Is Firefox incinerating IE?

commentary Any lingering doubts Microsoft had about the threat Firefox poses to Internet Explorer (IE) must be gone by now.The open source browser continues to make strong headway against the dominant player, taking about 5 percent of the browser market.

commentary Any lingering doubts Microsoft had about the threat Firefox poses to Internet Explorer (IE) must be gone by now.

The open source browser continues to make strong headway against the dominant player, taking about 5 percent of the browser market.

Nielsen Netratings this week said more than 2.6 million people (US home and work alone) visited the Firefox download site in March. The number represents a sharp rise from 1.6 million in February and 795,000 in June last year.

Nielsen's director of strategic analytics, Ken Cassar, was not about to ease Microsoft's pain over its rival's growth. He described Firefox as giving "Web surfers a simple tool that blocks unsolicited windows, is less susceptible to virus attacks and [through tabbed browsing] offers a unique means of navigating multiple sites within a single browser".

Rubbing salt into the wound, Time Magazine has bestowed a high honour on Mitchell Baker, head of the non-profit Mozilla Foundation that developed Firefox. It awarded her membership of the Time 100 most influential people, with a comment from browser wars veteran Marc Andreessen that "Firefox is chipping away at [IE's] stranglehold, but more important, it is showing that a loose collection of volunteer contributors from around the world can deliver software that can compete with any commercial effort".

Microsoft's competitors are seizing the opportunity provided by Firefox and Mozilla. IBM this week advertised for programmers to adapt Firefox to operate with its server software, while Google has recruited from within the Mozilla Foundation's ranks amid rumours the search specialist is looking to develop its own browser.

Despite the adulation, however, a few teething problems remain. Not all Web sites are optimised for the browser and some of Australia's leading Internet banking providers are among the culprits.

According to a quick -- and highly informal -- poll of ZDNet Australia  staff, around 10 percent of sites they surf are not Firefox-ready. However, the browser's takeup rate must eventually convince all but the slowest companies with an online presence to ensure their sites are compatible.

Nevertheless, despite Microsoft's current pain, the software heavyweight remains Firefox' greatest long-term threat. The company is rapidly trying to fill in the holes in its browser offering to limit the intrusion of Firefox and other rivals.

The next version of IE -- due within the next few months -- is reportedly expected to include tabbed browsing (the most-lauded feature of Firefox among the ZDNet Australia  editorial team), support for Internationalised Domain names, improved support for Cascading Style Sheets and Portable Network Graphics transparencies. It is also likely to include a built-in news aggregator based on Really Simple Syndication (RSS).

With these features, Microsoft should be able to stem the tide of departures. Its market share -- which still sits around 90 percent -- should allow it to remain entrenched with all but the early adopters and tech-savvy. But the software heavyweight must be conscious of the customer ill-will generated by its sluggish approach to upgrading IE.

One Firefox convert told ZDNet Australia   "it will take one cold day in hell before I move back to IE".

What do you think? Will IE consolidate or Firefox and other rivals continue to take market share? How does Firefox stack up against IE? E-mail us at edit@zdnet.com.au and let us know.

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