Firefox lights up Web browser world

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 last week prompted Microsoft to break the silence about Internet Explorer (IE) and America Online (AOL) is breathing more life into the Netscape brand with a preview of a new Firefox-based browser scheduled to be unveiled on Nov. 30.

Microsoft has no plans to release a new version of IE until the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn, due out in 2006. Still, the Redmond, Washington-based company says it has the option to add features to IE 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 has not released a completely new version of IE in years. Windows XP users recently got a browser upgrade with Service Pack 2 (SP2) for Windows XP. SP2 included features such as pop-up blocking and security enhancements, but those updates won't be made available for IE on earlier Microsoft operating systems, Microsoft has said.

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

For end-user features, Microsoft is looking at better ways to manage favorites and tabbed browsing, a feature to improve the browsing experience by consolidating multiple Web pages into a single window organized with tabs, Schare said. "Basically making IE a more functional and feature rich browser," he said. Firefox and other browsers that compete with IE 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 on Nov. 30. The new browser and a new e-mail client will eventually replace the current Netscape offering, Weinstein said. He declined to detail 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, e-mail client, Internet Relay Chat client and Web page editor.

Riding a continued high, the Mozilla Foundation keeps counting Firefox downloads, which hit 4.7 million on 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 percent market share at the end of October, according to WebSideStory. The Mozilla Suite, Netscape and Firefox together held 6 percent of the market at the end of October, up from 3.5 percent in June.Though losing share, IE still dominated with 92.9 percent of the market, according to the San Diego Web metrics company.

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 US$2 million pledge from AOL, to build, support and promote Mozilla products.

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Joris Evers

IDG News Service
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