New Year's resolution for Firefox: Grow

Mozilla browser's market share growth curve may be steep, but workplace and site restrictions could flatten it.

Forty-five days and some 13 million downloads after its official release, Mozilla's Firefox browser is showing undeniable momentum--but does it signal the beginning of the end to Microsoft's monopoly over the basic software used to access the Web?

Even as Firefox gathers steam, powerful brakes are poised to kick in that could limit its long-term growth: Interoperability has long dogged non-Microsoft browsers, which are often glitchy on some Web sites. Firefox claims some significant progress on this front, but a handful of sites, including Microsoft's Windows Update site, are still inaccessible.

In addition, Microsoft's deep hooks in corporate IT departments could make it impractical for many businesses to consider switching from Internet Explorer for the foreseeable future. Microsoft, for one, sees those hooks as a staunch bulwark against corporate defections, keeping its most profitable customers close to the fold.

"We hear from many thousands of business customers that Internet Explorer is an extensible and reliable platform upon which thousands of line-of-business applications have been built," a Microsoft representative said in a statement.

Since its launch last month, Firefox has already nudged Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) browser below the 90 percent mark for the first time in years, according to one survey. Now the question is whether the Web browser can surmount thorny market dynamics to become more than just another niche player among the crowd of lilliputian rivals that have long stood in IE's shadow.

After spending years on the sidelines mired in delays, Mozilla has seen its star rise suddenly with the emergence of Firefox. The group was created by Netscape Communications in 1999 to develop its browser following the open-source development model and was spun off in 2003 as a nonprofit foundation by Netscape parent Time Warner. Now, from seemingly out of nowhere, the group has set its sights on achieving 10 percent market share in the browser market by 2005.

"Our goal for the next year is to keep market share growth on pace with what's happened over 2004," said Chris Hofmann, Mozilla's director of engineering. "The Mozilla Foundation has provided the funding to help push this along."

Considering IE's current share, the realization of those ambitions would represent a breakout number, given the current dynamics of the browser market, where numerous second-tier browsers--like Apple Computer's Safari, Opera Software's browser and other Mozilla-based browsers such as Mozilla and Netscape remain squarely in the single digits.

A major problem for Mozilla in growing Firefox's market share is the lingering tendency of Web authors to code their sites to work with IE. Despite the existence of Web standards as promulgated primarily by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), examples abound on the Web of sites and applications that don't work well with Firefox or other non-IE browsers.

With the successful launches of both Firefox and the Thunderbird e-mail application behind it, Mozilla is looking ahead to 2005 with both of these problems in mind.

To attack the compatibility problem, Mozilla plans to hire new staff to ferret out IE-only sites and advocate standards-based coding methods to their authors.

A similar group existed at Netscape before Mozilla's spin-off, and Mozilla has continued its work using volunteers since then. In the coming year, the full-time, paid staffers will double down on the work of convincing Web authors, one by one, to code to standards.

By targeting the Web's most trafficked Web sites, Mozilla claims to have boosted compatibility on the Web not just for its own browsers, but for other standards-compliant

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