High Tech: Upstart Firefox reignites Web-browser war

If you joined the Internet community sometime after 1998, it's quite possible that Microsoft's Internet Explorer is the only way you've ever experienced the Net. It was that year that Explorer surpassed Netscape Navigator as the most-used Web-surfing program, and also the year that Netscape was bought by AOL, hastening that software's decline into semi-obscurity (in the form of the bloated Netscape Communicator package).

Explorer had some help succeeding Net?scape. It was included as a part of Windows (which touched off a legal uproar about Microsoft's possible status as a monopoly), but it also won over users because it was a pretty good browser. With each update the software improved, and eventually all but the most stubborn users caved in and began using it-even on the Macintosh.

Microsoft also had timing on its side. The rapidly growing Net population generally encountered Explorer first and stayed with it, and its emergence as the dominant browser meant that Web-site creators began to design for it as a standard platform. Using other browsers meant sites might look funny or refuse to work properly. A lot of the on-line security protocols for financial sites required Explorer as well. Once critical mass was achieved, Explorer pretty much was the Web.

But over the past couple of years, Explorer has taken some knocks.

Malicious hackers have had a long time to work on attacking its weaknesses, so there have been repeated security and privacy scares.

Microsoft hasn't always responded to those problems in a timely manner and, simply from a product-marketing standpoint, Explorer has become a bit stale: same look, same features, a drab and unexciting interface.

Every now and then new browsers were introduced by other companies (such as Opera and Apple's own Safari), but none has ever achieved more than niche success. For the past couple of years, Explorer has consistently held 95 percent or more of browser market share.

Until lately, that is. Many alternative brow?sers have been launched, but it seems like Firefox (www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/) is the first to debut with a little momentum. One million copies were downloaded on the day of release, and more than 25 million copies have gone out since. In February, Firefox was accorded the cover of Wired magazine. How long did all that success take to unfold? Less than three months from the November 9 launch to newsstand fame. Things move fast on the Web.

The main appeal of Firefox? It's trim and sleek, not filled with a bunch of extra code. It has a little search window for Google built in, blocks pop-up ads, and supports live- update bookmarks such as the BBC New World Edition headlines. It can load multiple pages into background tabs you can select between (instead of having to open new windows all the time). There are lots of customizable user settings and optional add-ons, plus it's available in multiple languages for Mac, Windows, or Linux computers. Its security level is high, and it's also very fast at displaying pages. Poky sites like Swiss Chalet's on-line delivery ordering (www.swiss chalet.com/) load dramatically quicker compared with Explorer.

It's funny, but Firefox doesn't really present many features that weren't included in other non-Microsoft browsers before (in fact, it's based on Mozilla, an open-source offshoot of Netscape), but it does everything it should do quite well. And it may have timing on its side.

Despite security concerns about Explorer, Microsoft announced that it won't release a major overhaul of the program until the next version of Windows arrives in 2006. That made it a lame-duck product, as good as it was going to get for the foreseeable future. With Firefox, users found a timely outlet for any long-simmering discontent.

Wired's cover story claimed that in December (in the U.S.), Firefox had already grabbed four percent of the on-line user base, an amount equal to that of all other alternative browsers combined. That may not sound like much, but Microsoft began to see a long-term threat. If Firefox could do that in less than two months, where would it be next December? It took Explorer a mere two years to surpass Netscape, and today's Net trends move a lot faster. Perhaps the biggest indicator of Firefox's success is that Microsoft just reversed its position a couple of weeks ago and announced it would release an updated version of Explorer this year after all. And to think that none of this was even on the horizon last October.

Another factor might be the open-source model used to develop Firefox. In the past, consumers were so brand loyal that it was difficult for them to have confidence in a product largely assembled by the volunteer work of hundreds or thousands of programmers. After all, they weren't going to buy a car built by the Some Guy Named Fred (and His Pals) Motor Company.

But this kind of development has been proven to work, notably with the Linux operating system. The source code is universally available. Anyone can try adding something new or refining what's already there. That improves the product. It also helps increase security, because the code isn't a mysterious and protected secret that only the company can fix. Flaws are either discovered in the development phase, when programmers examine every line, or can be quickly solved through collaborative efforts. Wired reports that a Firefox virus someone released during the software-testing stage last summer was fixed within two days.

Should you switch browsers? You should at least try out Firefox for a few days. After all, it's free. It's also fast and stable, and provides a new look to your browsing experience. It's obviously already good enough to unsettle Microsoft and win over converts from outside the usual fringe-software crowd, and the first major update (version 1.1) is expected this month. You'll probably want to keep Explorer around, in case it's required for access to some site or other, but you may find you'll use it less and less every day.

Besides, a few million more Firefox users is probably just what Microsoft needs to inspire it to truly improve Explorer. The company knows that if it manages to do that, you'll be back. If it fails to top Firefox, well, the company will lose some prestige. But on a personal level, at least all your bookmarks will already have been transferred over. -