Firefox lights up Web browser world

The open-source browser from Mozilla was released earlier this month

Firefox 1.0 appears to have sparked new activity in the Web browser market.

The release of the open-source Web browser by the Mozilla Foundation earlier this month prompted Microsoft Corp. to break its silence about Internet Explorer. Meanwhile, America Online Inc. is breathing more life into the Netscape brand with a preview of a new Firefox-based browser scheduled to be unveiled on Nov. 30 (see story).

Microsoft has no plans to release a new version of Internet Explorer until the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn, which is due out in 2006. Still, the company says it has the option to add features to Internet Explorer by way of the browser's add-on technology, said Gary Schare, director of Windows product management at Microsoft.

"It is an option for the Internet Explorer team to add functionality in between releases. We do not have specific plans at this point to use it, but it is an option," Schare said. Microsoft's MSN group already uses the add-on mechanism for its MSN Toolbar.

Microsoft hasn't released a completely new version of Internet Explorer in years. Windows XP users recently got a browser upgrade with Service Pack 2 for Windows XP. SP2 included features such as pop-up blocking and security enhancements, but those updates won't be made available for Internet Explorer on earlier Microsoft operating systems.

While some people working on Internet Explorer at Microsoft are maintaining the current version of the browser, most of the team members are focused on Internet Explorer for Longhorn, Schare said. The Longhorn browser will include new features, improved security and privacy features, and better support for third-party developers.

As for end-user features, Microsoft is looking at better ways to manage favorites and at tabbed browsing, a feature aimed at improving the browsing experience by consolidating multiple Web pages into a single window organized with tabs, Schare said. Firefox and other browsers that compete with Internet Explorer already offer tabbed browsing.

Meanwhile, AOL's browser unit, Netscape Communications, is preparing to preview a new browser based on Firefox. "It is based on Firefox but will be Firefox Plus. It has got improvements beyond Firefox," AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein said.

The preview, a so-called alpha release, is due Nov. 30. The new browser and a new e-mail client will eventually replace the current Netscape offering, Weinstein said. He declined to disclose product details.

AOL released Netscape 7.2 in August, but that product is based on Mozilla 1.7, a suite of products that includes a browser, an e-mail client, an Internet Relay Chat client and a Web page editor.

Riding a continued high, the Mozilla Foundation keeps counting Firefox downloads, which hit 4.7 million as of Friday morning, a spokesman said.

The rise of Firefox, first introduced in February this year when Mozilla renamed its Firebird project, has been remarkable. The browser held 3% market share at the end of October, according to Web metrics company WebSideStory Inc. The Mozilla Suite, Netscape and Firefox together held 6% of the market at the end of October, up from 3.5% in June. Though losing share, Internet Explorer still dominated with 92.9% of the market, according to San Diego-based WebSideStory.

Firefox is the Mozilla Foundation's stand-alone browser. The Mozilla open-source project was started in early 1998 by Netscape, which was acquired later that year by AOL. Last year, the people behind Mozilla created a foundation, largely funded by a $2 million pledge from AOL, to build, support and promote Mozilla products.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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