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Firefox browser sees surge in use

Microsoft's Internet Explorer still holds a huge commanding lead among Web users, but Firefox's surge is undeniable.
/ Source: Forbes

A sudden, measurable decline in market share in any product over the course of a few months says something, even if that product is one whose producer still holds about 90% of the market in question.

That's the situation in which Microsoft is suddenly finding itself amid the surging popularity of the open-source browser Firefox. Microsoft's Internet Explorer still holds a huge commanding lead among Web users, but Firefox's surge is undeniable.

(MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

I've been using Firefox to the exclusion of Internet Explorer on all my Windows machines and have been using it with increasingly regularity on my Apple Computer PowerMac and PowerBook as well.

And it turns out I'm not alone. Last week, the Mozilla Foundation, the outfit behind the creation of Firefox, said that 5.6 million people have downloaded version 1.0 of the new browser during its first two weeks of availability. By one reckoning -- that of, a Netherlands-based research group -- that's sufficient to give it a share of more than 7% of the browsers in use. Another estimate, that of WebSideStory, found earlier this month that Explorer's share had dropped to about 92% from 95% in June.

Firefox seems well on its way to the stated goal of taking 10% of the browser market within a year.

Now Firefox is going to start showing up in retail stores as a preinstalled browser on PCs from Linspire -- the company formerly known as Lindows. The browser is being bundled alongside the office productivity suite which is considered an open-source alternative to Microsoft Office. Retailers like WalMart Stores' and Staples carry Linspire machines.

Crisis of confidence
None of this should have Microsoft quaking in its boots. So far its few public statements on the subject have been dismissive. But Microsoft's browser is suffering from a crisis of confidence.

The many security problems its users experienced throughout the year -- the latest, a vulnerability called Bofra that affects users who haven't yet installed Windows XP Service Pack 2, struck this month -- have gotten many users in the tech-savvy set looking for an alternative because they're starting to find Explorer lacking the kinds of features they want, among them tabbed browsing and the ability to read RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds that are increasingly popular on the Web.

And that perception is going to ratchet up the pressure on Microsoft to do something new with its browser, and soon. Its next major revision to Explorer is due to arrive with Longhorn, the next major update to Windows, which is expected sometime in 2006. And that's a long time to expect Web users who might otherwise remain loyal to Explorer to wait without at least experimenting with Firefox, just to see what all the buzz is about and if the hype is true.

That will mean more erosion of the Internet Explorer majority, which would be a healthy thing for Microsoft. It has allowed itself to coast on its own inertia for far too long. A little spirited competition would be a good thing.