A Firefox in IE's Henhouse


By Steve Hamm When was the last time you heard about the browser wars? Well, they're back. The reason: For the first time in more than seven years, Microsoft (MSFT) is losing Web browser market share. And it's not just a blip. According to Web analytics company WebSideStory, Microsoft's share of browser users who visited top e-commerce and corporate sites shrank from 95.6% in June to 93.7% in September. And people using browsers made by the Mozilla open-source software group grew from 3.5% to 5.2%.

Programmers at the Mozilla Foundation hope to increase that momentum with the release this fall of their new browser's consumer-ready version, called Firefox 1.0. It's superfast and suffers few of the security problems that have plagued Microsoft's Internet Explorer in recent months. "There's a window of opportunity for Mozilla to gain significant market share," says Stacey Quandt, analyst with tech consultant Robert Frances Group in Stamford, Conn.

NO SIGN OF PANIC. Firefox's latest preview version was released on Sept. 14, and the organization is hoping to achieve 1 million downloads in the next few weeks. Feedback from users will help polish the final version. Mozilla's market share "is limited only by our ability to reach IE users and show them that we've built a better mousetrap," says Brendan Eich, Mozilla's chief technology officer.

Microsoft is watching closely, but it's showing no panic. In August the Redmond giant released a special update of Windows, called Windows XP Service Pack 2, aimed at making the operating system and the browser more secure. It also adds a pop-up ad blocker to IE.

"The security enhancements delivered to IE with this release dramatically improve the security of IE and deliver to customers a much better and safer browser experience," says Gary Schare, director of security product management for Windows. He also points out that if users have problems with their software, Microsoft has legions of paid support people who can respond quickly and walk them through repairs. That isn't necessarily the case with open-source software.

UNEXPECTED BLOOMING. Yet security remains a sore point with IE. In June, the U.S. federal government's Computer Emergency Readiness Team warned Web surfers to stop using IE after Microsoft disclosed a bug that allowed spyware to be downloaded to people's computers without their involvement. Immediately, thousands of people in search of an alternative began downloading browsers from Mozilla's Web site.

Despite of the security fixes in SP2, the pressure is still on. The Berliner Zeitung, a leading daily newspaper in Germany, on Sept. 10 reported that the German Federal Office for Information Security is recommending that Internet users switch from IE to Mozilla or Opera, another browser.

What's most amazing is that Mozilla matters at all. Launched as an open-source version of Netscape's suite of Web applications after America Online's (TWX) acquisition of Netscape Communications, the project never got much traction when it was part of AOL. And after Mozilla was spun off a year ago, most observers expected it to fade into oblivion.

TELL A FRIEND. The opposite has happened. A handful of foundation employees, helped by programmers at other tech outfits and thousands of volunteers from all over the world, set out to create a new browser that would be small, fast, and resistant to pop-up ads and viruses.

With funds in short supply, Mozilla plans grassroots marketing to get attention for its consumer version. It has set up a Web site, www.SpreadFirefox.com, to coordinate volunteers' efforts -- which include urging Web-site operators to place links to Mozilla on their pages. It's asking people who already use preview versions of Firefox to recommend it to their friends and to help them download the software and set it up.

Once Firefox 1.0 is launched, "We'd like to see 10 million downloads in a relatively short time and to pick up a significant gain of market share," says Mitchell Baker, president of the Mozilla Foundation. She wouldn't pick a target number. "It's hard to pick up share against a monopoly," she says.

ALL VULNERABLE. Is Firefox superior to IE? Analysts who have compared the two say Firefox loads more quickly and opens Web pages more quickly. It has some features that IE doesn't have, including something called tab browsing, the ability to set up and manage pages using tabs that are quickly clickable on the user interface. The new version of IE has an ad blocker built in, so that feature no longer sets Firefox apart.

However, it's hard to tell if Firefox is inherently more secure than IE. And Firefox is vulnerable to viruses, too -- although the dominant IE will remain the more popular target for hackers intent on afflicting its users with all sorts of malware. If any browser has a flaw, somebody will find it.

Still, Microsoft is in little danger of being toppled from the top spot -- at least, not any time soon. IE is included with every copy of Windows, so most people use it as a matter of course. But as browsers from Mozilla gain ground among consumers and corporations, that encourages Web-site designers and operators to make sure that the pages are accessible to any browser -- not just Microsoft's. So far, just a few of Microsoft's own Web sites are fully accessible only to IE users. "This is important, so Microsoft doesn't control what the consumer and the worker can see," says Baker.

If Mozilla can continue to pick up market share, it will be another feather in the cap for the open-source software movement. Already, the open-source Apache Web server operates on nearly 60% of Web sites, and the Linux operating system has a 24% share of server operating systems distributed each year. With Mozilla on a fast track -- and literally in people's faces -- open-source software would really pick up steam. Hamm is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York


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