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With Firefox 3, Microsoft has reason to worry

On the eve of the 10-year anniversary of its first code, Mozilla counts up to 160 million Firefox users and then some.

In the chronology of Internet browsers, Netscape came out earlier, but Microsoft figured out a way to do most of the same things at least as well, if not better. It didn't hurt that the company violated the law as it mobilized to crush a nascent challenge to its desktop monopoly.

Still, it's an incorrect rewrite of history to explain the triumph of Internet Explorer solely in terms of antitrust violations. Fact is that by the time Microsoft got around to the third incarnation of its Web browser, IE was arguably as good--if not better--than Netscape. We all know how that story finished up.

Mozilla CEO John Lilly holds court. Charles Cooper/CNET

Nowadays, most PC users are on IE because, well, it's the path of least resistance. But I've long been a big fan of Firefox and so have some 160 million people who now use the product. That's a big enough number to get onto Microsoft's radar. The funny thing is that this relatively small organization of some 150 people puts out a more elegant Web browser than Microsoft with its legion of developers. (For instance, there's still no IE support of next-generation Java script.)

Coincidentally, next week marks 10 years since the release of the source code for Mozilla. Earlier Wednesday, I had an opportunity to hear more about what Mozilla's up to. CEO John Lilly invited a group of bloggers to the company's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters to talk tech. (Rafe Needleman from Webware has kept up a live blog of the product rollout. Check it out.)

I'd love to hear you chime in on this topic, but my biggest bugaboo about Web surfing remains security--and that's where these folks are doing very interesting work. Among other items, pay attention to the following bullet points:

•&nbsp In FireFox 2, they shipped the product's first anti-phishing features. Now Mozilla plans to include an anti-malware feature in the upcoming version of the browser.

•&nbsp With a click, you can get active information from a company's SSL certificate in the URL to get information about the site to determine whether it's kosher.

Mozilla also is tweaking the overall performance of the platform to extract better memory usage. The organization takes about a year between releases (though this newest version has taken a bit longer). Still, that's an eternity faster than the MO over at Microsoft.

Chalk that up to bureaucracy as well as poor decision making. In particular, Microsoft's 2001 decision to take its foot off the pedal after version 6.0 was a mistake I'm sure management wishes it could take back. Since then, the Web has gotten scarier and cooler, and Redmond has until recently been sitting on its laurels. That's why Firefox has come out of nowhere to take anywhere between 17 percent and 28 percent of the market, depending on which research organization you trust.

At this rate, Mozilla's got a great chance to add to those numbers. Until--if ever--Microsoft gets off its duff and comes up with better technology.