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IE usage drop--slip or blip?

Microsoft's market-leading and Netscape-eating browser has slipped slightly in popularity, a researcher says.

Microsoft has long held the title of undisputed champion of Web browsers, but recent research shows the software giant's Internet Explorer slipping in popularity for the first time in recent memory.

Recent numbers from analytics company WebSideStory revealed a steady downward trickle in market share over the past month. Since June 4, IE witnessed a 1 percent change from 95.48 percent of all Internet users in the United States to 94.16 percent on July 9.

An analyst at WebSideStory attributed the dip to the discovery of security flaws in June, coupled with the growing popularity of alternative browsers such as Opera; Apple Computer's Safari; and FireFox, produced by open-source browser project the Mozilla Foundation.

"The question is, Does this represent the vanguard of a major public shift, or were there already several million people waiting for an excuse to switch off Microsoft?" said WebSideStory's Geoff Johnston.

Though WebSideStory admitted that its conclusions on FireFox's rise in particular were based on "circumstantial" and "anecdotal" evidence, the IE measurements raise questions. Further data shows Mozilla market share growing from 3.54 percent to 4.59 percent over the same period. The growth figure includes any browser developed with Mozilla's "Gecko" browsing technology.

In the big picture, the 1 percent change is barely a blip, but it's nonetheless the first downward trend since WebSideStory began measuring browser share in 1999.

At the time, the Web browser was at its height, with Microsoft pursuing an aggressive strategy to beat out Netscape Communications, the then-dominant browser. Microsoft's practice of tying IE into its Windows operating system monopoly became a central facet to the government's antitrust suit against the company. Microsoft eventually settled with Netscape parent Time Warner for $750 million. Time Warner dropped its lawsuit in return for a seven-year, royalty free license of IE for its America Online service.

Developers at Mozilla heralded the recent WebSideStory news as further proof that Internet users are beginning to jump on the FireFox bandwagon. Since releasing its latest version two weeks ago, called FireFox 0.9.1, Mozilla has seen 1 million downloads directly off the site, according to spokesman Bart Decrem.

The numbers do not include download mirror sites or other sources outside the Mozilla network, Decrem added, suggesting that real numbers could be greater.

The market share numbers offer a breath of vindication for Mozilla. Originally founded as an offshoot of Netscape in 1998, Mozilla was created as a way for developers to improve Netscape's source code in an attempt to battle IE's growing market dominance. But a couple years after its founding, Mozilla retreated into the shadows, a situation exacerbated by tumultuous times at Netscape's parent AOL.

AOL eventually funded Mozilla with some seed money and released the project as an independent organization. Since then, the group has launched products such as FireFox and its e-mail client Thunderbird. Mozilla also received funding from Nokia to produce a cell phone browser--called "Minimo"--based on its source code.

Still, WebSideStory's Johnston does not think the numbers suggest a slippery slope. Rather, the slide could be limited to a set population of IE haters without expanding to the mainstream of Web users. It still takes a lot to drop IE.

"People do what they need to do to avoid pain," Johnston said. "If they don't have an emotional vested interest in dropping IE, it will take a lot for them to switch."

A Microsoft representative said, "Microsoft shares our customers' concerns regarding security, but we have not seen a significant shift in usage from Internet Explorer."