Firefox Hits Wall

Mozilla Corp.'s Firefox lost more than three-quarters of a percentage point in September, said Net Applications, dropping from 8.27 percent the month before to 7.55 percent. The last time Firefox owned such a small slice of the browser market was April, when it came in at 7.38 percent.

According to Net Applications, Firefox has been losing users since June, when it topped out at 8.71 percent. A small bump-up in August was the exception.

But the drop was actually less damaging than the numbers show, said Vincent Vizzaccaro, executive vice president of marketing and strategic relationships at Net Applications. The problem was that Netscape 8.0 -- an offshoot of Firefox that can render Web pages using either Mozilla's Geko engine or the one within Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) -- could identify itself as one or the other of those browsers, but was usually telling sites it was Firefox.

That was artificially inflating Firefox's numbers. Only after Netscape released version 8.0.2 in June were its users accurately counted by Net Applications and other metrics firms, said Vizzaccaro.

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"When this was going on, Firefox rose artificially, when actually Netscape was taking some market share," he said. "The Firefox numbers are now suffering as Netscape users update to 8.0.2."

However, September's 7.55 percent are very likely accurate, Vizzaccaro added, since the user base of Netscape 8.0 has had several months to upgrade to the newer, and more accurate, version.

And while Firefox's drop is not as prodigious as NetApplications' trend line shows, the numbers are still bad news for Mozilla.

"Firefox has hit the wall," said Vizzaccaro. "Up to this point, it's had a nice run, but it looks like Firefox will stay around the 7 to 8 percent mark."

Like others who have tracked the slow-but-steady climb of Firefox since its debut in November, 2004, Vizzaccaro thinks that the open-source browser has lost its momentum in the tussle against Microsoft's IE. "There was a group [of users] ready and itching to switch to something different [than IE]. They wanted something different, and Firefox became it."

But now that the pool of those users is dry, Vizzaccaro expects Microsoft to hold on to the 86 or so percent share it currently owns.

Of the also-rans, Vizzaccaro sees Netscape as the one with the best chance of nibbling market share from leaders IE and Firefox. "I'm expecting Netscape numbers to go up, especially once the HP deal puts PCs on the shelves that have Netscape installed."

Last week, Hewlett-Packard and Netscape announced that the AOL-owned browser would be pre-installed on HP and Compaq machines starting early in 2006. Users would also be able to easily set Netscape as the default browser on their machine, the pair said.

Another alternate browser, however, is a lost cause. In late September, the Norwegian developer of Opera began giving away its ad-free browser. "It was a good idea, but too late," Vizzaccaro said. "It they'd done that six months ago, 12 months ago, it might have been different. But Firefox has grabbed those who wanted to make the switch."

Opera's market share declined in September to 0.51 percent from August's 0.62 percent, according to Net Applications numbers.