Web power to the people
Swelling ranks of computer users are abandoning Internet Explorer for open-source Firefox
With the election over and the political signs coming down, Brandeis University freshman Jason Lustig plans to post fliers around campus this week for a new cause: the Firefox open source Web browser.
"Firefox is one of the coolest and most exciting projects out there," said Lustig, who uses the Internet browser for researching school reports and creating websites. "They're harnessing the power of community on the Web, like the Howard Dean thing."
In fact, Firefox may represent the first tangible example of open source software coming to the people. Such software, developed collaboratively by programmers who make its source code available for anyone to freely use and change, sprouted to counter the hammerlock of proprietary software from companies like Microsoft Corp. Until now, it has been largely for computer geeks and corporate technology staffers.
But over the past several months, more than 7 million copies of a beta version of Firefox have been downloaded from mozilla.org, the website of its nonprofit developers, by a swelling fraternity of fans and evangelists. Swiftly it has jumped from the realm of techies into the ranks of ordinary computer users, who swear it is faster, more innovative, and more secure than Microsoft's ubiquitous Internet Explorer browser. It has already stolen market share away from Microsoft, even before today's planned release of the browser's first official version, Firefox 1.0.
"It's the first piece of open source software I've used, and it's the best browser out there," said Kristen Bonardi Rapp of Beverly, one of over 700 users who responded to a reporter's query about Firefox posted on Boston.com.
Ironically, the technology roots of Firefox can be traced to the vanquished browser, Netscape Navigator, whose software has been updated and improved in recent years by a small army of independent coders. Microsoft thought it had won the Web browser war in 1998 when rival Netscape Communications Corp., seeming to throw in the towel, released its Navigator browser's source code to the general public free of charge, and then sold itself to America Online Inc.
But after six years of dominance by Microsoft's triumphant Internet Explorer, the upstart Firefox is mounting a fresh challenge.
"It's a prime example of how open source software can shine if done right," said software developer Adam Holbrook of Boston. "Any of my friends that haven't started using Firefox, I'm converting them." Holbrook, like many Firefox fans, cited the "tab browsing" feature that lets Firefox users toggle between websites without launching new browser windows.
"We've haven't seen anything like this in the browser space," said analyst Geoff Johnston, who tracks browser usage for the WebSideStory research firm in San Diego. "Firefox is the first Web browser in years that's seen as being as good or better than Explorer."
Even before Firefox's final beta version in September, earlier versions, and other browsers developed by the Mozilla Foundation, the Mountain View, Calif., nonprofit that is releasing Firefox, had claimed 3.5 percent of US browser usage, compared to 95.5 percent for Internet Explorer, WebSideStory surveys found. But the Mozilla share climbed to 6 percent between June 4 and Oct. 29, with Firefox accounting for half of those using the Mozilla family of browsers. During the same period, Internet Explorer's share slipped to 92.9 percent.
Firefox's growth has corresponded to widely publicized security problems with Internet Explorer, and Firefox enthusiasts point to security as one of their browser's biggest selling points.
"There's a general frustration with using Internet Explorer, and being bombarded with pop-ups and viruses and a degraded browser experience," said Chris Hofmann, director of engineering at the Mozilla Foundation and a former Netscape executive. "People are looking for an alternative."
Creating an alternative, and keeping competition alive in Web browsing, was the goal of the Mozilla Foundation's founding donors, which included AOL, IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., and former Lotus Development Corp. founder Mitchell Kapor, now chairman of the Open Source Applications Foundation in San Francisco, who sits on Mozilla's board. Several of Mozilla's senior staffers, including Hofmann and its chief executive, Mitchell Baker, are alums of Netscape.
Microsoft, increasingly concerned about virus attacks, released security features for Internet Explorer in August as part of an upgrade of its Windows XP computer operating system. Gary Schare, a Microsoft product manager, said the Redmond, Wash., company is focused on continuing to support Internet Explorer while developing an improved browser for the next version of Windows. The new browser's interface, what it looks like to users, has yet to be determined, Schare said.
"Firefox is an exciting new phenomenon that people want to check out," Schare conceded. "But the question is which browser is more compatible with the sites you visit, which browser are you more familiar with, and which browser gives you more productivity gains, and that's Internet Explorer. I haven't seen any really compelling thing that's going to make the mainstream consumers and businesses move."
One of those who made the move, Minneapolis marketer Rob Davis, said he installed Firefox last summer after having to reformat his computer hard drive because of a security hole in Internet Explorer. He was so taken with Firefox that he spearheaded a grass-roots Web campaign that raised $250,000 to market Firefox 1.0, including a full-page ad set to run in The New York Times this month that will list the names of the ad's contributors, from all 50 states and 82 countries.
The new browser battle can be measured in market share, but not in dollars and cents. It pits one product that comes preloaded in the vast majority of PCs -- those powered by Microsoft Windows -- against another that is available as a free download from the Web.
Still, much is at stake in this asymmetrical rivalry. One of the drawbacks of Firefox is its incompatibility with some websites designed exclusively to Internet Explorer specifications. Market share is important to Firefox, said Hofmann, partly because it gives organizations and companies an incentive to make their sites compatible with Firefox.
Ian Jacobs, communications director for the World Wide Web Consortium in Cambridge, said he sees the emergence of Firefox and other alternative and specialty Web browsers as a sign of health.
"I wouldn't call it a browser war anymore," he said. "I'd call it a browser springtime. It's a healthy thing that there are tools to meet different needs. What's valuable is that people have a choice."
Robert Weisman can be reached at email@example.com.