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Firefox 1.5 Turns Up the Heat in the Browser Market

Its focus on open architectures and open standards gives Firefox continued momentum. Will Internet Explorer catch up?

Google's (Profile, Products, Articles) stock price is up past $400 per share. Venture capitalists are sniffing around IT startups again, looking for that next big thing. Instead of ASPs (application service providers), this time we've got SaaS (software as a service) companies. And, as if you really needed one more Horseman of the Apocalypse to convince you that it's the '90s all over again, guess what? The browser wars are back.

Unveiled last week, Firefox 1.5 "ups the ante in Web browsing." Or at least, so says the Mozilla (Overview, Articles, Company) Corporation, the wholly owned subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation (Profile, Products, Articles) dedicated to offering you not only a cutting-edge, open source Web browser, but the T-shirts to brag about it, too.

Mozilla Corp. was created in August to promote Firefox and its related software to the consumer market, and in particular, to win converts from Internet Explorer. But let's face it; it almost doesn't have to. If 100 million downloads since the release of Version 1.0 one year ago proves anything, it's that word about Firefox is getting out. More importantly, Firefox has even got Microsoft (Profile, Products, Articles) running scared.

That's a change, isn't it? In the last round, it was a beleaguered Netscape (Overview, Articles, Company) on the ropes. Despite being a relative newcomer to the Web world, Microsoft won the browser market hands down, owing in no small part to its bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows.

But this role reversal isn't the only thing that's different about Browser Wars 2.0. This time around you won't see browser vendors trying to lock in market share through proprietary HTML extensions or quirky page-rendering habits. The battle over how a browser ought to work has already been fought, and the winners were open architectures and open standards.

In the bad old days, Web developers wrote Byzantine scripts to customize their pages around the idiosyncrasies of each different browser. As the HTML and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) standards matured, however, coders began focusing less on uncovering the arcane secrets of page rendering and more on the task of delivering good applications.

Firefox's standards compliance isn't perfect -- in fact, the standards are so complex that I wonder if we'll ever see two browsers that render every page exactly alike -- but the fact that its developers have made compliance a top priority accounts for a large part of its popularity. Other browsers have followed suit, including Konqueror, Opera, and Safari , leaving just one to play catch-up: Internet Explorer.

In the past, the sheer inertia of Microsoft's market share would have been enough to keep IE (Overview, Articles, Company) on top, poor standards compliance and all. But a string of serious security vulnerabilities in Internet Explorer has led even some staunch Microsoft shops to consider jumping ship.

Most of the improvements planned for Internet Explorer 7 are security-related. Meanwhile Firefox, while not immune to security problems, shares a major advantage with Linux (Overview, Articles, Company). Because Firefox is open source software and has an active developer community, vulnerabilities that arise can be corrected extremely rapidly.

So while it may seem strange that all these years later we're still arguing over whose browser is tops, don't think this is just a retread of the 1990s. If anything, it only goes to show how critical a part of the IT ecosystem the browser has become. Think of this instead as an opportunity to do the '90s over again the right way, by bringing the focus back to where the Web started: open standards and open architectures.
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