Firefox hardly the odds-on favourite

The browser war is back on — but don’t buy into the rhetoric that Firefox is armed and ready to battle Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) for desktop dominance.

Netscape Navigator, the mid-’90s browser king and subsequent Redmond roadkill, was released as open-source in 1998 under the Mozilla banner. After a couple of name changes and refinement of the code-base, Firefox was unleashed.

Capitalizing on the power of open-source development and Microsoft’s missteps, Firefox has rocketed to an impressive 50 million downloads in only six months.

However, statements as to its achieving adoption levels worthy of being hailed a viable competitor to IE — to gain 30- 35 per cent market share, the inflection point for mass adoption — are questionable. And for the IT manager, future viability is an important deployment decision point.

On the upside, Firefox boasts an army of developers creating a wealth of updates and features that are freely available for download. Of greater significance to business and consumers alike is the reduced attack surface of Firefox, sparing Web surfers from myriad security threats.

The three most significant factors that will determine if Firefox can gain wider acceptance are: Switching costs and future compatibility. In an IE-centric world, Web application development is heavily steeped in functionality that uniquely targets the Microsoft browser, and this poses limits on Firefox. Rich content designed for viewing in IE is often created using dynamic technologies such as ActiveX and VBScript. The rewrite of these applications for Firefox involves costs that won’t be welcomed in IT departments.

Partner to build; build to partner. A wider ecology will have to fill out around the browser in order to elevate it to platform status, or at least to be the user interface (UI) into content, collaboration and functionality. To sustain long-term growth, technology and content partnerships with heavy-artillery platform players like IBM, Oracle, SAP and Amazon are needed.

Microsoft must falter, again. By reining in the R&D, marketing and release schedule for IE, Microsoft allowed an old foe to claim feature and security superiority. And now, Longhorn’s release has been delayed and functionality pared back. But it still owns the desktop and the firm is growing at an impressive rate on the server, too.

Companies considering wider deployment of Firefox should bear in mind that: it is unlikely to become a real threat to IE; employees will have limited access to some Web content with it; Firefox should align with your platform strategy; no piece of software is 100 per cent secure.

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— Senf is the manager of IDC Canada’s IT business enablement advisory service. He can be reached at [email protected].

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