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Beware the Browser Backlash

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Hailed only months ago as the long-awaited savior to discontented usersof Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE), the Mozilla Foundation's Firefoxopen-source browser now is being subjected to the kind of scrutiny and criticism that inevitably confronts any challenge to the status quo.

If you haven't heard the latest, it turns out Firefox isn't theimpenetrable fortress of browsing security some may have assumed it tobe. Last week, a security company issued a warning about flaws found inFirefox 1.0.3 that make it vulnerable to existing exploit code. (Mozillareleased a security update fixing the problems a couple of days later.)And this week, Executive Tech columnist Brian Livingston reported on some other security flaws in Firefox.

Let me say right up front that I use Firefox and prefer it greatly to IE.I switched late last year at the urging of the computer-repair pro who recommended it while billing me $180 to cleanse my hard drive, which had taken on a new identity as the Museum of Modern Malware. If it was in the wild, it was on my machine... courtesy of IE.

Still, I've never had any illusions about perfection in the technology world, and that includes Firefox. For example, I get some pop-ups using Firefox, even though I have a check-mark right next to ''Block PopupWindow'' under the Options feature. And Firefox has crashed on me.

The fact is, Firefox isn't impervious to malicious code, and it's not perfectly safe. But ''not perfectly safe'' hardly is another way ofsaying ''just as bad as IE''. And as someone who believes genuinecompetition is better for technology users, I'm worried that IE users whomight have been tempted to switch to Firefox may back off because theythink the open-source browser is no better than Microsoft's enabler ofmalware mayhem.

Indeed, the latest figures from Web site measurement and marketing firm WebSideStory, released last week, show a second consecutive slowdown in monthly market-share gain for Firefox. Through April 29, Firefox was at6.8 percent browser usage in the U.S., while IE had dipped to 88.9percent.

Prior to the release of Firefox 1.0 last November, the notion of IEfalling below 90 percent market share was unthinkable. Last June, IEowned nearly 96 percent of the U.S. browser market. Just weeks afterFirefox's debut, though, that number was down to 92 percent. By Feb. 18,IE had dropped to 89.9 percent, while Firefox jumped to 5.7 percent from4 percent.

If Firefox's growth rate continues to slow, it will be a real challengefor Mozilla to reach its goal of 10 percent market share by year's end.And just as any public company can be punished on Wall Street for missingfinancial targets, it's possible that a flurry of ''Firefox Misses MarketShare Goal'' headlines could create a deadly psychological barrier in thebrowser market.

And that would be a shame, because Firefox has a long way to go to becomea legitimate alternative to IE, especially in the enterprise. One analyst quoted in this recent Datamation story says Firefox won't be viable in the enterprise ''until itreaches at least a 20 percent share.''

I'm not madly in love with Firefox. I'll dump it faster than 4,000 sharesof ImClone if something better comes along. That's what I -- and millionsof others -- did to AltaVista when Google arrived on the scene.

The truth is, when it comes to Internet tools, brand loyalty is a tenuous notion at best, especially if there is no cost of conversion. (Which, of course, is where Redmond usually comes in.)

I hope users are quick to point out flaws in Firefox, just as they arefor IE. I hope Mozilla continues to respond quickly, as Microsoft often(too often) has. But mostly I hope Firefox continues to gain market shareso we can have a real choice.

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