A new Web browser war has erupted, and this time Microsoft is on the defensive. After years as a near-monopoly, Internet Explorer (IE) is losing market share to Firefox, an upstart open-source software that has exploded into the mainstream. If you’re not using it, you’re missing an opportunity to boost your online productivity. And if you haven’t adjusted your website for viewing by Firefox users, you could get caught in the crossfire.
Although it debuted only last November, by April Firefox had claimed 7% of the browser market, estimates WebSideStory Inc., a San Diego-based market research firm. That’s a far cry from IE’s 89% share, but Firefox looks set to gain more ground. It imports bookmarks, passwords and other data from competing browsers, making it easy to switch and never look back. It crashes less often than IE, blocks pop-up ads and features Google search and an innovative tabbed window that makes it easier to shift among open Web pages. While some of these features are expected in future versions of IE, Firefox has them now.
Superior security is another key advantage. It isn’t just the “security through obscurity” that Firefox enjoys because IE is a far bigger hacker target. IE is a component of Windows, so once you get past its security you’re already inside Windows. But Firefox is separate from Windows, so hackers face an extra level of security. Firefox isn’t immune to attack, but its developer, the Mozilla Foundation of Mountain View, Calif., has moved quickly to patch problems before any damage was done. Firefox also steers clear of Microsoft tools such as ActiveX scripting often the target of viruses, spyware and hackers.
But this “avoid Microsoft” approach is also Firefox’s greatest weakness: it often stumbles trying to load Web pages that rely on ActiveX, and sites optimized to take advantage of IE-specific features may not appear when viewed in Firefox. “We’re starting to hear from Firefox users that parts of our sites don’t work,” says Jessey Ndungu, multimedia director at Deepsection Productions, a Web design firm in Brampton, Ont. “We have to design and test for Firefox now.” You should ensure your site also works on Safari and other browsers that support modern Web standards, and may wish to avoid IE-specific features.
Should you adopt Firefox? The young challenger has plenty of momentum, but it’s too soon to abandon IE. Yet Firefox’s high security and functionality are so compelling your staff should at least try it out. If you let them install their own software, urge them to test Firefox but not trash IE. And if you control every desktop centrally, have your IT staff make Firefox available to staff so they can decide for themselves whether to make the switch.
© 2005 Sandy McMurray