Some call it "Browser War 2.0." Software companies are vying to lasso you into using their product for leaping between Web sites. And because of the strange economics of the online world, the price is unbeatable: All the browsers are free.
At stake for Microsoft and Apple are prestige and name recognition, or, for Mozilla, the quest to promote an "open source" world of software. Commerce isn't too far behind, of course. Even though browsers don't directly create revenue, they are indirect pathways to it.
Beyond that, future browsers may become even more important as they lead users to more websites that perform functions previously done by programs installed on their computers, from word processing to spreadsheets, photo editing to calendars.
Browsers had an unaccustomed moment in the limelight in mid-June when as Mozilla unveiled Firefox 3, the latest version of its ever-more-popular browser. It is claiming a Guinness World Record for software downloads in one day after 8 million copies of Firefox 3 were downloaded by users around the world on June 17.
The new challenger
When this decade began, browsers were a sleepy backwater of software development. Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) was used on more than 95 percent of Windows PCs, and in 2003, the tiny group of Apple users began to browse the Web with Safari.
But the nature of browsers changed dramatically after Mozilla introduced Firefox in 2004. As "open source" software, its underlying code was freely available to anyone. That openness sparked innovation, as thousands of volunteers found and quickly fixed Firefox's "bugs" and eliminated many security issues.
"There were three or four years there where [Microsoft] really got behind in security, and I think that's what drove a lot of initial interest in Firefox," says Matt Rosoff, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash. "IE does not generate direct revenue for Microsoft, so it's not something that they necessarily would put a lot of time into without competition."
Firefox's volunteer community also began writing complementary programs called "add-ons" that created additional useful features and allowed clever users to craft their own perfect Web portal.
Over the years, Firefox has continued to eat away at IE's market share. Last month, IE's share fell to 74 percent, down from 79 percent last July, according to Net Applications, a Web marketing company in Aliso Viejo, Calif. That drop represents millions of defecting users. Meanwhile, over the same period, Firefox's share grew from 14 percent to 18 percent. Safari grew, too, from 4 percent to 6 percent. (Apple was criticized earlier this year for bundling Safari into updates for iTunes and other programs sent to Windows machines without asking PC users whether they wanted the browser. The company has since made it clearer when it is offering its browser as a download.)
A few other browsers share the remaining sliver of the market. They're led by Opera, produced by a Norwegian firm. It also introduced an updated version of its browser in early June.
Today the big three compete on the basis of speed, security, and new features. Mozilla claims that Firefox 3 represents some 15,000 improvements over its predecessor, although many of those act behind the scenes and will not be easily apparent to most users.
But there will be some major updates. According to Mozilla's tests, Firefox 3 will load Web pages six to nine times faster than the current version of Internet Explorer.
Firefox 3 calls the address bar at the top of its page, where website addresses appear, its "awesome bar." As users type into it, a list of suggested and related websites appears, based on sites that they've visited before. And pages can be tagged with descriptive words that the awesome bar will hunt for.
"It keeps track of all the stuff you've done in the past," making the need to sift through old bookmarks or start a search all over again through Google less necessary, says Damon Sicore, director of platform engineering for Mozilla. The search history is contained on the user's computer and not visible to anyone else, ensuring privacy, he says. It also can be easily erased. The downside: Someone else's copy of Firefox 3 won't be personalized in the same way, making the experience quite different.
Firefox 3 also contains stronger defenses against malware, such as phishing websites that pose as legitimate destinations in an effort to prod users to reveal personal information. If the user tries to go to a possible malware page, a warning pops up instead, advising the user not to visit the site.
Microsoft is expected to release a new version of Internet Explorer, IE8, by the end of the year. Its most talked about features are "web slices" and "activities." Web slices would allow users to mount constantly updated parts of a Web page on their desktops. They could track weather, sports scores or price changes, without needing to visit a Web page continually. With "activities," a user's cursor could hover over an item on a page and it would offer more information, such as a map of the area.
As the usefulness and features of browsers expand, users may find less need to run other programs on their computers. Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of searchengineland.com, says he's set up his wife on three different computers recently, two PCs and a Mac, and found that he didn't need to load any software for her.
Everything she wanted to do was available through her browser. She reads her e-mail at Yahoo and finds the rest of her software among Google's many free online applications, including Google Docs, which allows users to create and share documents and spreadsheets, he says.