September 14, 2004 1:17 PM PDT

Mozilla burns to prove Firefox worthy

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.

News.context

What's new:
Mozilla is trying to light a fire under its new browser with the preview release of Firefox 1.0.

Bottom line:
Fans are pummeling the open-source group's servers to get at the new release, but keeping the fires burning over time still won't be easy.

More stories on Firefox

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 Netscape released a browser based on its open-source development efforts. 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."

9 comments

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We'll see
<<"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."<<

Ask most user and they would look at you like you had 3 heads
if you mentioned Firefox. Very few except for the computer savy
even know there are other browsers out there.

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

We'll see in 2 years when IE 6 is still not updated and the only
way to update will be to shell out $200+ for foghorn and
another $800 for a new computer that will be need to run it. M$
is having problems getting people to switch to XP with many still
running 98.
Posted by Gerald Quaglia (72 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Definitely a trend
There is definitely, however, a change I have seen recently regarding the number of customers requesting software companies to test and support firefox as an alternate browser.

What firefox and browsers in general need is a (second, after the web) "killer app" which can cause users to switch. We can only hope...
Posted by bmukund (12 comments )
Link Flag
Firefox and IE both are boring
If someone would take a realistic and unbiased look at all browsers available, I think that person would recognize that Opera has the best thing going.

It's small, fully-featured (far more than Firefox AND IE), and is actually a brilliant piece of software.

I'm amazed that Firefox gets all this press while Opera is simply the best---Opera, if given the same level of exposure, as IE or even Firefox would stake its claim as the #1 software for the Internet, I believe. Even PC World recognized that this year by selecting it as the 2004 Browser of the Year.

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.opera.com/features/" target="_newWindow">http://www.opera.com/features/</a>
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://tntluoma.com/opera/lover/7/" target="_newWindow">http://tntluoma.com/opera/lover/7/</a>
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://nontroppo.org/wiki/WhyOpera" target="_newWindow">http://nontroppo.org/wiki/WhyOpera</a>
Posted by treego (9 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The problem with opera...
is that it's not open source. To a lot of the people who really
like firefox, that's a big part of the reason that they like it so
much. In addition, because it's open source, the greater the
marketshare firefox has, the more attention it will attract from
others who will help put resources, be it money or otherwise,
into the development of it. Finally, firefox will never have the
security issues of IE simply because it's not "integrated" into
windows the way IE is. Sure, SP2 is supposed to help
dramatically with security issues, but when was the last time
microsoft followed through on its promises as far as software
quality goes? I think that the effectiveness of the security
enhancements in SP2 will be the determining effect on just how
much market-share firefox gains. As good as it may be, Opera
is not open-source and I don't know of anybody who is willing to
pay for their web browser.
Posted by (7 comments )
Link Flag
$$$
Most would not switch from free IE if they have to pay. I wish there was a window version of Safari.
Posted by Gerald Quaglia (72 comments )
Link Flag
Why are Festa's articles so Negative
This guys's writing style just turns me off. It is filled with negative implications and assertions that are often not even true.

I wonder why CNET continues to employ him. I don't enjoy reading his articles, and they are usually not even very informative.

I must admit, I've mostly only read his articles about Mozilla. Is he always like this, or does he have some (hidden) agenda against Mozilla? Either way, his "journalism" is sub par, and I hope CNET considers educating him or firing him.

Examples of negativity/bias:
- Mozilla first lagged for 32 nail-biting months before releasing a browser based on its open-source development model. That release bombed. [http://Netscape 6.0 bombed, NOT Mozilla 1.0|http://Netscape 6.0 bombed, NOT Mozilla 1.0]

- Multiple links to negative issues (which emphasize them): "bombed", "naming dispute", "cost mozilla the Apple accont", "security problems", etc. OK, there are a LOT of other (frequently neutral) links, but there seem too many negative, and too few positive ones.

- Negative (HUGE) callout text: "It's a nice browser, but I don't think it offers a compelling enough alternative for most users to switch."

- "Bottom line" suggests only 8mainly) fans are downloading Firefox.

- too many more to mention. :-(

PS. Before spending even more time reading biased articles, I suggest you try Firefox for yourself. It's only a 4.6 MB download, and you will be glad you did: <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.getfirefox.com/" target="_newWindow">http://www.getfirefox.com/</a>
Posted by Peter Reaper (11 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Festa is Bias or Ignorant
I have to agree with a previous post this article is very negative.
It only points at the possibility that firefox will have the same
secuity issues as IE "if" it becomes popular. It offers no reason to
believe this statement. It offers no insight into what Firefox
truely offers a web user, supporting the argument that Festa is
bias or just plain ignorant. He quotes Rubin as saying "It's a nice
browser, but I don't think it offers a compelling enough
alternative for most users to switch"

Well that nice.

1) It has a familar look to make transition easy.
2) installation is easy and is not dependant on an OS
3) SUPPORTS STANDARDS!!!! a web page actually displays the
way it was designed to be.
4) It is not just a browser, its an environment. XPCOM

there are multiple sites that have lists over 100 item longs of
things that Firefox/Mozilla offer that IE simply does not.

Finally, why should I use a product that for all intent and
purposes has been dead and will remain dead, no further
development is planned for IE6. Microsoft wants you to buy an
OS.

I am not saying microsoft is bad, but we must hold software
vendors responsible to develop quality products in this case IE is
inferior. Don't be afraid of a little learning curve like this author
is, after all its this complacency that has left us with our current
president
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Festa replies
To address just a few of the points raised by Peter and Nathan--

Thanks first for acknowledging that the links within the story point to both positive and negative developments leading up to Firefox's preview release. The story itself stresses the browser's current successes while pointing out potentially imminent pitfalls and larger dynamics beyond Mozilla's control that could slow its growth. The story notes that Firefox "is attracting new users at a breakneck pace" and already surpassing its PR1 download goals; it mentions Mozilla's success in attracting corporate interest and investment by the likes of HP and Nokia; and it asserts that Firefox won its popularity in party by offering things like tabs and pop-up blockers that are quickly becoming standard for browsers.

I also note that Mozilla has acted proactively to preserve its advantage where events beyond its control are acting to erode it, that is, by starting up the bug bounty program again and creating the marketing site.

The story does have a cautionary tone, which I think the facts and opinions it gathers together support. Given all of the above, however, I would venture to say that there's less support for the idea that I have "some (hidden) agenda against Mozilla." (I'm tempted to put you in touch with the folks who write me about my Internet Explorer stories, who are apparently under the impression that I'm a Mozilla partisan.)

Peter raises a valid point of fact, which is that Netscape rather than Mozilla.org released that first browser based on the open source project. Thanks to this discussion, that's been fixed in the story.
Posted by (23 comments )
Reply Link Flag
We will see
Won't we.
Posted by Yuzer_Nayme (32 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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