By Steve Hamm How's this for a mismatch? On one side, you have Microsoft (MSFT), the world's largest software company, with $37 billion in revenues and 57,000 employees. On the other is the Mozilla Foundation, a nonprofit with a $2 million budget and just 16 employees wedged into a single room in a Mountain View (Calif.) office park.
It's Godzilla vs. Mozilla, and Mozilla is a midget. Yet the pipsqueak is pulling off a feat that would have seemed preposterous a year ago. It's taking chunks of share from Microsoft in the Internet browsing market. According to a survey released Jan. 12 by Web site analytics firm WebSideStory, Mozilla's free Firefox browser has grabbed a 4.6% share over the past six months and seems well on the way to its stated goal of 10%.
"EMOTIONAL NUMBER." Microsoft's Internet Explorer has slipped 4.9 percentage points over the past six months, to 90.6%, the lowest in three years. "It's an emotional number. When Microsoft drops to 90%, it's big news," says Jeffrey W. Lunsford, WebSideStory's chairman.
Microsoft is hardly on the run. It has an overwhelming lead, and most corporations have adopted its browser for their employees, so it should have staying power. But many of the 16 million consumers who have switched to Firefox view the upstart program as safer from viruses and packed with innovations. Those include a "tabbed browsing" feature that makes it easier to move quickly from one Web site to another, in part by firing up a series of favorite sites all at once.
But Microsoft has been working hard to clamp down on security and vows to make other improvements. "These features, along with Microsoft's world-class customer support, continue to make IE a compelling choice for consumers and enterprise customers," says a spokesman.
BEYOND BROWSERS. Still, analysts say Firefox could have an outsize impact on the Net's future. If Mozilla and the other non-Microsoft browser outfits hold their own or gain share, the 15% of Web sites that aren't completely compatible with non-Microsoft browsers will come under pressure to design their sites to open Net standards. That way, Microsoft won't be able to control how content is presented on the Web.
It would also create opportunities for competitors to sell rival Net software - since Microsoft wouldn't be able to take advantage of the links between Windows and its Net programs. "We're not out to get Microsoft," says Mozilla Foundation President Mitchell Baker. "Our goal is to offer people a better experience so the Web remains open, and people actually have a choice."
The Mozilla team isn't stopping with browsers. In recent months, it has been hard at work on other kinds of software. An e-mail program called Thunderbird was released in mid-December and has since been downloaded more than 2 million times. The group has a handful of other programs on the drawing board, including an electronic calendar called Sunbird and a small browser for cell phones and personal digital assistants code-named Minimo. These are slated for release in 2005 or 2006.
GUERRILLA TACTICS. Mozilla's provenance is as improbable as its burst of success. It was born inside Web pioneer Netscape Communications in 1998 to harness the budding open-source software movement. The idea was that volunteer programmers from around the world would help make improvements to the company's browser.
After America Online (TWX) bought Netscape in 1999, Mozilla lost steam. Then a year and a half ago, it was reborn as an independent organization funded by AOL, IBM (IBM), Sun Microsystems (SUNW), and Nokia (NOK).
Independence seems to have been a tonic. Development raced ahead for Firefox, a new browser design. It's free, but Mozilla asks users to make tax-deductible donations to support development efforts. Without a remarkable guerrilla marketing campaign, Firefox adoption might not have leapt ahead so rapidly. The campaign, called SpreadFirefox, was orchestrated by a handful of Mozilla fans and carried out by 58,000 volunteers. The campaign has tapped into Web logs, or blogs, to generate buzz.
LIFE-ALTERING? It not only set up its own blog to coordinate activities but it also hooks up with other ones to expand its reach. If a blogger says nice things about Firefox, for example, he's rewarded with links to his own site. The campaign "is fanning the flames," says analyst Stacey Quandt of researcher Robert Frances Group.
All of this has been a pinch-yourself experience for Mozilla's Baker. A former Netscaper, she became accustomed to laboring in obscurity during the Mozilla project's early days. Now she's struggling with the group's recognition. She gets buttonholed by parents at her son's school and approached by strangers at exercise class.
Recently, after Baker handed a Mozilla T-shirt to a friend at Trapeze Arts, the circus-skills gym where she works out, a nearby woman burst out: "Are you from Mozilla? Firefox changed my life!" She then kneeled and bowed before a stunned Baker.
These may be heady times for the Mozilla crew, but they know not to take their sudden success for granted. They remember how Netscape was crushed by the Microsoft juggernaut. But now, the game is different. Mozilla has the vast and vibrant open-source movement on its side. This time, Godzilla may not dominate the way it has in the past. Hamm is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York