Goliath’s Newest David
Get ready for Browser Wars: The Sequel.
Six years after Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer defeated Netscape Navigator in the signature fight of the online age, a direct descendant of the pioneering Web browser is exacting a small measure of revenge.
The nonprofit Mozilla Foundation on Tuesday will release Firefox 1.0, a free browser based on Netscape’s technology but improved through the years by thousands of volunteer programmers. It’s the first version intended for a wide audience.
Earlier editions of Firefox attracted millions of users fed up with the viruses and spyware that increasingly exploit Internet Explorer’s flaws to infect computers.
After a series of security warnings this year, Explorer’s share of the U.S. browser market slid from more than 95% in June to less than 93% last month, according to Internet consultant WebSideStory. Most of those computer users went to Firefox.
A drop of a couple of percentage points may not sound like much, but globally it represents more than 10 million people who have dumped the world’s largest software maker in favor of an outfit with 10 full-time employees.
It’s part of a broader move toward so-called open-source software, which has Microsoft on the defensive. In the most visible part of that trend, many big corporations and everyday users alike are powering their computers with the free operating system Linux, encroaching on Microsoft’s lucrative Windows franchise.
Browsers have been free for a long time, and most people take them for granted. But analysts say Firefox has special significance because it could open many more eyes to the possibilities of open-source software.
Users like Firefox because it works about as fast as Explorer, adds features such as multiple-window browsing and presents a less tempting target for hackers. Users also can change the way it works, for example by barring all images so that the text on Web pages appears more quickly. Most but not all sites can be visited with Firefox.
“It’s actually quite intuitive, and it’s very fast,” said Shekhar Venkataraman, an intensive-care doctor in Pittsburgh who has been using the Mozilla browser for more than a year.
Milton Blackstone, a retired television writer and producer, said he turned to Firefox after he became fed up with Explorer’s frequent unexplained crashes. Although he complained that he has had trouble following Web links in e-mails, Blackstone said he was glad he made the switch.
“I think it’s thought out,” the La Jolla resident said. “I have a lot of respect for Mozilla.”
As with Linux, the complicated computer code powering Firefox is freely available for any programmer to examine, improve and pass along. Fans of open-source software say that sort of continuous review makes the programs stronger and more reliable.
Because anyone can read the Firefox code, hackers could create malicious programs the way they do with Explorer -- and some already have. But because thousands of volunteer programmers also can see any potential problems, they can respond quickly to plug security holes.
“Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow,” says Eric S. Raymond, president of the nonprofit Open Source Initiative, which promotes the development and distribution of open-source software.
Firefox grew out of a project begun in 1998 at Netscape Communications Corp. to make public the underlying code of its browser. The project -- dubbed Mozilla, after the code name for the original Netscape Navigator -- lost momentum after the company was acquired by America Online, which then merged with Time Warner Inc.
Time Warner spun off the effort last year as the Mountain View, Calif.-based Mozilla Foundation and promised it $2 million in seed funding. Additional backing came from Red Hat Inc. and Sun Microsystems Inc., both of which offer Linux and provide related services.
Firefox, available for a few years as part of a broader set of computing tools, was released in a preview version in February and primarily attracted programmers and other tech-savvy individuals. Mozilla engineers and volunteer programmers have been tweaking the browser since then. It has been downloaded from www.mozilla.org as frequently as 250,000 times a day.
“We’ve gone a full five months now, and the trend has continued,” said Geoff Johnston, an analyst who has been tracking Explorer’s slide for WebSideStory.
That trend worries Microsoft. The prospect of even a modest loss of market share prompted the Redmond, Wash.-based software maker to reinvigorate its Explorer programming team, which hasn’t released a major upgrade in four years.
“We recognize that Windows customers have the opportunity to choose from a broad variety of applications,” said Gary Schare, Windows’ director of security product management. “We still believe that Internet Explorer is the best choice.”
But Microsoft has decided to release upgrades only with new versions of Windows -- and the next one isn’t due before 2006.
Despite the growing popularity of open-source programs such as Firefox, Internet Explorer rivals are unlikely to win more than 20% of the market, said Yankee Group analyst Jim Slaby. That’s partly because big companies don’t want to support more programs than necessary.
“I.E. is just everywhere, and it’s free,” Slaby said.
But Chris Hofmann, a Netscape veteran who became one of the Mozilla Foundation’s first employees, said Firefox wouldn’t have to beat Explorer to be considered a success.
If the competition prompts Microsoft to improve its browser, he said, “we would consider that a success story. The goal of the project is to make sure there is continued innovation.”