Firefox Raises Eyebrows

By Matt Hines  |  Posted 2005-12-25 Print this article Print

Boosting the level of control that users have over the content on the Web is a theme that has been reinforced on many levels in the browser space in 2005, in particular with the rise of a technology that lets people toy with its very makeup.

Firefox is perhaps the best example of the type of innovation that experts believe the market will demand in the future. The browser, launched in late 2004 by open-source backers Mozilla Foundation, drew widespread attention over the course of the last year.

With over 100 million downloads, the open-source Firefox browser also increased the amount of attention given to the space in general, arguably pushing Microsoft to add new features such as so-called "tabbed" controls and to increase its attention on plugging the security holes that have long-plagued its dominant Internet Explorer browser.

Brendan Eich, who created the widely used JavaScript Web programming language, has seen a lot of changes since his days writing the code at Netscape, a former leader in the browser space that has been relegated into a small arm of Internet service provider America Online.

Microsoft delays next Internet Explorer release. Click here to read more. Now the chief technology officer at, the commercially-oriented arm of its nonprofit parent, Eich said the reason why so many people have responded positively to Firefox is because the browser is closely-aligned with the same sort of interactivity that Berners-Lee envisions, and not just because it is an alternative to Microsoft products.

"Theres a natural force field that were all falling into, a groove to the Internet, and its about being two-way and many-to-many, unlike client server in the 90s or with watching TV," he said. "Theres a level playing field like never before in any other medium, and its getting taken further by wikis and blogs; in essence the Web is big, lower-cost way for people to find and form value networks with each other like eBay, or just to find a more reliable piece of content."

Eich said that despite nagging problems with security—and his belief that Microsoft is intentionally slowing development across the browser market with the proprietary design of its Windows operating system—todays browsers are doing a much better job of engaging users via tools like RSS, which have inspired people assemble their own news feeds rather than relying on portal Yahoo Inc. or search giant Google Inc. to do it for them.

While Eich and others may contend that Microsoft has controlled advancement of the browser by having Explorer loaded as the default browser on most of the worlds PCs, executives at the company say they actually agree with the more academic approach to furthering interactivity.

Microsoft has even begun backing some of the same open standards that its rivals, such as Mozilla, have embraced and used to criticize the software makers browser designs.

"The extensibility mechanism we put in [Explorer] for Flash and PDF for developers has been huge," said Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of Microsofts IE team. "And the most underappreciated asset we have going forward is RSS. Its not just about blogs, its the glue. It lets you get information broken out and separated from the Web page."

The other major force in the commercial browser market is Apple Inc., which has seen its hardware business swell based on an aggressive multimedia content strategy and has subsequently added more users online.

The company launched its Safari Web browser in January 2003, but still retains less than 3 percent of the browser market, according to researchers Net Applications.

To read more about the challenges facing Firefox, click here. While its user base remains comparatively small, and typically concentrated among users who work in creative fields such as publishing or academia, Apple said it is trying to win a broader audience using a similar standards-oriented approach.

Chris Bourdon, senior product manager at Apple, said that using standards to create new browser applications will not only foster greater levels of user interaction by allowing developers to work with its code, but that such an approach also protects the entire browser industry from becoming too vendor-oriented.

"There have been some efforts over the years to wrench away and establish other standards, but those have largely been resisted and thats the very reason why we can continue to see the choice available to people today," he said.

Next Page: Browsers are going mobile.


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