New Web Browser Challenges Microsoft

A DECADE AGO, Netscape Navigator became the world's de facto INTERNET browser almost overnight. It was a phenomenal success - that is, until Microsoft Corp.

New Web Browser Challenges Microsoft

A DECADE AGO, Netscape Navigator became the world's de facto INTERNET browser almost overnight. It was a phenomenal success - that is, until Microsoft Corp. started bundling its own browser, Internet Explorer, with its Windows 98 operating system (and every one since) and practically snuffed Navigator out of existence.

Well, it seems a new challenger has Microsoft going back on the attack. Mozilla Foundation's Firefox, launched in November, is garnering praise as a nimble alternative to Explorer. In the four months since, the free browser has been downloaded nearly 25 million times. In response, Microsoft announced last week it will release a major browser upgrade this summer.

So what's so great about Firefox? For one thing, it's much more secure than Explorer, which has long been criticized for its vulnerability to hackers. "Over the past several years, the security issue with IE has ballooned, and it seems like every couple of days there's another attack," says Scott Granneman, author of the forthcoming Don't Click on the Blue e, due out in March.

Firefox's instant popularity has caused Microsoft's share of the browser market to shrink by about five per cent. Modest, considering Explorer still controls about 90 per cent of the market, but symbolic nonetheless. If the software giant's dominance in an area it considered locked up can be whittled away, perhaps it's vulnerable elsewhere, too. Indeed, Firefox is just the most high-profile combatant in a multi-front assault on Microsoft by the so-called "open source" movement, where volunteer programmers work collaboratively on programs usually available for free download. OpenOffice.org, for example, offers free alternatives to the Microsoft Office suite; the Linux operating system is winning over corporate users; and Thunderbird, another product from Mozilla, is taking aim at Microsoft Outlook.

But is Firefox a real threat to Microsoft? Gartner Inc. technology analyst Ray Valdes doesn't think so. In a recent report, he argues that as Firefox gains a following, hackers will target it just as they did Explorer. And the challenge will become greater now that Microsoft has decided to marshal its massive resources to stem the tide of IE evacuees. "Even if Firefox has 20 million users," says Valdes, "that's still small considering there are 400 or 500 million Web users" - the vast majority of them using Explorer. Still, Granneman isn't convinced Microsoft can quash the mavericks. "For the first time, open source is not a foe Microsoft can buy out, intimidate or underprice," he says. "We're at the top of the hill with the snowball. We're going downhill, and we're gathering steam."

Where Firefox Outsmarts Explorer

Tabbed browsing: lets you open multiple websites within a single window. You flip through by clicking on tabs - like using Post-It notes marking papers in a binder.

Cool extensions: small programs written by Firefox enthusiasts that add features such as a weather report icon, an iTunes controller or an ad blocker.

Search toolbar: access dozens of search sites, including Wikipedia and IMDB, through this integrated feature.

Maclean's February 28, 2005