A clever fox is sneaking into Microsoft's henhouse, and some observers are warning that though it won't steal any valuable software itself, it could leave the door open to more ravenous invaders if the software giant isn't careful.
The intruder is Firefox, an Internet browser used to surf the Web - display pages and interact with them. In recent years, Microsoft has monopolized browsing with its ubiquitous Internet Explorer (IE), the familiar blue "e" on millions of computer screens. But IE is under heavy criticism for being riddled with security flaws, allowing pop-up ads, spyware, and viruses to infect computers.
On the other hand Firefox, officially launched last November, has won glowing reviews from technical experts as a much safer browser with better features. In just over two months, it has grabbed about 5 percent of the market, while IE has dropped from more than 95 percent to just over 90 percent.
Developed by the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, Firefox can be downloaded free of charge at www.mozilla.org. IE is bundled together with other Windows programs and thus is essentially free as well.
So what's at stake?
Firefox may turn out to be the first big success for the "open source" movement, which holds that software should be free to users and its workings available to anyone who wants to study or improve on them.
If Firefox keeps growing, "it would be the first open-source product to take market share back from a Microsoft product," says Greg DeMichillie, a senior analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash., consulting firm. Though Microsoft doesn't make money on IE, it does on Office, a group of popular programs used by businesses and individuals. OpenOffice is a free open-source alternative. If Firefox can take 15 or 20 percent of the market from Microsoft, he adds, "then I think Microsoft has to worry that that could happen to Office."
People can replace nearly all the major programs on a Windows PC with "safer, less expensive open-source alternatives," says Scott Granneman, author of the new book "Don't Click on the Blue E!" - a kind of Firefox for dummies. Free e-mail programs like Mozilla's Thunderbird can be used instead of Microsoft Outlook Express. Open-source Apache already dominates the market for Web servers. Even the Windows operating system itself can be swapped for an open-source alternative called Linux.
These open-source programs represent an unconventional challenge for Microsoft, Mr. Granneman says. For one thing, there's no competing company it can sue or buy out. Open source "is a movement, an idea. It's a social concept," he says.
And Microsoft can't undersell these products because they're already being given away. While Mozilla does have a small paid staff underwritten by donations and companies including Sun Microsystems, AOL, and IBM, much of its work is done by thousands of volunteer programmers who find and fix bugs and suggest improvements. "In open source, everybody is free to get ideas from each other and add them, and it just promotes innovation," Granneman says.
Analysts say that the quick success of Firefox is causing Microsoft to take a fresh look at IE, which the company has ignored until recently, while at the same time saying that it has no problem with those who want to switch. "While we think IE is the choice of hundreds of millions of people and businesses around the world because of the unique value it provides, we certainly respect that some customers will choose alternative browsers," a Microsoft spokesperson says. "Microsoft continues to make significant investments in IE...." Those include the recently released Service Pack 2, which offers security fixes.
In December, Penn State University advised its 80,000 students to abandon Internet Explorer for Firefox or other alternative browsers. According to a recent informal poll at InformationWeek.com, an online magazine, 57 percent of responding companies said they had recommended that their employees switch away from IE.
Firefox offers attractive features not found on IE, such as "tabs," which allow users to shuffle quickly among several Web pages with only one viewing window. It's also easy to install and customize.
But concerns about security are driving most of the switchers, analysts says.
Word is spreading that IE isn't safe, Mr. DeMichillie says. "To the extent that that takes hold - that feeling that 'My PC isn't safe' - that can have a major impact on Microsoft," he says.
Microsoft is planning to introduce Longhorn, its new version of Windows, in a couple of years, and needs it to arrive in an atmosphere where people think of using their PC "as a positive experience," he says. If you think of Microsoft products as infested with spyware and viruses, "you're not really a prime candidate for Microsoft to sell you new software."
That could be a boon not only to the open-source movement, DeMichillie adds, but to Apple, which is on the rebound now with its iPod and mini-Mac products.
Open source continues to gain momentum outside the United States. Brazil's government has talked about replacing the programming on its computers with non-Microsoft alternatives. City governments in places such as Munich, Germany, and Vienna have similar projects under way. The national police in France plan to replace Microsoft Office with OpenOffice on some 80,000 PCs, and Singapore's police are doing the same with their 15,000 PCs.