The latest release of the Firefox browser has once again raised the question of what the Mozilla Foundation or any other browser developer can do to seize significantly more market share from Microsofts Internet Explorer.
The answer is that there is little or nothing can be done to threaten Explorers dominant position. In fact, the entire issue is really beside the point.
Instead, Internet users should just take heart that there is still a vibrant market where open-source developers can continue to upgrade and even release new products that give Internet users diverse browser choices.
The dominance of Explorer and the existence of four other prominent browsers besides Firefox, including Safari, Netscape Navigator, Opera and the original Mozilla browser, havent prevented at least one newcomer from trying its luck. Open source developer Flock claims it has counted several hundred thousand downloads of its Mozilla-based browser beta that is designed mainly for bloggers.
Does the world really need another browser? Why not when it is aimed at the more than 10 million Web users who maintain online journals? Flocks browser is reaching out to this market by offering features and Web services aimed at appealing to this community.
Flock believes that it can build a sustainable open-source business by offering a browser that makes it easier to post Weblog entries and to build online collections of photos and Web sites. Who is to gainsay them, although these are features that are available in most other browsers on the market?
The point is with hundreds of millions of Internet users around the globe even one or two market share points equals an audience of millions. That explains why the intense focus we see on whether Firefox can steal more market share from Explorer is really irrelevant.
Firefox should never be considered a failure even if it doesnt build its market share much beyond the 8 to 9 percent portion it reputedly holds now. That it has been able to build a user base of millions in the face of the Explorers market saturation is a remarkable achievement by any measure.
The investment and marketing effort that would be required to achieve significant gains would cost too much and gain too little to be worth the effort. The only chance that any open source browser could have is if it waged some long-term Microsoft-style marketing campaign.
But that raises the specter of market stagnation that any software enterprise faces if it cant keep increasing its market share through technological innovation. There is only so much innovation that can be built into a browser before even the most gifted developer runs out of ideas. The law of diminishing returns kicks in eventually.
Changing the entrenched technology choices of computer users is historically difficult. With each wave of new technology—whether it was operating systems, word processors, spreadsheets, databases or browsers—once users had made their choices, the convenience and familiarity of the established products made it very difficult to induce people to make a switch.
Only Microsoft has had the technological and marketing clout to get people to switch repeatedly from once-dominant products. If there is any question about this, just talk to the people that used to market Netscape Navigator, Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect and other products that I could name.
Its hard to imagine any of the open-source browser contenders changing this situation, at least not by themselves. The only chance they might have, and it is a very slim chance, is if an alternative browser was offered as part of a comprehensive suite of office productivity applications. Yes, such a suite, StarOffice, already exists, but it isnt exactly taking the world by storm.
The only way open-source browsers or an associated office suite will gain much additional market share is by waging a long-term, tireless guerilla marketing campaign. Open Source has to be the water that wears down the rock.
Government agencies are already showing that they are willing to shift to open-source software if they can save on the upgrade charges that they currently pay to Microsoft. Over time, private enterprise will show the same readiness as open-source developers continue to extend the richness and reliability of their products.
Browser developers cant be concerned about gaining or losing a market share point here and there. They need to focus on the innovation that will keep them in the game. With persistence, their user population will continue to grow.
John Pallatto is a veteran journalist in the field of enterprise software and Internet technology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.