mozilla.org's 25th anniversary

Big Tech layoffs are in the news, you say?

On January 20th, 1998, Netscape laid off a lot of people. One of them would have been me, as my "department", such as it was, had been eliminated, but I ended up mometarily moving from "clienteng" over to the "website" division. For about 48 hours I thought that I might end up writing a webmail product or something.

That, uh, didn't happen.

At 8am on January 22, 1998, Netscape put out a press release announcing that the source code to the web browser would be released to the public at the end of March. This was the first that I had heard that this was even being considered.

Lacking any coherent information or direction from management (spoiler alert, there was no plan! none!) a handful of us in the trenches had some impromptu meetings, which began something like:

"What the fuck, I mean what the actual fuck?"
"I thought you got fired? Someone told me you were fired."
"I don't think I'm fired, are you fired?" "I don't think so?"
"Ok so are we doing this? I guess we're doing this?"
"We're doing what now?"

"I got this."

So then I registered the domain mozilla.org. According to WHOIS, the registration went live on January 23rd at 9pm.

The rest, as they say, is cvs log. I mean history. The rest is history.

Here are some photos I took at a meeting we held in early February 1998. (On film! With a camera manfactured in the nineteen seventies! Every photo you took, even the bad ones, cost you like a dollar!) That's Pacman trying to explain to The Usual Suspects the proposed org chart that I had drawn on the wall. Please note that "THE INTERNET" is represented as A CLOUD, because that was the style at the time.


The oldest version of mozilla.org in the Wayback Machine is from December 12, 1998, so I have reconstructed some older versions of the web site.

For the first month, I was hosting the mozilla.org domain on my own server, just to have a placeholder there, and I don't seem to have a copy of that first version. It took me that whole month to figure out how to move the hosting into the corporate data center. But here's the oldest version that I was able to reconstruct from the mozilla.org CVS repository:

And here are a few later copies:

That "Sponsored by DevEdge Online" thing in the top banner is because upper management assumed that the way "open source" worked was, the internal "developer relations" consultancy division would just fart out a zip file and then corporate customers would... handwave handwave... pay us for something? Disabusing them of this notion was a big part of my job that first month.

Fun fact! When I wrote the mozilla.org web site, I designed it to have a "source" directory that contained just the document bodies, and a Makefile generated an output directory that wrapped the headers and menus and such around that to emit the static web site that was actually served. The output directory was not checked into the source control archive, obviously, so I don't have a copy of that. So... I dug up the old CVS archive, checked out those old web site source revs, and then I had to run that website-generating perl script that I wrote 25 years ago.

...it worked without any modifications. Self-high-five.

And I gotta say, that old web site design hasn't really decayed much. If I were tweaking it today I'd have put a max-width on body of 50em or so to avoid the long lines, and I would for sure be using something sans-serif, but I think it still looks pretty good! (Remember, CSS was not even remotely a thing yet. You wanted rounded corners, you had to chisel that shit from flint.)

Here's some other Mozilla-relevant stuff:


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35 Responses:

  1. phill says:
    5

    I just wanted to say that i greatly enjoyed clicking thru this post, and many of its linked posts, and that it hadn’t occurred to me that mozilla was some weird unplanned accident.

    • jwz says:
      8

      I mean, "unplanned accident" does kind of downplay all the actual planning and hard work that went into it after we read the press release...

  2. mindbender9 says:
    2

    I remember seeing your story briefly in a fantastic documentary called Code Rush - it was eye-opening and motivated me to take up code development for a career. Thank you, Jamie, for the inspiration - I hope that your life has been rewarding since then.

    Best regards,

  3. sclatter says:
    2

    At the party I jumped in and grabbed one of the party favor CDs burned with the source code. Someone (you?) kinda chided me for taking it. Still have it, still not sorry.

    • Zygo says:
      4

      You have a 25-year-old data CD, maybe a CD-R...my questions are:

      1. is it still readable?
      2. is there a way to answer question #1 without the disc exploding in a modern high-speed optical drive?

      As the owner of a DVD-RW drive with a case dented from the inside by polycarbonate shrapnel during an attempt to read a DVD that was 10 years younger, I'd like to point out that the answer to question #2 is important and it should be considered before attempting to answer question #1.

      • PDP_10 says:
        2

        #2 can be done safely: there are utilities to set the read speed of a CD drive to lower than max. Though that doesn't effect the initial read / recognition, and a drive may still spin up to very high speed for that. Depends on model, test with regular discs first.

        Also any disc that exploded in a drive was probably flawed, not just old.

  4. Tony says:
    2

    As a user, freshly coming from Gopher back then, I fondly remember the time. Waiting two minutes to load a GIGANTIC image from NASA - I felt like a king.

    I tried to listen to the "TED talk" you linked (https://www.jwz.org/blog/2019/05/hi-welcome-to-my-ted-talk/), but the recording ends at 3:54:38 (with "Star Guitar" as the penultimate song - much appreciated). How do I skip to  7:01:00 ?

    Instructions unclear, ended up listening to old Chemical Brothers albums.

  5. samim says:

    fun post and fun memories! A great adventure indeed.

  6. 1

    “customers would... handwave handwave... pay us for something?”

    This is exactly the point in all of my startup ideas that I abandon the project. 😀

  7. Mike Olson says:

    What an adventure. What a story. Thanks!

  8. Be says:
    1

    I appreciate the unicycle on the floor.

  9. Ole Eichhorn says:

    This is fantastic!  As an interested outside observer, wow, just wow.  Thanks for sharing <3

  10. shaver says:

    Ah, memories.

  11. 4

    I first downloaded Firefox circa 1999--after I read about it in the NEWSPAPER. That we got DELIVERED TO THE HOUSE.

  12. Steven Harms says:

    Sigh.  So Mountain View at the turn of the century: office space, no women (as far as I can tell) but sure…unicycle. Failed to find Wienerwschnizel bag.

    • 10

      Actually, there were two of us in the room (last group picture includes me and Kathleen), and many more not in the room.  Admittedly, it's also true that the majority of the women in clienteng were in teams like UI, Docs, and QA rather than core software dev.

      • Steven Harms says:
        1

        Sorry I missed you, tiny phone screen and aging eyes. Thank you both for your contributions.

        • 2

          Not at all! It's not like the CLEAR MAJORITY in that pic weren't in fact dudes.  But I will take the opportunity to shout out to such folks like the amazing Lisa Repka and Akkana Peck and the rest of our Mozillian Sister Devs... ;)

  13. I remember downloading the release and attempting to build it on HPPA! IIRC the first drop wasn't hugely functional but it was exciting times.

  14. jwz says:
    1

    I found a video of Shaver and I talking about Mozilla at Linux Expo in May 1998, just about 2 months after the source release.

    The best thing that I can say about the audio quality is that it's not as bad as the video quality...

    • dzm says:

      It weirds me out to know that those buildings are now part of the Google extended campus.

    • nooj says:

      Wow, I remember the controversy surrounding export of crypto tools.  I was at a linux meetup in the Bay Area around that time.  After one of the talks, a guy said, "Oh, by the way, I'm selling these books.  It's legal to export out of the country because it's not source code, it's a printed page."  (I may be misremembering that part.)  "But you'll find the markings here in the margin make it work really well with OCR software."  I wish I'd bought one now, just for posterity.

  15. thielges says:

    Thanks for this nostalgic trip.  Not that I had any connection to Mozilla, just 1990s Silicon Valley. My favorite part is the FAQ's directions to the release party.  I remember adding descriptive "from the (east|north|west|south)" directions to party invites in the days before Mapquest too.  Didn't want anyone to get lost wearing that prize winning Halloween costume.

    Oh and an air high five back to you on that build code working perfectly after a quarter century of gathering e-dust and running on computers that were a mere chocolate bar in the CPU architect's back pocket in 1998.  

  16. Until now, I had totally forgotten about those Shepard Fairey/USSR Propaganda style Mozilla illustrations. Love those.

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