Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Internet Explorer's state of suspended animation has never much bothered Web entrepreneur Adam Stiles, but now he's worried.
As founder and CEO of Stilesoft, Stiles has marketed the NetCaptor software as an IE browser for power users. NetCaptor, which uses Microsoft's IE rendering engine to provide browser tabs and other comparatively advanced features, has capitalized on the fact that IE hasn't gotten an all-around feature upgrade in more than three years.
"Historically, the slow pace of IE development has always been our greatest opportunity," said Stiles. "The reason I wrote NetCaptor in the first place was that I was frustrated with IE."
But now Stiles and other vendors of third-party browser applications that piggyback on the Microsoft browser are concerned that IE's widely noted stagnation may be proving as much a liability as an opportunity. The reason: Frustration with IE may be driving potential users to alternative browsers, especially the Mozilla Foundation's open source browser, Firefox.
That apparent trend has software developers including portal giant Yahoo and search king Google shifting away from an IE-only universe to a multibrowser strategy. Such plans may signal a turning point in the browser wars, indicating that the open-source development movement is succeeding in its efforts to thwart Microsoft's turning the Web into a one-browser shop.
"Yahoo is always evaluating new product platforms as users demand them," said a Yahoo spokesperson. "Yahoo Toolbar is available for Internet Explorer, and we're working with third-party open-source developers such as Mozilla to enable users of browsers such as Firefox to use our products."
Google representatives declined to be interviewed for this story. But the company's Web site acknowledges the demand for a non-IE toolbar and pledges to consider providing one.
"We decided to first release the Google Toolbar in Microsoft Internet Explorer," reads the site's frequently asked questions page. "We are examining the feasibility of offering a toolbar that is compatible with other browsers such as Netscape and Mozilla; however, this version is currently unavailable. We apologize for this inconvenience and will keep this suggestion in mind for future versions of the Toolbar."
While Stiles says NetCaptor downloads are still growing, and on any given day about 100,000 people use the application, the application's rate of growth has slowed noticeably.
"Firefox definitely has hurt," said Stiles. "We're definitely seeing people move in that direction. It's mostly anecdotal, when people write to me and say, 'I'm leaving, I'm going to Firefox.'"
The security factor
The reason most commonly cited in those defections, according to Stiles, is the factor that appears to be driving much of Firefox's momentum overall: security.
Internet Explorer has earned an increasingly sketchy reputation as security advisers including the U.S. government's CERT (Computer Emergency Readiness Team) have warned against using Microsoft's browser. (CERT praised recent security improvements that were part of the Service Pack 2 upgrade to the Windows XP operating system, but half of Windows users can't access them without paying for an upgrade to XP.)
NetCaptor and other IE browser shells—including My Soft Technology's Maxthon browser, Avant Browser, Clickgarden, Crazy Browser, Deepnet Explorer, and 4c vision—capitalize on users' frustration with IE's lack of features.
To a certain degree they also benefit from IE's security lapses, as some claim to plug security holes faster than Microsoft and provide additional protections.
Maxthon, for example, offers ActiveX blocking features for Windows operating systems back to Windows 98; Microsoft's ActiveX blocking features, introduced with SP2, are available only for owners of Windows XP.
But as security and feature frustration mount with IE, the so-called power users or early adopters who constitute the market for souped-up browsers are prone to hop on the Firefox bandwagon.
The size and influence of that bandwagon remain the subject of speculation. Some technology-focused Web sites have noted an increase in Firefox users. Other metrics suggest incremental gains by Mozilla-based browsers, but show IE still commanding more than 90 percent of the market.
Mozilla last month released the first preview release of Firefox 1.0, and blew away its initial goal of distributing 1 million copies in 10 days. As of Wednesday afternoon, the foundation said it had distributed more than 3.5 million copies.
One Mozilla Foundation developer said Firefox was ideally suited for creating extensions like toolbars.
Goodger pointed to the example of a Google toolbar clone based on Mozilla's code.
Let's go, Gecko
So if Firefox starts to take off, why not build around Mozilla's Gecko rendering engine instead of around IE's?
For Chen Ming Jie, chief executive and chief technology officer of My Soft, the prospect of producing a Firefox version of his company's Maxthon browser is a possibility.
"I think Mozilla will be good enough to provide a better programming interface so we can build all our features on the Gecko engine," said Chen. "Actually we support Gecko now....But with the Gecko engine, you can not use all the features in Maxthon."
To provide full support for Gecko, Chen said he would have to invest considerable programming resources into building a new user interface.
For now, however, the browser shells are sticking with IE.
One reason is that a significant number of Web sites are coded specifically to work with IE, leaving others with faulty pages.
Second, Firefox, Opera, Safari and other minority browsers have enough bells and whistles that the browser shells can't make much of a sales pitch to their users.
"If I'm competing heads-up against Firefox, it's hard to come up with value propositions," said Stiles. "If I were to switch (from IE to Gecko) entirely, it would take several months of development work and it would be difficult to say, given limited development resources, that it makes any sense to do that...I wouldn't know how to make money."
Follow the money
As it is now, the browser shell business isn't generating huge profits. My Soft relies on donations, which a small but significant fraction of its users pay. The company also offers other browser applications.
Like Opera Software, Stilesoft offers a premium version—for $29.95—and its free version carries some sponsored links. The company also co-brands its browser for internal use by companies including Amazon.
Microsoft said it benefited from the phenomenon of IE-based browsers and other third-party IE extensions, but was not concerned about the prospect of Firefox leeching away developers.
Instead, the company envisions a successful Firefox acting as an alternative, secondary platform much as Apple Computer's Macintosh operating system exists alongside Windows.
"I wouldn't expect fewer developers to target IE," said Gary Schare, Microsoft's director of security product management for Windows. "But some of the applications might target both. That's like applications that work on both Windows and the Macintosh, and it's up to developers to decide if the second platform or third platform has a large enough installed base to be a business opportunity to target. Many companies build for Windows and the Mac, and Microsoft is one of those."
Stiles, whose business grew out of frustration with IE, says the resuscitation of the browser war by an open-source group has taken him somewhat by surprise.
"I'm really impressed with Firefox, to be honest with you," said Stiles. "For four or five years it was easy to laugh it off, thinking they wouldn't get anywhere. But now they've got a really great product."