Back in 1999, Netscape was comatose, and Microsoft (MSFT) thought it had won permanent dominance of the market for Web browsers. Then a funny thing happened. Netscape's code lived on at the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation and was resurrected in 2004 as Mozilla's Firefox browser. Now, according to research firm Net Applications, Firefox has more than 18% of the global market. Firefox 3 is scheduled to be released this month and may well push that share above 20% by the time Microsoft releases its next version of Internet Explorer late this year. It's a remarkable achievement for an organization with 150 employees that depends on the efforts of a few hundred volunteer developers.
Firefox 2, which comes in almost identical versions for Windows, Mac, and Linux, has been my primary browser for some time. On Windows, I find it faster than Internet Explorer and, except for a built-in Google (GOOG) search box, blessedly free of attempts to sell things or steer me to third-party services of its choice rather than mine.
Using the near-final version of Firefox 3, available at getfirefox.com, I've noticed some improvement in rendering pages that failed to load properly in Firefox 2 (but that worked fine in Internet Explorer). More than that, I'm impressed with an assortment of features designed to simplify navigation and protect people from various kinds of Web-based nastiness.
One feature you'll notice immediately is an improved drop-down menu that appears when you start typing a Web address. Instead of just listing cryptic URLs, Firefox 3 displays a little icon specific to the site along with the page titles. Once a page loads, clicking on the icon gives a wealth of information about the site. Exactly what you see depends on what data the Web page supplies, but Firefox 3 always tells you whether it's safe to send personal information such as passwords and credit-card numbers. And it lets you set rules specific to that site for allowing pop-ups and accepting cookies, small data files that can identify you upon return visits. All these settings have been available before, but the new version conveniently gathers them in one place.
Much of the focus of the new Firefox is on fraud prevention. If a site owner has gone to the considerable trouble and expense of acquiring an "extended validation certificate"—a vetted digital seal identifying the owner of the site—a green symbol shows up on the address bar. There's a similar feature in Internet Explorer 7 but not on Apple's (AAPL) Safari, the standard browser on the Mac, which also is available for Windows. Strangely, Safari lags the competition on antifraud measures.
Firefox 3 also uses a blacklist to warn against going to fake sites that imitate legitimate Web pages or are likely to download malicious software. And if you use the Vista operating system, Firefox 3 will honor parental controls that previously worked only with Internet Explorer.
Microsoft is working on its own new browser, Internet Explorer 8. It's scheduled for release toward the end of the year and is in a much less polished state than Firefox 3.
The big new features of Internet Explorer 8 are activities and Web slices. The former are specialized bookmarks that simplify such tasks as posting a link to a page on Facebook or looking up a term in Microsoft's Encarta dictionary. Web slices let you select a frequently updated piece of a Web page and view it quickly just by clicking a button in a toolbar. At the moment, it appears to work only with MSN news, eBay (EBAY), and the StumbleUpon Web discovery and rating service.
I find Firefox's focus on safety and security more compelling than Internet Explorer's gimmicky new features. But the important thing is that competition is very much alive in the desktop browser business. Mozilla and Microsoft are bound to continue pressuring each other to improve their products.