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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 browsers as well.

Mozilla regularly tests the 1,700 most trafficked Web sites and performs side-by-side comparisons of how they work in IE and Firefox. The group's data shows that Firefox is 98 percent compatible with Web content on those sites. That's up from 75 percent four years ago, according to the foundation.

"We're really down to just a few problems," Hofmann said.

Those problems include Web sites' reliance on ActiveX, Microsoft's proprietary application programming interface (API) for letting Web sites take advantage of the computer's underlying functionality.

ActiveX has long been considered a security liability and was a key focus of Microsoft's recent Service Pack 2 security upgrade for IE users with Windows XP. Mozilla is part of a coalition including fellow browser makers Apple Computer and Opera Software, along with plug-in application vendors Sun Microsystems, Macromedia and Adobe Systems, to come up with a standard ActiveX equivalent.

The second most common problem for Firefox compatibility is what Hofmann termed "Microsoft's proprietary implementation of the DOM." The DOM, or Document Object Model, is a W3C recommendation for letting scripts interact with discrete elements of a Web page.

One way Mozilla got to 98 percent compatibility from 75 percent was by convincing Web sites to code differently. Another was to emulate IE when faced with nonstandard pages.

That strategy resulted in what Mozilla calls its "quirks mode." When Firefox loads a page and its Gecko engine rendering engine detects nonstandard IE-specific behaviors, the browser switches into that mode and is able to render the page correctly--albeit at a more sluggish pace.

With the success of Firefox in winning market share, Mozilla is finding Web authors more receptive to its message about standards and compatibility. The group is now fielding between 10 and 15 calls per week from individuals and organizations asking how to make their sites work with Firefox.

Even Microsoft has become more responsive to requests that its Web pages be accessible in Firefox. Hofmann credits the software giant's sunnier attitude in part to the $12 million settlement the company paid following Opera's accusations that Microsoft was deliberately breaking its pages when viewed with the Opera browser.

Microsoft declined to comment on the matter of its Web pages' compatibility with non-IE browsers or on the issue of browser-site interoperability in general.

But the company noted another area where Mozilla will face significant challenges gaining market share: enterprise desktops.

Like post-Sept. 11 presidential candidates, both sides claim to have the best security story to tell.

"Over the last year, we have started to see interest on the part of corporate IT managers worried about security problems in IE who are starting to think about strategies for backup when serious vulnerabilities arise in IE and Microsoft doesn't have a patch," Hofmann said. "We have talked to them, listened to their concerns and are assisting them with deployment plans for rolling out Firefox."

Mozilla's pitch will likely focus on lesser-known enterprise capabilities of Firefox, such as its ability to update browser preferences from a central server.

In the coming year, Mozilla expects to continue to evangelize Firefox to corporations--something old Netscape hands at the foundation know a thing or two about.

"We see lots of interest," Hofmann said. "The companies we're talking to are across all industries. Entering the enterprise market is a long and hard route, and several of us have experience in it from our days at Netscape and know what it takes to succeed. We're in this for the long haul."