Round 2: VARs Prep For Firefox 1.5/2.0 Vs. IE 7.0 Battle

Firefox 1.5, which was officially released late Tuesday afternoon, offers faster surfing, a drag-and-drop feature for advanced tabbed browsing, improved pop-up blocking and support for Ajax-enabled Web 2.0 applications.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based browser company also announced a new search partnership with Internet services giant Yahoo in China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan that will complement its existing search partnership with Google in the Americas and Europe.

Backers say the new features in Mozilla 1.5 and partnerships with Google and Yahoo will advance the open-source browser's technical lead and market share over Microsoft's leading Internet Explorer (IE).

Moreover, Firefox 2.0, expected to be available in mid-2006, will offer enhanced tabbed browsing to improve searching and organizing of information, an enhanced bookmarking service that allows users to share links more easily and improved support for RSS Web feeds, Mozilla said.

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"Firefox is the premier Web browser for the Ajax Web platform, and we have the best platform for running Google, Yahoo, Zimbra, Meebo and other small startups," said Mike Schroepfer, vice president of engineering for Mozilla. "We've seen a stepping up of partners promoting the product, and we're optimistic it will push market share up."

According to NetApplications, an Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based firm that tracks browser usage, Firefox's market share inched up to 9.09 percent for November, while Microsoft's IE share dropped to 86.2 percent for the month. Microsoft owned more than 91 percent of the market when Firefox launched roughly one year ago.

Partners are eyeing the battle closely.

"Firefox has several things going for it and several things going against it," said Bob Tedesco, CTO of Resolute, a Microsoft partner in Bellevue, Wash., adding that Firefox has suffered security problems during the last year. "We are a services company and will create custom solutions based on the customers' needs, if that customer uses IE 6 or IE 7 or even Firefox, we will take that into consideration in our designs and deliver solutions that solve business problems on these platforms."

Microsoft isn't standing still.

As Mozilla preps Firefox 2.0 for release in mid-2006 and Firefox 3.0 in early 2007 with a revved up graphics engine, Microsoft is putting the final touches on its long-awaited IE 7.0.

The Redmond, Wash.-based company scheduled a briefing on its Windows Vista client as soon as news of FireFox 1.5 hit the wires.

While the software giant declined to discuss the status of the included IE 7.0 upgrade directly, the company's key message--that the Vista beta code would be feature complete by the end of the year--was motivated in part by the debut of Firefox 1.5, some partners claim.

"They're moving the release date up to get IE 7.0 to market as quickly as possible," said one partner who requested anonymity.

Microsoft's systems integrators and solution providers acknowledge that Firefox is gaining in use but said security problems have dampened corporate customers' initial enthusiasm for the alternative browser.

Rob Enderle, principal of the Enderle Group, said he expects more hackers to target Firefox as its market share climbs. He added that he expects its market share to max out at less than 20 percent as the intensity of attacks increase.

Mozilla claims that Firefox offers better protection against spyware, pop-up ads and has fewer security vulnerabilities than IE, yet the company&'s engineering executive acknowledged that Firefox 1.5's new Automatic Update, a catch-up feature to Microsoft's Windows XP, is the upgrade's most significant new feature.

And Microsoft's plans to launch a more feature-rich, secure and stand-alone Internet Explorer 7.0 upgrade for Windows XP--even as it integrates the browser into Windows Vista in 2006--will reinforce its stronghold in the browser market, partners added.

"When Mozilla first released Firefox 1.0 last year, everyone downloaded it. It was the alternative to IE, which had security vulnerabilities, " said Ken Winell, an executive at Vis.align, a Microsoft partner in West Chester, Pa. "But we're not seeing the big growth expected [for Firefox].”

He predicted Firefox will make incremental gains but won't eat too much into Microsoft's turf, especially as IE 7.0 makes its debut. IE 7.0's color-coded tabbed browsing and antiphishing capabilities are among the crown jewels, he said.

"Firefox will have some market share, but it won't be a threat to IE 7.0," Winell said. "Every browser like Firefox, Safari and Opera will have a little niche, but IE 7.0 offers the security and stability needed. It's totally locked down."

Microsoft is worried about Google and Yahoo's endorsement of Firefox but its ability to integrate IE 7.0 with its forthcoming hosted services platform will give it competitive advantage.

Other partners say Microsoft's porting of IE 7.0 to Windows XP , Macintosh and possibly other platforms--and the development of an Ajax-style engine dubbed Atlas also will promote more application development on IE.

But the same ISV says the integration of the browser with the Windows operating system--a core issue in the massive antitrust case against Microsoft--remains Microsoft's greatest asset over any competitor.

"The desktop still rules and will probably be dominant for at least the next few years, including with Vista," said Simon Chan, president of Iteration2, Irvine, Calif. "The browser ends up being some sort of OS, you won&'t be able to tell in the mid- to long-term, especially with Vista."