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Sunday, December 19, 2004

How High Can FireFox Fly?

In a sign of renewed big media interest in the browser wars, Randall Stross of the New York Times (via CNET) chronicles the dramatic rise of the FireFox browser:

"Firefox 1.0 was released on Nov. 9. Just over a month later, the foundation celebrated a remarkable milestone: 10 million downloads. Donations from Firefox's appreciative fans paid for a two-page advertisement in The New York Times on Thursday."

Stross notes that FireFox's bold challenge to Microsoft shows that the open-source model pioneered by Linux has at last achieved mainstream success in a way that Linux could not due to its complex nature. And if that's any indication of FireFox's destiny, it could be Microsoft who is the next browser to be "Netscaped."

But, not so fast, Mr. Stross. Although many of us share your optimism that the web experience will be vastly improved by the widespread adoption of FireFox, there are at least two major obstacles to FireFox's success:

1. Microsoft still has the advantage in cash and connections.

With far greater resources than Mozilla (FireFox's non-profit owner) can ever hope to have, Microsoft can easily afford to bide its time while it chooses how to respond to FireFox's challenge. In other words, it has the luxury of outspending and embracing and extending FireFox. And when Longhorn finally is released, Microsoft can devise any number of devious ways to dissuade users from adopting competing browsers as a condition for getting the latest operating system technology.

2. Mozilla is a non-profit company.

If Mozilla succeeds in beating Microsoft at its own game, that would have to be a first in the history of business. To be frank, although it's a nice dream, there's probably no chance that FireFox can actually achieve a majority of the browser marketshare. It might be possible for FireFox to achieve a 25% share, but you just know that Microsoft won't even let that happen without a fight.

Mozilla may have lots of good will and support, but again, Microsoft's got the cash. It doesn't seem likely that any product from a non-profit software company, however innovative and sexy, can conquer a company that is driven to succeed financially. Perhaps I just don't understand yet how the Mozilla Foundation is funded and operated, but I don't see how it's possible. What are Mozilla's long-term aspirations? Who knows.

If FireFox is serious about making a dent in the browser market, Mozilla had better not rest on its laurels. Even though Longhorn is at least a year away, you just know Microsoft is gunning for the upstart, all the while it is also gunning for the search engine market, too. FireFox might do well to make a few connections of its own. Google has supposedly stated that it has no plans of partnering with Mozilla or creating its own browser, but the two companies are already collaborating on the FireFox start page, so it will be interesting to see if Google really does have something up its sleeve, or if its telling the truth.

When your quarry is the biggest software company in the world, one would do well to keep one's true intentions under the radar, for now at least.

Posted by Cory Kleinschmidt




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