With 3.5 launch, Firefox faces new challengers

With 3.5 launch, Firefox faces new challengers

Summary: Mozilla's browser broke Microsoft IE's lock on the market. But the new Firefox 3.5 faces other serious alternative-browser ontenders.

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TOPICS: Browser, Google
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A funny thing to happened to Firefox on the way to vanquishing Internet Explorer: the Mozilla browser's success opened the door for a host of its other competitors.

Even as Internet Explorer's market share has slipped--down a dramatic 8 percentage points to 65.5 percent in about the last year--Firefox programmers face a surprising question: should they be more worried about the programmers in Redmond, Wash., or about those working on Apple's Safari, Google's Chrome, and Opera?

Firefox has gained about 3 percentage points to 22.5 percent in market share, according to Net Applications' statistics since July 2008, and Firefox backer Mozilla doubtless hopes for more gains with Tuesday's release of Firefox 3.5. But Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome each gained 2 percentage points, to 8.4 percent and 1.8 percent, respectively, indicating a growing appetite for alternatives to Internet Explorer that's not completely met by Firefox. Opera stayed flat at about 0.7 percent.

In short, Firefox isn't the only scrappy underdog in town, and Firefox fans' easy us-versus-them polarization is transforming into a more complicated multilateral equation.

Having other IE challengers helps legitimize Firefox, because the idea of straying from the IE fold appears more legitimate, but the alternatives also collect some of the new users venturing farther afield. For its part, though, Mozilla likes to see the glass as half full.

"One of our biggest challenges is helping people to understand that they have a choice about their Web browser, and how big a difference that choice can make," Firefox director Mike Beltzner said. "Every release is an opportunity for us to bring improvements directly to our growing user base, but also help many users indirectly by putting pressure on Microsoft to improve their product as well."

Version 3.5 has been, relatively speaking, long in the making. It began its life as what was intended to be a quick and modest upgrade to Firefox 3.0, but the version number expanded along with Mozilla's ambitions for the software.

And it is indeed an important release, both because of competitors and because of new Firefox 3.5 features.

What's in it for users?
Firefox 3.5 has a host of improvements, some the sort of thing people can notice immediately and some plumbing improvements that could help the Web in the long run. With a release in 70 languages, a lot of people will be able to try

Under the covers but providing a direct benefit it TraceMonkey, the new engine that runs Web page programs written in the common JavaScript language. That will mean Web applications such as Google Docs get faster today and, if JavaScript speed improvements continue, more sophisticated tomorrow.

Another feature people might appreciate directly is private browsing mode, which erases evidence on your computer of where you've taken your browser. It's flippantly called porn mode, but it also can be useful to keep your boss from knowing what you've been up to while on company time or searching for Valentine's Day gifts. Along with private browsing goes the ability to excise particular sites or recent activity after the fact, too--though it should be noted that none of these options erase your fingerprints from the servers you visited.

Mozilla also is excited about HTML video, which makes it possible not only to embed video in Web pages without using plug-ins such as Adobe Systems' Flash Player, but also to have that video interact with other elements on the Web page. That's not likely to revolutionize the Web in the short term, especially because of prickly issues regarding file format support, but it could help in the long run.

Design fans will be excited about embeddable fonts that can spruce up Web pages, though typeface designers might be leery of yet another avenue for unlicensed copying of their work.

Deeper down, Firefox 3.5 also adds HTML 5 storage abilities to help make Web applications work when offline, "Web Workers" to let Web applications work on tasks in the background without the user interface bogging down, and improvements to standards such as CSS and SVG for better graphics. And a geolocation function can let Web sites know where you are, handy for maps and other local services.

Collectively, it's an important foundation, though just getting them into version 3.5 is only the first step. Firefox users tend to update relatively swiftly, but they're still a minority on the Web, and Web programmers tend to wait for some critical mass before they can afford to support the latest browser features.

Fending off rivals
Competitors aren't standing still. Chrome was missing many important features such as bookmark management when it launched in September, but Google has rapidly been fleshing out the product, including the addition of rough Mac OS X and Linux versions in May. Also notably, Google has continued to drive its V8 JavaScript engine ever faster, and Chrome's extensions mechanism is rapidly maturing.

Meanwhile, Apple released Safari 4 in June for both Windows and Mac OS X. Safari uses much of the same WebKit engine for rendering Web pages that Chrome, but it uses a different JavaScript engine, called Nitro by Apple and Squirrelfish Extreme at WebKit. Apple is loudly banging the "fastest browser" drum for Safari, and though the claim is grand, it does spotlight that performance is a major issue in today's browser competition.

Don't view Firefox developers as complacent, though. Performance improvements are a top priority in the successor to Firefox 3.5, called Namoroka, including fast launch speed, a present Chrome advantage. The new version is scheduled for release in early to mid-2010.

A host of other improvements also are under development. Among them:

Weave is a project to synchronize bookmarks, passwords, preferences, and other settings across multiple browsers, including the mobile version of Firefox, code-named Fennec. Weave also can sync personas, another new feature that lets people customize Firefox's appearance.

• A project called Electrolysis is designed to improve isolation between different tabs and between plug-ins and tabs, improving security and reliability.

Jetpack is designed to be a new framework for add-ons that can be developed using Web page design standards. That's the same approach Google chose for Chrome extensions.

• People use more and more tabs, and tab management is tougher, so work is under way to address the issue--perhaps with an automatically expanding or contracting tab list on the left edge of the browser instead of on a strip along the top.

Snowl is a system that tries to unify messaging operations, whether messages originate from e-mail, Web forums, RSS feeds, social networks, or other sources.

Ubiquity is designed to let Firefox interpret a wide range of formal or informal text commands, turning the browser into a more general window on the world.

Also, Firefox has some incumbent advantages of its own--enough market share that Web developers need to test their sites for Firefox compatibility and a range of add-ons to customize the browser, for example. Those are strong enough to keep people from rapidly switching away even if they're trying other browsers, too.

So yes, Firefox has abundant new competitors. But it hasn't been pushed aside.

Topics: Browser, Google

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16 comments
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  • With 3.5 launch, Firefox faces new challengers

    Internet Explorer and Firefox are always going to be the two main competing browsers. The rest I wouldn't call challengers against Firefox because they have severe drawbacks. Chrome is not a challenger since its still beta even though all Google did was drop the beta name. The browser is very amateurish and has privacy policy issues. No one is using Opera anymore due to their lawsuit against Microsoft and the successful Boycott Opera campaign. Safari had some recent issues crop up as well, I've only used it for a limited time. And the one thing that sets Firefox apart from the rest if the add-ons, although IE does have something similiar but not as many or as configurable.
    Loverock Davidson
    • Hey amigo

      I was just wondering why Firefox agreeing with Opera's actions has not poisoned your feelings for it:
      http://arstechnica.com/open-source/news/2009/02/mozilla-call-for-eu-intervention-in-browser-war-is-troubling.ars
      Also, would you be able to provide data or a link indicating the successful Boycott Opera campaign? Not that I doubt that it has some effect, but is there any articles that point out actual users of opera are boycotting it rather than just users that try out various browsers and quite likely would not have settled on it anyways? After all, it should be possible to substantiate a successful boycott, right?
      Viva la crank dodo
      • Hola!

        Opera was the one pushing this issue so a boycott is only natural and they will feel the pressure, so much so that they will drop this case. No need to provide data since there is no official counters, but from reading sites and posts the number has to be well into the millions.
        Loverock Davidson
        • Still...

          Fair enough; we all draw our own lines.

          As for a successful boycott:
          I have looked at the posts and news articles and think your optimism is misplaced. Most posts appear to be from people who are very pro-MS on sites I have looked at so far though I will keep looking. Articles have for the most part been neutral, likely as there is no hard proof of the effectiveness. I don't have any evidence that would say it is unsuccessful either which is why I asked.

          One thing I believe is that both Opera and MS may be the losers here. People may be annoyed by Opera being the one to bring about the browserless OS but those that were TRULY Opera users no doubt were/are so because of short-comings of MS IE. As such, perhaps your beloved browser (and Mine) FF will be the recipient from both sides of the line.
          Viva la crank dodo
        • You know nothing about EU law.

          "Dropping the case". BS.

          It's in the EU's commission's hands now. Opera is not a player anymore in these legal proceedings. There's nothing to drop anymore.
          nizuse
  • RE: With 3.5 launch, Firefox faces new challengers

    But how serious are the contenders? Try using Opera on your Google Group if you are the owner. You can surf the group but Opera cannit see any edit button. To be fair, Opera know about this.

    ISTR I had a problem with Opera and Paypal, nit cvan't quite remember what it was. I know it wouldn't allow me to do something - I have told Opera about it.

    Google Chrome? I have it as well as Firefox but it cannot compete with all the add-ins I use to make my life a lot easier.

    I would hazard a guess that Apple's Safari hasn't got anything as much as Firefox in add-ins.

    Ampers
    ampers@...
  • Safari

    Is that 8.4% for Safari just on Windows machines, or does it include Mac?

    Roboform, the Lazyman's wondertool, is being readied for Safari on Mac, but not on Windows. I have a feeling that with the popularity of Firefox on Mac's, there might wind up being less Safari users on Mac than on Wondows machines, simply because of the sheer numbers of Windows machines compared to Mac's. Safari needs Roboform to overcome MyYahoo!'s resistence to saved user id's and passwords. It works great in IE and Firefox. Seamonkey has it now, but does not need it. The coders there are enlightened enough to leave it up the the user, with a toggle in about:config.

    So, please clarify the 8.4%.

    Thanks.
    richardmitnick
    • That number must include Mac (and maybe iPhone)

      That number has to include the Mac, and might even include the
      mobile version of Safari has well. Let's do a quick thought
      experiment. If the usage statistics are correct, then some rough
      envelop math breaks out the number of browser users as follows
      (assuming a rough number of 1 billion computer users):

      IE at 66% = 660 million users
      Firefox at 22% = 220 million users
      Safari at 8.4% = 84 million users
      Chrome at 1.8% = 18 million users
      Opera at 0.7% = 7 million users

      Though I'm too lazy to actually do the research, the Firefox downloads
      look to be pretty close to the ball parks I've heard mentioned for
      number of downloads, as do the Chrome and Opera numbers. IE (like
      Windows itself) is more of less omnipresent, so it passes the stupid
      check.

      The only number that really stands out is Safari. 84 million users
      would include the entirety of the Mac user community (~35 million,
      given Apple's somewhat fuzzy numbers delivered at WWDC), and an
      additional 50 million Windows users. That seems far too many given
      the actual number of people I've seen using Safari on Windows.
      (Which, to date, is a big, fat 0.) As noted above, the only way to reach
      that is by including Mac users of Safari and probably iPhone/iPod
      touch as well.
      Rob Oakes
  • Opera's Nitch

    Don't forget the exclusive use of Opera on Nintendo's highly sucessful Wii gaming system. Would it were no so as when you go on the "Internet Channel" it is like swimming upstream in a molassas current. Even IE 6,7,or 8 would be proferable.
    El Condor
    • hmmm

      IE 6/7/8 is never prefered.
      Nomad08
  • Customization

    To me, Firefox's advantage isn't in the browser itself, but in its customization with Add-Ons. These add-ons, such as being able to keep my links synchronized across all my computers, add tremendous value to the browser that I haven't seen in other browsers and why I've tried Safari 4 and Google Chrome, but eventually came back to Firefox as my default browser.
    grashopper2001@...
    • Firefox

      I try to use a variety of browsers. Safari is very handy if you have a lot of h2g2 tabs open. Every h2g2 page has a title beginning with "BBC - h2g2 - ". So if there are a lot of tabs, you can't tell which is which. Safari chops the beginning off, and gives you the actual title.

      What I find really special about Firefox is the "Add a keyword for this search" function. I've added keywords for many "searches" which expect to receive a URL, such as http://validator.w3.org, http://web-sniffer.net, and http://who.is. I also have keywords for searches on h2g2, Amazon, BBC News, Wikipedia, and IMDb. Very very handy.

      TRiG.
      Timothy (TRiG)
  • My motto.

    And if you have some trouble with our corporate site, then try Firefox, is free, is easy to use and runs fairly well on many sites.
    magallanes
  • RE: With 3.5 launch, Firefox faces new challengers

    How are these statistics collated?

    If I download and try Chrome, something that a lot of web savvy users would have done, would I be counted as a Chrome user? I went back to Firefox straight after but I'm sure a majority of web savvy users, who also generally Firefox, would be more likely to try out new browsers and then jump back.

    I wonder if how these statistics would change if a user would consider that browser as their primary browser rather than one they simply 'checked out' upon release.
    nidzumi
  • Qualify the numbers

    It's actually quite important to qualify how you
    arrive at your percentages.

    Are they based upon manufacturer's reported downloads
    (and would therefore include the 'download to try and
    then drop' brigade), or are they based upon actual
    site visits, and what the browser reported it was to
    the server.

    Even then, the figures can be swayed dependent upon
    the type of site that is having its stats used to
    measure browser usage. A more technical site - this
    one for example - is likely to have a higher
    percentage of non-IE browsers than a less technical
    site.

    Probably more ideal would be to get browser stats from
    across as many sites as possible, so we get a good
    cross-section of 'society', and as accurate reporting
    as possible.

    Mr Shankland, can you qualify where you got your
    numbers from please?
    xPositor
  • Following Opera..again

    Doesn't Opera already have what Firefox calls "weave"?
    wakeman91