By RACHEL LEIBROCK
April 16, 2005
If you're anything like the typical Web user, your online experience is probably something like this: Turn on the PC, fire up the Microsoft Internet Explorer browser that came pre-installed on your computer and start surfing.
But what if you're fed up with annoying pop-up ads, the threat of spyware taking over your computer and feeling as if you're chained to the Man who is Microsoft?
Guess what? There are alternative tools to surf the Web, and one of them - Firefox - is quickly threatening to put an end to Internet Explorer's enduring dominance.
Since its November 2004 public debut, Firefox (www.getfirefox.com), owned and developed by Mozilla, a software and development company, has been downloaded more than 27 million times. In February, according to a Mozilla report, the browser enjoyed a 6.1 percent market share.
What's so impressive about that, you ask?
Consider this: That's a 6.1 share compared with the 4 percent of the market held by all other non-IE browsers combined.
Yeah, so not too shabby, right?
Right. As such, Firefox - which has enjoyed a cult following among industry experts and tech heads - also is becoming a favorite among average users because it's fun and functional.
(Still, some experts say, don't send your IE browser to the recycle bin just yet - Firefox doesn't work with all Web sites. More on this in a bit.)
Alan Canton, president of the Adams-Blake Co., a software-consulting firm, calls Firefox the best performer in a playing field that includes Internet Explorer, Netscape Navigator, Opera and Safari (the latter is available only for Macintosh computers.)
"There's a reason why people are flocking to Firefox - (they're) tired of the pop-up ads. They're tired of their computers being hijacked," Canton says.
Among the reasons why Firefox provides a safer environment: Unlike IE, for instance, Firefox prevents Web sites from installing programming features such as ActiveX, which make it easier for hackers to create and exploit security flaws.
But safety and a pop-up-free environment aren't the only reasons why Firefox has enjoyed a quick popularity surge.
The browser, recognizable for its fiery-fox logo, also is revered for its instantly updated bookmarks feature, tabbed browsing (the ability to switch quickly between Web pages via just one window), and easy customization.
Want your browser icons to all be displayed as, uh, kittens? Hey, Firefox has got your back. You can even tinker with the Firefox toolbar to add several search engines, such as Google, eBay and Dictionary.com.
It's no surprise, then, that Firefox has long been an underground buzzword among the techno-elite.
A quick historical rundown of Firefox: The browser originally known as Phoenix (and later Firebird) was developed by Mozilla in 1998 as a free alternative to Netscape.
Since then, the open-source browser (which means it's legal for anyone to experiment with changes to its software code) has been tweaked - and some say, perfected - by a giant army of volunteers, who also have preached the Firefox gospel in an effort to convert the IE-faithful.
It's no coincidence that much of Firefox's appeal lies in its "outsider" status. And Firefox isn't shy about playing up this image. In fact, it's part of the company's marketing plan, says Rafael Ebron, a Firefox spokesman.
Dave Lankes, executive director of the Information Institute of Syracuse at Syracuse University, says Firefox's growing popularity can be likened to Google's rise to prominence, when the search engine eclipsed its competitors.
Like Google, says Lankes, Firefox's "cultlike" popularity only added to its appeal.
"It's a trendy alternative _ it's cool and it's easy to use," says Lankes. "It's got the same kind of (pop culture) mind-share that Google has."
Andy Beal, vice president of search engine marketing at WebSourced Inc., an Internet marketing firm, agrees.
"People who consider themselves young and trendy and like all things new are using this," says Beal.
"The same elements that drove Google from obscurity into the mainstream are driving Firefox."
But is it for everyone? Is Firefox useful to the average Web surfer _ or is it best left to devoted Web-heads?
Yes. And no.
Although Firefox is inarguably the "hippest, coolest" browser to use, Beal says, there's still a major negative:
"Right now, there are still a large number of Web sites that weren't built to be compatible with Firefox, so the (average Web surfer's) experience isn't as enhanced," Beal says.
There are other advantages to staying with Internet Explorer, he adds, including the not-to-be-discounted familiarity factor and its easy integration with widely used programs such as Microsoft Outlook.
But as Firefox's market share spreads, Web surfers can expect PC makers to start shipping computers with both browsers installed.
Expect more options, too, adds Beal.
"As the demand for Firefox grows, you're going to see a new generation of browsers being offered," Beal says. "They'll offer more to users and they won't just be safer - they'll be better overall."
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com
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