Writing the piece on FOSS design, it made me think about past experiences in various communities and brought back memories to the point when I decided to put down some thoughts on Mozilla browsers (won't cover other apps today) design history as I saw it, both as an user and from my involvement with its community. Even if the screenshots below are taken mostly from Wikipedia (try to run 10-15 years old binaries on a current Linux desktop), all the experiences are mine.
As Mozilla has its roots in the old Netscape, a history of its design must start with Netscape, which in its time was very popular, the most used web browser, but was not very good on the "looks" chapter. It was using its own widgets set, allowing the application to run on multiple platforms, but in none of them looked very good. When Internet Explorer came, it dethroned Netscape on many ways: it was already installed (the monopoly lawsuit on the matter has its own history) and it was "good enough". But it also had a better design, it used native widgets and it looked "native" (on Windows, of course), simple and familiar, while Netscape remained with the antiquated look and feel.
You maybe know the story of Netscape going Open Source as Mozilla after its management read The Cathedral and the Bazaar and also as the only chance they saw against the Internet Explorer assault. It debatable if their move to rewrite the entire suite from scratch was a good thing or not (on one hand it was a chance to get rid of the old cruft, on the other it was a huge delay), but here I talk only about the design, so the rewrite brought also a new interface and new widgets. At the time there were "milestone release" from the development tree, working to various degrees. It also has a new interface with a "futuristic", non-native, look, to show the power of XUL and allowed for a new feature: theming - at the time making the interface themeable was the rage of the industry, I don't know who invented it, but Winamp (by then also an AOL property, as Netscape) made it really popular.
During the "milestones" stage the interface didn't change very much:
Then it moved to numbered, pre-1.0, releases. Those releases saw many changes who led to the 1.0 like tabbed-browsing, which at the time was not adopted for their friendliness (they are NOT better for usability), but for pragmatic reasons: it was painfully slow to open a new window, but a new tab was faster. Also the new pair of themes, "Classic" and "Modern". It was also the start of Netscape's "design sabotage" of Mozilla.
Netscape moved to Open Source, but they tried a "hybrid" model, while having the Mozilla suite as Free software, they kept the Netscape suite derivative (just a rebuild) the old proprietary way. And they used they engineers, placed in strategic positions, to keep this reality. One example is the default look: the suite included by default two themes, "Classic" was a direct copy of the old Netscape 4.x look and was the default for the Mozilla Suite, with the intentions to keep the end-users away, while Netscape had "Modern" as default, to attract users:
Of course the community routed against it, then were sites providing tons free themes. And Open Source developers did even better: the "Classic" theme was made to use native widgets which, despite the still ugly icons, it made it work way better.
Another Netscape idiocy happened around then (while not directly design-related, it links with the following step): annoyed by the prolonged development delay, they released a "stable" Netscape Suite release based on an early Mozilla Suite beta, which was slow and ridden by bugs, a bad impression for users.
With the mantra "Mozilla is for developers, Netscape is for users", the Mozilla Suite was shipped with a completely unprofessional splash screen, designed to scare end-users away:
The community tried to fight-back, the Bugzilla item for about the splash screen was the most active, some submitted new and beautiful images as patches, nothing worked, the issue was controlled by Netscape engineers (and the application has a slow start, needing the splash screen).
Of course, the Open Source development made it customizable, after a while it became possible to use your own splash by just dropping a PNG file in the same directory with the main binary, there were sites and forums offering alternate splashes and so. But the default matters, and after huge wars the image was "upgraded" to an orange rectangle with black "Mozilla" text:
In the meantime, the splash screen for the "user-oriented" Netscape was more polished:
And it really evolved in time:
Yet another example was the design of the mozilla.org website, it was also kept "scary" for end-users and with a lot of disorganized information, even the experienced FOSS hackers had troubles finding it:
Of course the strategy backfired and both the Mozilla Suite and the Netscape Suite were almost wiped out of the map, reaching, IIRC, a marketshare low of about 2%.
Then a reborn happened: a couple of engineers started the Phoenix project, it was an alternate browser based on the Mozilla technology but free of the Netscape management and user-oriented.
At first Phoenix was Windows-only, as there were the users, but later other FOSS developers ported it to Linux and other operating systems. The interface was heavily targeted at bringing back Internet Explorer emigrants, with changes in menu layout,shotcuts, icons and dropping features and components (it was only a browser, with no email composer or chat). The Internet Explorer targeting was aggressive, with bugs tracking the progress towards this goal.
Another characteristic of this project was its decisional structure, which was more "cathedral", with less developers being allowed to make changes (in the Suite, Netscape engineers had pretty much free reign).
While the first release, Phoenix 0.1, was small and humble, its design took many cues from the existing competing browsers, Opera and (the infamous) Internet Explorer 6 (there may be influences from Safari, but I have no direct experience with it, so can't talk about that):
After two change in names (the Phoenix name was already used by a BIOS maker, they moved to Firebird, which was already used by a FOSS database so they had to change again to Firefox) and many intermediary release, Firefox 1.0 came to light. By the time it was governed by the Mozilla Foundation who took over Netscape and was targeting at last end-users (just as the browser). The increase in user-base followed.
The model of Firefox was followed by the email client, Thunderbird (which started as project Minotaur) and the HTML editor BlueGriffon (which followed KompoZer and Nvu).
For many of you the relatively recent design and development of Firefox may be familiar, it didn't get earthshaking advancements, it had small modification, new icons set and the most, and somewhat controversial feature (fortunately, it happened only on Windows, not touching yet us, Linux users) was the "keyhole" modification of the navigation buttons.
Then Chrome happened. Powered and heavily promoted by Google, fast, sporting a minimal and simple interface, it gained a lot of market share, overtaking Firefox and closing into Internet Explorer. Modern Firefox get its share of criticism for copying much of the Chrome design (and also the release numbering).
Modern Internet Explorer design also has its influence on the Firefox design, which from the beginning was intended as a Internet Explorer replacement:
This bring us back to the current Firefox, which had recently yet another release, Firefox 12:
But I still didn't finish my story, Mozilla Suite has yet another child, a brother of Firefox: with the Netscape Suite demise, after being stagnant for a while, the code was reborn as the Seamoney suite, a direct follower, sharing the old look and feel of the suite but bringing also some new features from Firefox and Thunderbird. Even its "Classic" theme, despite the new and pretty icons, has cues of the old theme.
For nostalgics, it also has the "Modern" theme, just the same as the old "Modern" from the Mozilla/Netscape suite (grace to the advanced hardware of today, it not slow any more, just ugly).