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The battle of the browsers

Firefox 3 dukes it out with Safari and Internet Explorer to control the way we surf the Web.

By Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / June 17, 2008

Scott Wallace – Staff

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Some call it “Browser War 2.0.” Software companies are vying to lasso you into using their product for leaping between websites. And because of the strange economics of the online world, the price is unbeatable: All the browsers are free.

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At stake for Microsoft and Apple are prestige and name recognition, or, for Mozilla, the quest to promote an “open source” world of software. Commerce isn’t too far behind, of course. Even though browsers don’t directly create revenue, they are indirect pathways to it.

Beyond that, future browsers may become even more important as they lead users to more websites that perform functions previously done by programs installed on their computers, from word processing to spreadsheets, photo editing to calendars.

Browsers are having an unaccustomed moment in the limelight this week as Mozilla unveiled Firefox 3, the latest version of its ever-more-popular browser. On Tuesday, it attempted to set a Guinness World Record for software downloads in one day, with a goal of 5 million copies of Firefox 3 downloaded by users around the world.

The new challenger
When this decade began, browsers were a sleepy backwater of software development. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) was used on more than 95 percent of Windows PCs, and in 2003, the tiny group of Apple users began to browse the Web with Safari.

But the nature of browsers changed dramatically after Mozilla introduced Firefox in 2004. As “open source” software, its underlying code was freely available to anyone. That openness sparked innovation, as thousands of volunteers found and quickly fixed Firefox’s “bugs” and eliminated many security issues.

“There were three or four years there where [Microsoft] really got behind in security, and I think that’s what drove a lot of initial interest in Firefox,” says Matt Rosoff, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash. “IE does not generate direct revenue for Microsoft, so it’s not something that they necessarily would put a lot of time into without competition.”

Firefox’s volunteer community also began writing complementary programs called “add-ons” that created additional useful features and allowed clever users to craft their own perfect Web portal.

Over the years, Firefox has continued to eat away at IE’s market share. Last month, IE’s share fell to 74 percent, down from 79 percent last July, according to Net Applications, a Web marketing company in Aliso Viejo, Calif. That drop represents millions of defecting users. Meanwhile, over the same period, Firefox’s share grew from 14 percent to 18 percent. Safari grew, too, from 4 percent to 6 percent. (Apple was criticized earlier this year for bundling Safari into updates for iTunes and other programs sent to Windows machines without asking PC users whether they wanted the browser. The company has since made it clearer when it is offering its browser as a download.)

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