With a million downloads in 10 hours, the Firefox browser has kicked off a brand new round in a very old conflict.
Six years ago, Microsoft won the browser wars against Netscape -- the distant forefather of Firefox -- not because Internet Explorer was a better browser, but by the simple expedient of giving it away with every copy of Windows. That gave MS a killer lock on the market back in the last century when the CD was the only software distribution medium in town. Now we have broadband and the game's afoot once again.
Microsoft's response to Firefox has been to say that you get much better support with Windows products because of the legions of people waiting at the end of the phone. Again, that might have been true in the days before broadband. It's not true anymore. Google, well-designed Web sites and user communities work far better most of the time than hotline support.
None of this would matter if the world had gone along with Microsoft's plans, with the browser being a fairly dumb gateway into a variety of smart applications. If all it had to do was link the Windows PC environment to Windows services running on a Windows server, why, the Internet Explorer that won the war all those years ago would be good enough for everyone.
That ain't happened. Instead, people want to manage increasingly complex online tasks. We're used to gathering information from many different places at once, and expect our tools to keep up with the way we want to work. Firefox knows this: Microsoft doesn't.
We have everything in place for a sea change in online computing -- which is to say, computing in general. IE has wasted six years of market dominance in stagnation while the world changed around it. Like a mighty ship of the World War 1, the battles it was built to fight are no longer those on offer: the enemy is smarter, swifter and much more cunning.
Firefox is important not just because it's a better browser than IE. It's proof of the most tangible kind that open source is capable of taking on Microsoft at its own game. Who's going to wonder whether free open-source software is capable of providing a better desktop experience than Windows when the stuff's doing just that two feet from your nose? With that fear gone, it's not just the browser wars that are reigniting. Revolution is in the air: nobody knows where it will end.