Browser

Mozilla burns to prove Firefox worthy

With debut of browser preview and community marketing site, questions arise over Firefox's long-term potential.
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By Paul Festa CNET News.com

After eight months of rapid growth, Firefox approaches its 1.0 release with new challenges in converting IE users.

The Mozilla Foundation's Firefox Web browser, an open-source alternative to Microsoft's market-dominating Internet Explorer, has been attracting new users at a breakneck pace. Even before reaching its 1.0 milestone, it has doubled its downloads every four months for the past eight. The last two months alone saw nearly 5 million downloads of software.

But the factors driving Firefox's success have already shifted. IE's security woes are on the mend with the company's latest Windows upgrade. And as security researchers and malicious hackers take note of the browser's impressive growth curve, Firefox's good security reputation could wind up the first casualty of the browser's popular success.

For now, however, Mozilla's most pressing concern is keeping its Firefox download servers from crashing. In the hours since Tuesday's expected preview release of Firefox 1.0, Mozilla is well on its way to reaching a stated goal of 1 million downloads in 10 days. In the first five hours that Firefox was available for free download, it was downloaded more than 100,000 times.

The Firefox download site "is totally dying under traffic right now," said Mozilla spokesman Bart Decrem. "We're scrambling to keep it up."

That's a nice problem for Mozilla to have--and a new one. Since its launch by Netscape Communications in 1998, Mozilla first lagged for 32 nail-biting months before releasing a browser based on its open-source development model. That release bombed.

Subsequent Mozilla-based releases improved in quality over the years but ballooned in size. Last year, code bloat cost Mozilla the Apple Computer account when the computer maker passed it over for the competing KHTML open-source project, which gave the Macintosh its Safari browser.

To produce a smaller and faster browser, Mozilla launched the project that became Firefox after a contentious naming dispute.

While Firefox and other Mozilla products are available free of charge under the Mozilla Public License, and Mozilla itself is a not-for-profit foundation, companies including Hewlett-Packard have implemented the software in commercial products.

Mozilla has recently attracted corporate dollars, including a development grant from Nokia to create the Minimo cell phone browser.

Toe to toe with the big gorilla
Firefox owes its rapid growth in part to Mozilla's early offering of crowd-pleasing features like tabbed browsing and an effective pop-up blocker.

Perhaps more significant drivers of the browser's growth have been Explorer's chronic security problems and Microsoft's discontinuation of standalone IE development.

"It's a nice browser, but I don't think it offers a compelling enough alternative for most users to switch."
--NPD analyst Ross Rubin doesn't
see Firefox unseating
Microsoft's Internet Explorer

But analysts question how long Firefox can rely on either its feature set or its comparatively good security reputation to drive adoption.

With the browser war long declared in Microsoft's favor, few Web measurement firms formally study browser market share. But one Web analysis company reports that earlier this summer IE maintained a huge majority of the market, dipping marginally to 94.16 percent in July from 95.48 percent in June.

And though Microsoft has stuck with its decision not to release updated versions of standalone IE, its recent release of the Windows Security Pack 2 combines security safeguards with a pop-up blocker.

Not only has Mozilla endured its own share of security problems, but those will likely increase in frequency and severity as Firefox becomes more popular.

"Microsoft's security woes regarding IE have to be taken in context," said Ross Rubin, analyst with The NPD Group. "Like Windows itself, much of the reason that IE is a target is due to its immense popularity."

That dynamic could lead Firefox into a paradox, as growth wrecks the comparative obscurity that gave it cover from malicious hackers and security researchers and stoked its growth to begin with.

"The irony is that the more popular...software is, the more it is a target for abuse," Rubin said. That "makes savvy users want to seek out alternatives, which spurs popularity."

Getting into fighting shape
Even as Firefox downloads strain its servers, Mozilla has taken action on both the security and marketing fronts.

With respect to security, the group resurrected a bug bounty originally offered by its corporate founder, Netscape Communications. Mozilla on Tuesday said it had awarded its first $500 bug bounties under the program.

Four security researchers earned prizes: Marcel Boesch, Gael Delalleau, Georgi Guninski and Mats Palmgren. Palmgren returned his money to Mozilla to support the bounty program.

On the marketing front, Mozilla launched a site, Spread Firefox, in hopes of harnessing the open-source volunteer spirit to popularize the browser using free marketing techniques such as e-mail signatures and Web site buttons.

The promotion site launched with some barely veiled swipes at the market's dominant browser, Microsoft's Internet Explorer, whose security lapses have helped drive Firefox's pre-version 1.0 popularity with consumers and corporations alike.

"You are our marketing department."
--A statement on Mozilla's site

"You are our marketing department," the site reads. "A diverse community of people tired of swatting pop-ups, chasing spyware, combating identity theft and installing security updates you could set your watch to. You have a vision of the 21st century Web and are ready to push it to the world, wresting control from a monopoly that has let it stagnate. We'll provide the tools, but you will drive campaigns that will be rolled out here over the coming months."

Spread Firefox is one of several sites that promote the browser. In addition to the main Mozilla.org site, the foundation launched a Get Firefox site that now redirects to Mozilla.org's Firefox page. Independent sites also work to raise awareness of IE alternatives, including Firefox.

Also Tuesday, Mozilla's Thunderbird mail client came out in version 0.8, replacing version 0.7, which came out in June. Mozilla also promised a fall release for Thunderbird 1.0.

With the Firefox preview, Mozilla said it had made it easier to view necessary pop-ups when using its pop-up blocker. The browser introduces new ways of identifying Web sites that may be trying to spoof others, and offers bookmarks that display frequently updated content such as news headlines.

Mozilla also said it had introduced an easier way of finding and installing plug-in applications like Macromedia Flash and Adobe's Acrobat document reader. The Firefox search engine now highlights search terms within a Web page.

While it puts most of its browser-building effort behind Firefox, Mozilla is still maintaining the Mozilla browser and its software suite. On Tuesday the group upgraded the Mozilla suite to version 1.7.3.

The handicappers bet on IE
Despite the updates and special programs, Rubin expressed skepticism that Firefox could make much of a dent in Microsoft's lead.

"I don't expect Firefox to gain significant market share against Internet Explorer," Rubin said. "It's a nice browser, but I don't think it offers a compelling enough alternative for most users to switch."

Instead, Rubin said he expected Firefox to continue to do well with niche markets, including among developers supporting cross-platform applications.

As for those dead-set against IE, Firefox may gain at the expense of other IE challengers such as Safari and Opera.

"Plus, there is always the Microsoft-haters," Rubin said. "But in that case, Firefox is probably taking share away from other non-Microsoft browsers."