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John Foley, InformationWeek
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Opening the Desktop

Companies such as KeyCorp are evaluating the impact of the Firefox browser.

The Mozilla Foundation's new Thunderbird E-mail client, released last week, is positioned as a simple-but-secure alternative to Microsoft's widely used Outlook Express. A few weeks earlier, the not-for-profit group released Firefox 1.0, a browser that's already cutting into Internet Explorer's market share. The goal: more options for users in a PC market dominated by you know who.

Mozilla Foundation is staffed by veterans of Netscape who had a whiff of success in the browser market, only to lose out to Microsoft when it included Internet Explorer with Windows. Mozilla Foundation was created 18 months ago as a spin-off of America Online, which acquired Netscape in 1998. "We'd like to have more choice in the market, and we'd like to be part of that choice," says Scott MacGregor, lead engineer on Thunderbird.

Mozilla Foundation's chairman is Mitch Kapor, who competed with Microsoft as co-founder of Lotus Development Corp. and later founded the Open Source Applications Foundation, which is three years into development of a personal information manager. IBM, Red Hat, and Sun Microsystems also contribute to Mozilla Foundation's initiatives.

Thunderbird 1.0 comes with built-in defenses against spam and viruses, an RSS viewer for reading news feeds and Weblog postings, and the ability to save searches to a folder. Initially aimed at consumers, Thunderbird 1.0 likely will appeal to business users, too, MacGregor says.

A tool called Mission Control Desktop allows system administrators to centrally manage Thunderbird and Firefox, and more management capabilities are planned. Also, Mozilla Foundation developers are working on a related calendaring application for release next year. "We've got some enterprise experience along the road," says Brendan Eich, Mozilla Foundation's chief architect. "Netscape had a history of doing enterprise business." Firefox is a natural replacement for the Netscape browsers still used in some companies, Eich says.

Firefox 1.0 got off to a fast start, helped by favorable reviews. Users like its tabbed browsing, which makes for easy navigation of multiple Web pages; pop-up ad blocker; and defenses against phishing and spoofing tricks. "It makes for a more elegant user experience," says Joe Laszlo, a broadband-network analyst with Jupiter Research, who's been using Firefox for several months.

Since its release five weeks ago, Firefox 1.0 has been downloaded 10 million times and now accounts for 4.1% of the browsers tracked by WebSideStory Inc., a Web-analytics company. Internet Explorer's share has dropped more than three percentage points, to 91.8%, since June. "The time was right for Firefox," Eich says. "It's available on all platforms, it's small, and it's fast."

Mozilla Foundation is tapping into widespread user concern over Internet Explorer's security vulnerabilities. As recently as Dec. 1, Microsoft issued a software patch, rated "critical," to fix a flaw in Internet Explorer that could allow remote code execution, one of the most worrisome scenarios. Citing security, Penn State University last week advised students and staff to replace Internet Explorer with an alternative. "I'm very conscious of the security issues that come up again and again with Internet Explorer," analyst Laszlo says.

However, if Mozilla Foundation is able to gain market share measured in more than single digits, its products could become targets of malware in the same way Windows is, says Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft. "Fleeing to another browser for security purposes could be a temporary solution at best," he says.

Mozilla Foundation employs only about a dozen developers, with programming help from hundreds of volunteers. AOL pledged $2 million in initial funding, and Kapor pitched in $300,000. The group sells T-shirts, accepts donations, and has generated revenue through consulting services. And 10,000 users contributed a total of $250,000--more than needed--to place a two-page ad in an upcoming issue of The New York Times.

But business-technology managers may be unwilling to open their software environments to another browser or E-mail client. Ajacs Die Sales Corp. recently upgraded its PCs to Windows XP Service Pack 2 and, in doing so, configured the systems to prevent unauthorized downloads, VP of IT Steve Wierenga says via E-mail. That means Ajacs Die employees couldn't install Firefox or Thunderbird if they tried. Wierenga intends to download and test Firefox himself, he says.

Still, companies need to be prepared for customers who might use Firefox or Thunderbird. "We will absolutely be looking at Firefox in our lab," says Robert Dutile, executive VP with KeyCorp's Key Technology Services division. The financial company's technicians will evaluate Firefox's security, compatibility, and performance when used to access its online banking services.

So far, Microsoft's reaction to its newest open-source competitor has been measured. "We respect that some customers will choose an alternative," says Gary Schare, director of product management for Windows, in an E-mail message. "We also know that choosing a browser is about more than a handful of features."

The numbers certainly favor Microsoft. There are hundreds of millions of Internet Explorer users and hundreds of add-on tools. But Microsoft doesn't plan a major upgrade to Internet Explorer 6.0 until its Longhorn operating system ships in 2006. That gives Firefox a long runway for takeoff.

--with Larry Greenemeier

Article courtesy of InformationWeek, December 13, 2004.

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