The Mozilla Project’s Firefox Web browser made its official debut today. Which means there was a lot of talk about browser wars with Microsoft. But Firefox’s success may ultimately be judged not by whether it surpasses Internet Explorer in market share, but what it does to further validate the significance of the open source movement.

The open source community can tout many successes, not the least of which is the Apache web server, which runs the majority of web sites in the world. But Firefox could arguably be open source’s most visible project. Even before Firefox 1.0 was released today, a pre-release version of the browser was downloaded more than 7 million times.

If Firefox gains even wider acceptance, it’ll be perhaps the best evidence yet that the open source community can produce products that are polished and ready for everyday use by everyday people.

“It’s a great existence proof, even a breakthrough, in the ability of using open source methods to create robust, high-performance, feature-advantaged software for millions of end users. It will inspire other such efforts,”’ said Mitch Kapor, an open source advocate and chair of the Mozilla Foundation board of directors.

Firefox is actually a product of the Mozilla technology that was developed at Netscape. It was a test-bed for ideas for the browser that Netscape was building at the time. AOL-Netscape jettisoned the project in 2003, but helped create a non-profit foundation to support continued development of the technology and its products. IBM, Sun Microsystems and Kapor also made donations to the project.

A small group of full-time developers in Mountain View have kept the project alive with help from hundreds of volunteer developers around the globe and donations large and small from supporters and users. Firefox is just one of several applications being built on top of the core Mozilla technology, including an email program and calendar.

We asked Firefox engineer Chris Hofmann why the browser project has been successful.

He said early Firefox developers David Hyatt (now at Apple), Blake Ross, and later Ben Goodger, “provided strong ownership over the life of the project and haven’t bowed to many requests that might have compromised the design of the product.”

“They have held true to the goals of creating a small, fast, easy-to-use browser, with many new and innovative features that make browsing more simple,” he said. “This is a bit different that some open source projects that run things more democratically, or commercial development projects that can be highly influenced by marketing and business goals that diverge from first serving the user.”

Firefox has already started to eat into Internet Explorer’s 90-plus percent market share, nibbling away at 1 to 2 percent of its users per month. Hofmann said the goal is to keep that pace and ultimately be the browser of choice for the “80 percent of users frustrated with their browser experience.”

Hofmann said the biggest surprise for him has been the financial support from Mozilla fans.

“We put up a PayPal donation link on Mozilla.org, and in the first eight to nine months, people donated $100,000,” he said. “People see the potential danger of a big company taking over the Internet, and they don’t like that.’