source nature of the program Netscape trademarks were again absent.

Interestingly, the "throbber" graphic used on this build was the same blue "N" used as an interim logo on Netscape Navigator 0.96 and 1.0 back in 1994.

Although this is usually considered the first proper "Mozilla" release, there are in fact no overt references to "Mozilla" on the browser: The start page calls it "the Gecko Browser," while the Help menu instead references "Communicator Prototype."

These early Mozilla milestones had quite a few bugs: This particular release has many non-functional features, and the status bar runs off the bottom of the screen at low display resolutions; as seen here.
[Mozilla Milestone 4 screenshot] Mozilla Milestone 4 introduced a number of developments and changes.

The Netscape 1.0 throbber was replaced by a new Gecko-themed one, in which many words and phrases (including "search," "ecstatic," "together," "free," "hungry," "all for you," and "feel good") scrolled past in four directions as the browser retrieved information.

The caption "Mozilla" was (temporarily) added to the title bar, a vestigial "Help" menu option was added, fewer links were placed on the Personal Toolbar by default, the purple-tinted Taskbar and status bar were now visible at low screen resolutions, and the sidebar—a characteristic feature of almost all subsequent Mozilla and Netscape releases—was enabled by default.
[Mozilla Milestone 5 screenshot] The changes in Milestone 5 were again minor, with some extra 3D definition added to the top and left edges of the toolbars and the word "Mozilla" removed from the title bar yet again.

The sidebar had been visually revamped, although it was still primarily non-functional. The sidebar panel in this screenshot rather resembles a mock-up of AOL Instant Messenger, although Don Luchini tells me he thinks it was intended to be a Resource Description Framework-based navigator at one point.
[Mozilla Milestone 8 screenshot] As already mentioned, these early Mozilla milestones were very buggy, and in fact I couldn't get M6 or M7 to run at all without freezing. By the time Milestone 8 had been released to prospective testers in July 1999, most of the user interface had acquired a lavender tint, the toolbar icons were more widely spaced, and a "Translate" button had been added.

The "Chat" button had been removed from the Taskbar, and text on the status bar now had 3D borders drawn around them. Additionally, the browser no longer defaulted to an internal start page, the "Mozilla" caption reappeared on the title bar (this time for good), and the "QA" menu compiling frequently-used testing tools had made its first appearance.

Interestingly, the Help menu still referenced the software as "Communicator Prototype" at this time.
[Mozilla Milestone 9 screenshot] Branding had improved slightly in Mozilla Milestone 9, with the familiar "m" throbber now in position replacing the earlier Gecko one and the Help menu now making references to only "Communicator" proper.

Given away by their purple tint and "grippy" control, custom-drawn menus first appeared in the Windows and (presumably) Linux versions at this point.

Some buttons and controls had also been changed: The "Translate" button was removed, the 3D borders on the status bar were again omitted, the component icons moved from the right side to the left side of the Taskbar, and other elements on the Taskbar were now limited to three menus titled "Mozilla," "Shopping," and "Open Windows."

Milestone 10 (which I was unable to run due to a crash error) is similar.
[Mozilla Milestone 11 screenshot] The visual changes that came to Mozilla with Milestone 11 were dramatic, at the very least. A totally new teal and blue look with stylized round toolbar buttons was adopted, throwing normal OS-native interface conventions into the blender. It matched Netscape's web page layout of the time, though.

The sidebar was streamlined, the separate executable used to run the program was retitled from "apprunner" to "mozilla," an "About" screen (seen here) was now implemented, a "Search" button was added to the location field, and the "Shopping" menu on the Taskbar was (wisely, IMO) omitted. The Personal Toolbar was reduced to a sliver above the main toolbar, and also duplicated the Bookmarks menu.

By this point, virtually all remaining references to "Communicator 5.0" in the browser or directory structure had been removed.
[Mozilla Milestone 12 screenshot] Minor changes continued to work their way into the software in M12, with the "My Netscape" option removed from the Personal Toolbar and a custom-drawn scrollbar replacing the lingering OS-native element.
[Mozilla Milestone 13 screenshot] Mozilla Milestone 13 was released in January 2000 and looked almost identical to the previous release. The Personal Toolbar and Taskbar captions were increased ever so slightly in size, and the "What's Related" sidebar panel was closed by default when first running the program: Changes clearly on the hair-splitting side.

In terms of packaging, however, Milestone 13 introduced an option of an installer to Windows and Macintosh users. The installer screens and resulting Start Menu item (in Windows) are captioned "Mozilla Seamonkey," with "Seamonkey" being the codename for the application.
[Mozilla Milestone 14 screenshot] More significant changes made their way into Mozilla M14.

The cryptic text-line application runner had been removed (or at very least, rendered invisible). The software "About" screen was redesigned and now included the famous mozilla.org star logo and user agent string (though the wrong milestone number was denoted in it!).

There were some minor visual tweaks as well: The drop-arrow was removed from the location field and the "Search" button moved from inside to outside it.

[Mozilla Milestone 14 application icon] Furthermore, the first Mozilla application icon was added (seen at right), and the old fire-breathing Mozilla lizard graphic from circa 1994 was brought back as an application splash screen retained through Mozilla 1.2.1 in 2002.
[Netscape 6.0 Preview Release 1 screenshot] The first preview release, or formal beta, for Netscape 6.0 was released in April 2000, and with the exception of the Gecko developer preview from late 1998 this was the first Netscape-branded release since the groundbreaking of post-4.x browser development.

This presented an interesting circumstance, as the previous Mozilla-branded milestones already effectively served as betas for Netscape 6.0. This nevertheless was the first release to get extensive media attention and it introduced a number of proprietary features and other differences not in Mozilla M14; upon which it was based.

[Netscape 6.0 application icon] Aside from the obvious presence of the Netscape name and freshened logo (seen in the icon at right), more bookmarks and Personal Toolbar entries were listed by default. The selection of sidebar panels and menus on the Taskbar tying into various AOL "content services" was increased and differed from those of Mozilla. The "Search" button gained some additional 3D shadowing, and its caption was capitalized. Finally, the arcane "Debug" and "QA" menus essential to developers were omitted.

Why was it Netscape 6, though...what happened to version 5? The version number of the software was bumped up with the preview, presumably for marketing reasons: Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0 had been out for a year at this time.
[Mozilla Milestone 15 screenshot] Small changes were made to the toolbar of Mozilla Milestone 15, with the gray stripe at bottom reduced in thickness, the location field icon changed, and the "Search" button given 3D shading.

A padlock icon also seen on the first Netscape 6.0 preview was restored to the status bar to indicate encrypted websites, and other subtle changes to the definition or positioning of other elements near the bottom of the window were made as well.

[Mozilla Milestone 15 application icon] Finally, another new application icon was adopted (seen at right), appearing on the application's title bar and taskbar in Windows and this time returning to the original Gecko motif.
[Mozilla Milestone 16 screenshot] Mozilla Milestone 16 introduced notable visual and functional changes:

After being reduced to a sliver, the Personal Toolbar was expanded in size and relocated below the standard toolbar (reverting to the convention of Netscape 4.x and Mozilla milestones prior to M11). The "Search" button was moved back inside the location field with the drop-arrow reinstated as well, albeit to the other end, and drop-down lists were now available from the "Back" and "Forward" buttons. An online/offline button was added to the status bar, and the other elements near the bottom of the window were repositioned again.

Netscape/Mozilla also finally began to indicate software feature changes in its release notes at this time, and likewise some of the other new features manifesting themselves in M16 included Chatzilla (an IRC client accessory), visual "skin" switching, and automatic completion of URLs.

As an added bonus, the famous Netscape Book of Mozilla easter egg was reinstated in the software, now turned to chapter and verse 3:31 (Red Letter Edition).
[Mozilla Milestone 17 screenshot] According to the release notes, the Mozilla M17 development cycle included "the last of the major feature work" intended for Mozilla 1.0, even though the actual version 1.0 release proved still to be over a year and a half away.

Visually, the build number was relocated from the status bar to the title bar, the drop-arrow was moved back to the right end of the location field and rendered almost invisible, and for some reason the "Debug" and "QA" menus were omitted from this singular release.

In terms of major feature changes, an optional "classic" visual interface theme was implemented (although it was not yet enabled by default); intuitive tooltips were added to controls, scroll position began to be saved in session history, helper application support was re-implemented, and support for both MNG images and PNG alpha-channel transparencies was added...the latter being a feature Internet Explorer wouldn't have until seven years later.
[Netscape 6.0 Preview Release 2 screenshot] The second Netscape 6.0 preview release, developed more or less simultaneously with Mozilla M17, contained a number of changes and improvements. The fully-integrated version of AOL Instant Messenger (a signature feature of Netscape 6 and 7) was now functional. Mouse wheel support worked. And most importantly of all, the software was easier to uninstall when testers were through.

Practically all references to the browser (such as on the title bar) were to not Netscape but "Netscape 6;" as if to stress the difference between it and the older Netscape Communicator 4.x releases.

Obviously, Netscape and then-owner AOL would be compelled to use the browser to seek commercial gain, as the number of references to AOL Time Warner properties such as CNN and features such as "AOL on Desktop" attested...
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Last update November 18, 2013.