The Firefox browser is looking for allies in its quest to challenge Microsoft's dominant Internet Explorer and Web users are buzzing about a potential link-up with search company Google.
The Mozilla Foundation's Firefox software, which officially launches on Nov. 9, has already been downloaded by millions attracted by the promise of innovative features like tabbed browsing -- opening multiple Web sites within a single desktop window -- and fewer attacks by hackers and virus writers.
Mozilla, which gives the Firefox software away for free to users and developers, is seeking out content and technology companies to develop their own branded versions of Firefox by adding extra features.
One potential partner floated on numerous Web sites, including the influential news site Slashdot (http://www.slashdot.org), is the search engine giant Google, which is flush with cash from its initial public offering and is rapidly expanding into new businesses
"It makes a ton of sense for them to be looking at a browser," Mozilla marketing chief Bart Decrem told Reuters. "It would be a smart thing for Google to do."
Decrem declined to comment when asked if Mozilla and Google already had a partnership in place, saying only: "There's a lot of value in terms of companies taking advantage of the code base we've built, and we're very interested in partnering with any number of partners."
Speculation about a Google browser began when the company registered the Gbrowser.com domain in April, and grew when it hired software engineers who worked on Internet Explorer.
"We are not building a browser," Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt told the Financial Times last week. But that statement may leave some wriggle room for Google to take a fully built browser like Firefox and add its own features.
A Google spokeswoman declined to comment, and as fevered as the speculation has become, there has been no firm evidence of a Mozilla-Google deal.
While linking with Mozilla would give Google a head start into the browser market, it would go against Google's legacy as an independent development house.
"Would Google be a potential partner? That's not their history," said Ovum software analyst Neil Macehiter.
For Firefox the appeal is clear. Google's universally-recognised brand and devoted user following could boost the browser's miniscule marketshare, which most experts estimate is currently less than 5 percent. Mozilla is targeting 10 percent market share by the end of 2005.
For Google the benefits would be more subtle.
Google's current offerings, aside from its core Web search engine, include email (Gmail), blogging tools (Blogger), a price comparison site (Froogle), a news site (Google News), social networking software (Orkut) and desktop search software.
Nearly all are accessed via the Web -- which means mostly through Microsoft's dominant Internet Explorer software, which has more than a 90 percent market share.
Many analysts see Google and Microsoft as increasingly fierce competitors, so it may make strategic sense for Google to control its own destiny by launching its own Web browser.
Such a move would carry risks. Netscape, the dot-com pioneer whose browser code eventually became the basis for Firefox, lost its dominant position in part because it incorporated too many features into its software, which became bloated and slow.
Will Firefox, and possibly Google, kick-start a resurgence of the browser wars of the late 1990s, which were eventually won by Microsoft?
"This is more a skirmish than a war, but that's not to say there is not room for another browser," said Macehiter. (Additional reporting by Bernhard Warner)