Another Great Battle in the Browser Wars Looms Ahead

As Firefox does battle with Internet Explorer, Microsoft mounts a new offensive and Netscape lays plans to enter the fray.
Posted April 20, 2005

Drew Robb

Drew Robb

What do James Bond, the Roman Empire and Netscape have in common?

When you defeat someone, you better do it completely, or you'll surely regret it later. James Bond's opponents all make the same fatal mistake. They assume Bond is dead and are free to carry out their nefarious plot to take over the world.

Ancient Rome, on the other hand, took matters a bit more seriously. When its rulers finally defeated Carthage in 146 B.C., their troops burned the city to the ground, sold the inhabitants into slavery, and sowed the fields with salt to prevent another city being built on that spot. Another city was eventually built there, but it was a Roman colony, not a Roman rival.

Now there are the Browser Wars.

Web War I (WWI) ended in the late '90s when Microsoft's Internet Explorer defeated Netscape and attained world domination with greater than 90 percent market share. But Microsoft failed to deliver a death blow to Netscape.

Now, less than a decade later, Netscape's progeny, Firefox, has launched a foray into Microsoft's territory, reclaiming some of the captured territory. Will WWII end up the same way as WWI, or will we be witnessing the emergence of a New Web Order?

Millions Desert Microsoft's Camp

Firefox 1.0 is based on the same engine as Netscape Navigator. Released by The Mozilla Organization on Nov. 9, 2004, more than 25 million people downloaded the browser within the first 100 days. While this is a fraction of the number of people using IE, it does pose a threat.

Web analytics firm Web Side Story reported that, by mid-February 2005, Firefox approached a 6 percent user share in the United States, and IE fell below 90 percent for the first time in years.

Firefox has experienced even greater success in Europe where, according to the French firm XiTi, one in five Germans accessing the Internet recently did so using Firefox.

''Firefox is growing in usage and in selected audiences it has significant market share,'' says Gartner, Inc. research director Ray Valdes. ''Its overall global market share is still in single digits, but if you go into some IT departments, you will find 80 percent of the employees using Firefox.''

The primary driver for people switching to Firefox has been IE's continuous security issues. Since it is the world's most popular browser, IE also is the most popular target for hackers. In addition, it is linked into Microsoft's operating systems and other applications, opening additional avenues for insecurity.

''There are advantages to integrating the browser into the operating system, so it is a part of every task rather than a discrete piece of software,'' says Valdes. ''But this also makes it more difficult to patch, and a security breach can have a ripple effect across the entire operating system.''

Firefox has several other advantages over IE, as well.

Two of the most notable advantages are tabbed browsing and integrated search engines, both of which save time and system resources. And users generally agree they make browsing a more pleasant experience.

In addition, users can select from hundreds of additional add-on tools to customize the features.


There is nothing like competition to wake someone up, and it didn't take long for Microsoft to fire back.

At the RSA security conference in San Francisco, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates used part of his Feb. 16 keynote address to announce a new arms race. Rather than waiting for the next release of Windows -- Longhorn -- to come out in 2006, Microsoft will be releasing a new version of IE as a standalone product.

''We have a dialogue to make sure that we're understanding exactly what people would like to have us do in Internet Explorer, and what we've decided to do is a new version of Internet Explorer -- this is IE 7. And it adds a new level of security,'' Gates told the large conference audience. ''We will be able to put this into beta by early in the summer.''

Gates said the browser's security improvements would include technologies to fight phishing and malware. He didn't, however, go into details.

Since then Microsoft spokespeople have said IE 7 will work with Windows XP SP2, 64-bit XP and Windows Server 2003 SP1. In addition to better security, some industry observers have speculated that the browser will include support for the World Wide Web Consortium's Cascading Style Sheets 2 (CSS2) standard, RSS news aggregation, and Portable Network Graphics (PNG) support and tabbed browsing.

Will these additions be enough to counteract the desertion to Firefox?

If Microsoft delivers on both the features and security improvements, it has a good chance at reclaiming many of those who have switched, observers say. At this point, the details, including the release date, are still too sketchy to make any realistic determination.

But even without releasing IE 7, the company still has several advantages:

  • IE comes preloaded on Windows machines, whereas a user has to find out about and download Firefox;
  • Companies may have other applications, such as an ERP system or intranet, which depend on IE features;
  • Since IE has had a greater than 90 percent share for years, many Web sites are optimized for that browser, and don't display properly on Firefox, and
  • IE can be centrally managed in an enterprise, while Firefox is designed for individual users.

    The advantage scale may tip later this year when Netscape releases an enterprise browser based on the same Mozilla engine that Firefox uses. However, it will still take a good while for corporate IT departments to evaluate all the dependencies and make the switch.

    Until these points are overcome, Valdes says corporate users shouldn't expect Firefox to be their only browser.

    ''When making a decision, you are not choosing between two browsers, but whether to add another browser and minimize the use of Internet Explorer,'' he advises. ''Organizations should revisit their browser standardization policies, not with goal of eliminating Internet Explorer, but in order to reduce their browser dependencies.''

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