Happy birthday, Firefox!

In case you haven’t noticed already: Today is Firefox’s 5th birthday! On November 9th, 2004, Firefox 1.0 was released to the general public after more than two years of development.

And boy, was I jealous! All my sighted friends could try out this cool new thing, an alternative browser to the omnipresent, and some would even say, omnipotent, Internet Explorer! An alternative! But it was not yet fully accessible. There were first glimpses: When I ran Firefox 1.0 with JAWS 6.0 back then, I could navigate the menus, and most dialogs talked. But the main functionality, the browsing experience, was not yet available to me.

That all changed with Firefox 1.5 and the donation IBM gave to the Mozilla project in August 2005. At the same time, Window-Eyes 5.5, and a bit later JAWS 7.0 were released with initial support for Firefox 1.5. Suddenly, the virtual cursor worked, quick navigation keys brought you from heading to heading or form field to form field, just like in Internet Explorer 6! And boy, was it fast!

It also had a ton of problems. Pages not rendering completely, esp pages with frames giving users huge headaches by not rendering at all often times, etc. Many users including myself had to decide that Firefox was just not ready for prime time use on a daily basis for screen reader users just yet.

But I kept up with development and also tested Firefox 2.0, which came out in October 2006. Many of the problems were still there, but some were a lot better. And the initial support for what back then was still known as “dynamic HTML” surfaced, giving a first glimpse of what later became WAI-ARIA and which has already changed the landscape of accessible web applications.

In December 2007, I started as Mozilla’s Accessibility QA engineer and took matters into my own hands. For Firefox 3, the accessibility community accomplished a huge lot: Firefox 3 was the first UI browser to become accessible on Linux. There was now an open-source screen reader taking full advantage of all the new features of the IAccessible2 standard on Windows. WAI-ARIA compliance was very high. All content-related problems were a thing of the past and the browsing experience was as reliable in Firefox as it was in IE. Moreover, value was added by projects such as WebVisum, which is a social tagging and captcha solving service exclusive to blind users using Firefox. When Firefox 3 was released in June of 2008 and we got in the Guinnes book of world records, I’m sure there were quite a number of blind folks participating in that effort!

But we didn’t stop there. For Firefox 3.5, we added support for text attributes, giving blind users the ability to in-line spell check their entries on the web just like any sighted people do. The community worked together to give open audio and video to everyone, not just sighted people, but also screen reader and keyboard users. WAI-ARIA compliance was increased to nearly 100%. Stability was further increased. Two more Windows screen reader vendors stepped up to support Firefox, making the total number of screen readers for the blind supporting Firefox 3.x 5 on the Windows platform.

And on its 5th birthday, my colleagues in the QA team and I are working hard to get a beta refresh out to all of you of the next major release, Firefox 3.6. In fact I’m writing this blog post using the candidate build. And we have a cool set of features assembled for Firefox 3.6 on the accessibility side, about which I’ll blog next.

All I can say is: Thank you Firefox! Thank you to everyone in the community who has been and is working so hard to make the web a better place for everyone! I’m grateful and proud to be a part of this community!

Happy birthday, Firefox!

18 comments:

  1. This is awesome… I’ve been using FF for such a long time now (although as a sighted user) and it’s incredible how much work you guys have put into this, we really appreciate it a lot :)

    I hope accessibility continues to keep better over the time and we’ll try to do our part from the web developer side, too!

    PS: I think there’s a typo on the last sentence of the 7th paragraph, it should say Firefox 3.5 instead of Firefox 5.
    PS2: I loved the WAI-ARIA quick tips. I hope you keep doing them, I really like getting these practical and to-the-point tidbits of information.

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