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The Gnat Nipping At Microsoft


How's this for a mismatch? On one side, you have Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), the largest software company in the world, with $37 billion in revenues and 57,000 employees. On the other, there's the Mozilla Foundation, a not-for-profit organization with a $2 million budget and just 16 employees wedged into a single room in an office park in Mountain View, Calif. It's Godzilla vs. Mozilla, and Mozilla is a midget.

Yet the Mozilla Foundation is pulling off a feat that would have seemed preposterous a year ago: It's taking share from Microsoft in the market for Internet browsing. According to a survey released on Jan. 12 by Web site analytics firm WebSideStory Inc., 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%. Meanwhile, Microsoft's Internet Explorer has slipped 4.9 percentage points, 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, chairman of WebSideStory.

Microsoft is hardly on the run. It has an overwhelming lead, and most corporations have adopted Internet Explorer for their employees -- so it should have staying power. But many of the 16 million consumers who have switched to Firefox see the upstart program as safer from viruses and packed with innovations. Those include a feature called "tabbed browsing" 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," says a Microsoft spokesman.

Still, analysts say Firefox could have an outsize impact on the future of the Net. 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 IE and other Microsoft 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. It has been hard at work on other kinds of software in recent months. An e-mail program called Thunderbird was released in mid-December and has since been downloaded by more than 2 million consumers. The group has a handful of other programs on the drawing board, including an electronic calendar called Sunbird and a small browser for use in cell phones and personal digital assistants, code-named Minimo. These are expected to be released in 2005 or 2006.

Mozilla's provenance is as improbable as its burst of success. It was born inside Web pioneer Netscape Communications Corp. 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 Inc. (TWX) bought Netscape in 1999, the organization lost steam. But it was reborn a year and a half ago 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, is 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. It not only set up its own blog (www.spreadfirefox.com) to coordinate activities but also hooks up with others to expand its reach. If a blogger says nice things about Firefox, for example, it's rewarded with links to its site. The guerrilla campaign "is fanning the flames," says analyst Stacey Quandt of researcher Robert Frances Group Inc.

All of this has been a pinch-yourself experience for Mozilla's Baker. A former Netscaper, she became accustomed to laboring in obscurity in 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. This game is different, though. 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.

By Steve Hamm in New York


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