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Return of the Browser Wars

With the elegant Firefox, the open-source camp is mounting a full frontal attack on Microsofts long dominant Internet Explorer.

In less than three weeks, the unthinkable will occur: the browser wars will officially begin again. The event thats launching this digital Battle of Bull Run? The Mozilla Foundation, a nonprofit organization spun off from Netscape, will release version 1.0 of its open-source Firefox browser on November 9.

Over the past two years, Firefox has grown from a concept to a full-featured browser that has been downloaded more than five million times. Along the way, Firefox users have grown to a mass of vocal advocates. How vocal, you ask? Well, theyre currently taking up an online collection to buy a full page ad in the New York Times to tell the world an alternative exists to Microsofts Internet Explorer. Chris Messina, a Web designer and one of the people behind the movement at SpreadFirefox.com, says the release of version 1.0 is our Tea Party. Weve been handed these other Web browsers and they havent been innovative. We want to show people there is an alternative.

Release 1.0 is the biggest Internet news in terms of browsers in a couple years, says Rob Davis, executive director of PlayPolitics.org and the man behind the New York Times ad campaign.

Of course, the open-source community is masterful at the art of hyperbole. But its also pretty masterful at building products that usersnot companiesdemand. Thats due in large part to the fact that its the usersnot companiesthat build the products. Do you recall people taking out full-page ads in major newspapers thanking Microsoft for its latest version of Internet Explorer? I didnt think so.

Theres good reason Firefox users double as Firefox advocates. The browser was built from the ground up to protect against the top two scourges of the Internet: viruses and spyware. Firefox eschews the more virus-prone technologies found in Explorer, such as Microsofts ActiveX. Avoiding ActiveX is a big advantage, says Johannes Ullrich, chief technology officer for the SANS Institute, an international Internet security organization. A lot of vulnerabilities come from Internet Explorers using ActiveX, which is tied tightly to the operating system. Whats more, unlike Explorer, Firefox wont automatically open a link thats an executable file (the most common file-type for viruses and Trojan horses) without alerting the user.

But Firefox is also more than a strong defense, avoiding troublesome file formats. Thanks to the thousands of developers working on its code, Firefox brings innovations to browser software that havent been since, well, since Microsoft and Netscape were trying to out-feature each other back in 1997. From little things like a local weather-related icon sitting in the page status space to the concept of tabbed pages, which make it possible to open multiple Web pages in the same window. This feature feels like a natural evolution in browsingthe ability to jump between pages within the same browser window (as opposed to opening multiple windows or continually hitting the back button). Its great for combing through search results. Its pretty cool stuff, and it makes you wonder why Microsoft hasnt gotten around to adding the capability to Internet Explorer.

Dont expect Bill Gates to call an emergency meeting after he checks out release 1.0, or dont expect Steve Ballmer to issue a Firefox-related revenue warning to analysts in Microsofts next earnings call. But release 1.0 is a landmark moment in the browser wars. This is Mozillas most important release ever, says Ben Goodger, lead engineer for Firefox. We have an opportunity to take market share from Microsoft. This is as good a chance as ever existed. And the fact that its fans are paying for a full-page ad in the New York Times calling attention to the product will likely result in a few more stories such as this. The next thing you know, youll get a call from your elderly relative asking what you think of this Fireflock thing.

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