I don’t know about you, but my web browser is the second app I launch every day (just after email). In fact, overall, I probably spend more time using it than pretty much anything else (not surprising considering what I do). But it got me wondering, where do the different browser names come from? So I did some digging.
(Technically Microsoft Internet Explorer and later Windows Internet Explorer)
When you look back to 1995, having a name that gave people a clear idea of what the product did was probably a good idea. Especially when most people were just becoming aware of this Internet-thing and wanted to know how to get involved.
Explorer was chosen to convey the freedom and possibilities opened up by the Web. It was very much inline with Microsoft’s former tagline, “Where do you want to go today?”
For many people, Navigator was their first web browser. It was based on the earlier Mosaic browser. I’m not 100% sure why Mosaic was so named but I suspect it was because it was the first to allow images and text to appear on the same page. Alternatively, I guess it could be some riff on the whole rich tapestry of the web. Anyway, Navigator was the first product from Netscape after it changed its name from Mosaic Communications Corporation (co-founder and co-writer of Mosaic, Marc Andreessen, had to abandon the Mosaic name after his former university raised objections). Like IE, Navigator was a pretty descriptive approach to naming.
(The people behind Firefox)
No one can claim that Mozilla took the descriptive approach. In fact Mozilla was used for some time as an internal codename for Netscape Navigator. The name was the brainchild of Jamie Zawinski and has more meaning than most people realise. Mozilla is actually a combination of “Mosaic killer” which neatly summed up their mission at the time (or so I thought). So I guess that worked out well for them.
Most people forget that Firefox wasn’t originally called Firefox at all. In fact it’s had a couple of name changes over the years. It was originally called Phoenix – presumably coming from the ashes of its predecessors. But that caused trademark issues with Phoenix Technologies. So Mozilla changed it to Firebird, which caused issues with the Firebird open source database project (there’s a pattern forming here). So, after consulting some lawyers this time, they settled on Firefox (which is actually another name for the red panda and nothing to do with any mythical bird).
Now I could go down the route of talking about Safari as fitting in with Apple’s big cat names (Panther, Lion, Snow Leopard, Tiger etc) – but I’m not certain. For the life of me, I can’t find out why Safari was chosen – although it fits in to the same general category as Explorer and Navigator (and the compass icon backs this up). If you know why it was named Safari, please drop a comment below.
Opera were kind enough to explain their naming (although the page is now only available via archive.org):
The reasons the name "Opera" was chosen are several. For one, "Opera" is known as the opera all over the world. London, Paris and Moscow all have Operas, and it's one thing that has long historical roots in almost the entire world. Secondly, the Opera is associated with quality and high standards - you never hear of Opera singers who go on a drunken spree... ;-) Thirdly, the Opera is fun. (Or at least, it's meant to be for the people who don't have prejudices against it for being snobby and upper class-only.)
While there was a codename vote early in Chrome’s development, none were finally chosen (I’d love to know what they were). Instead, it’s said by Glen Murphy that they chose Chrome because one of the design leads liked fast cars. They then ended up sticking with the codename for the final project launch because 1. they’d grown used to it, 2. they associated it with speed and, 3. because it minimised the amount of browser UI (sometimes called chrome).
While I’m missing out more than a few, that’s all the main browsers covered. If you have any insights that I’ve missed, pop them in the comments below. Also, if you know any names that didn’t make it to the final cut for any of the above, I’d love to hear about them.
One of the commenters below mentioned Ariya Hidayat’s blog on the same subject, it’s an interesting read and contains some the historical context around the history of some of these names, you can check it out here.
 Sadly it seems that the Mosaic Killer name is only partially true. In the Sunday, 5 August 1994, extract of Jamie Zawinski’s Diary he said "Then someone said something about crushing NCSA Mosaic, and I blurted out ``Mozilla!'' Everyone seemed to like that, so I think that might end up being the official name of the browser. " I found this update on this blog from 2007. Thanks to a comment on this blog from 2007 for clearing that up.