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Firefox: 1 billion downloads only part of the story

On Friday, Mozilla answered the billionth request for Firefox and launched its latest viral marketing effort. But watch out for the 200 million IE 8 downloads.

At about 8 a.m. PDT Friday, Firefox crossed the billion-download threshold--a notably large number for Mozilla's open-source Web browser but one that doesn't tell the whole story.

Firefox fans love their statistical milestones, and Mozilla enjoys fanning the flames by providing plenty of opportunities for self-congratulation. In 2008 was the Firefox Download Day, with more than 8 million downloads in 24 hours. Next came the Firefox 3.5 debut and its download tracker.

Mozilla boasted that Firefox downloads surpassed 1 billion on Friday.
Mozilla boasted that Firefox downloads surpassed 1 billion on Friday. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

And now we have the billion-download figure on the Spread Firefox site. That includes updates people have fetched deliberately, not automatic updates, Mozilla said. To maximize the marketing potential, Mozilla also is touting the 1,000,000,000 + you site.

That site probably could be named better. Firefox director Mike Belztner said in June that Mozilla estimates there are 300 million Firefox users, up from 175 million a year earlier, so don't go thinking there are a billion people using it. Indeed, I find the total user population a much more interesting statistic than downloads.

Firefox has truly achieved real success, eating steadily into Microsoft Internet Explorer's dominant market share to become the second-most used browser. The newest version is downloaded between 40 and 60 times a second worldwide at present.

IE 8 downloads surpass 200 million
But lest Firefox fans get too carried away with their success, there's another number that shows what Mozilla is up against. According to a source familiar with Microsoft's statistics, IE 8 has been downloaded more than 200 million times in the last four months since its release.

That's a fifth of the way to what Firefox achieved since Firefox 1.0 was released nearly five years ago. And Microsoft hasn't even begun pushing IE 8 through update in earnest yet. Microsoft's 200 million statistic doesn't include updates such as bug patches and security fixes.

So let's face it: being installed along with the world's most widely used operating system remains a huge advantage for IE's use, antitrust concerns notwithstanding. Microsoft declined to comment on its download statistics.


So what do all these numbers really show besides browser makers' urges to thump their chests about their popularity? This: the world of browsers is in serious flux.

Next-gen Web en route
That's because after years of near-dormancy after IE crushed Netscape in the 1990s, the browser wars are back in full swing. The growing migration of personal and professional activity to Web applications, the growing adoption of broadband Internet connections, and the growing adoption of truly Web-capable mobile phones are combining to make Web browsers a strategic asset in the computing industry. Apple, Microsoft, Mozilla, Google, Opera Software, and others all want to be the gateway to the world's most vibrant medium, the Internet.

Even the fifth-ranked browser can claim notable success. Opera's desktop browser has been downloaded more than 270 million times from the company's own servers since 2003, and the daily download rate has jumped from 30,000 to 40,000 back then to about 200,000 today, the company said. Throwing Opera Mini for mobile phones into the mix increases the total to about 500 million.

The download rates show that there's a powerful movement afoot to "upgrade the Web," as Mozilla's marketing catchphrase would have it.

It's a gradual change, with plenty of laggards such as corporate users who can't upgrade from IE 6 or cybercafes with locked-down PCs. And there's plenty of turmoil about next-generation Web standards. But the herd is gradually moving to more sophisticated browsers that collectively enable a more sophisticated Web.