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As Mozilla 'upgrades the Web,' Microsoft must upgrade its pace

Microsoft is falling behind in the browser innovation race as Firefox rolls out version 3.5 and targets a host of new capabilities.

As I type this, Firefox 3.5 is blazing past 5.6 million downloads, having been released just a day and a half ago. While such uptake for Mozilla's upgraded browser is impressive, the bigger story is how Firefox 3.5 is upgrading the Web with its extensive support for HTML 5. Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) 8 has brought the company's browser back into the 21st century, but its sluggish (and perhaps perverse) response to emerging Web standards threatens to leave it in Web 1.0 Blunderland.

ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley wonders if the departure of Bill Gates has taken some of the bite out of Microsoft, and she may be on to something. Regardless, Microsoft needs to quickly execute to outflank Firefox or it threatens to let Mozilla, not Microsoft, define the Web, as Slate implies:

The best thing about the new Firefox is that it gives us a peek at the Internet of tomorrow...Firefox 3.5 offers the best implementation of the (HTML 5) standard--and because it's the second-most-popular Web browser in the world, the new release is sure to prompt Web designers to create pages tailored to the Web's new language. In other words, Firefox isn't just an upgrade for your computer; it could well prompt a re-engineering of the Web itself.

But it's not just HTML 5. Firefox is innovating in a number of other areas, including "location-aware browsing" on the "desktop," while Mozilla's Weave is experimenting with new ways to enrich identity in the browser. In tandem, Mozilla's team is also actively working on improving the online video experience.

And that's just this week.

It took Microsoft two-and-a-half years to move from IE7 to IE8, while five years passed before the company updated IE6 with IE7. The company seems to be moving faster on browser development now, but is it fast enough to keep up with Mozilla, not to mention Apple (Safari) and Google (Chrome)?

It won't be enough for Microsoft to borrow features from Mozilla's Firefox. Microsoft needs to innovate again, and not simply in its marketing department.

Also, it would be nice if IE were available for more than Windows. Mozilla is available on Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows, and it doesn't seem to slow its development pace down. Perhaps Microsoft should stop trying to protect Windows at the expense of losing the Web?

Of course, Mozilla, too, faces a host of competitive issues, as CNET describes. But Mozilla has never been shy about innovating. It exists to improve the Web, and understands that a competitive browser market does that...even if Firefox sometimes has to play catch up.

For today, however, the field is Mozilla's to lose.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.